How Central American Migrants Helped Revive the US Labor Movement

In the United States’ heated national debate about immigration, two views predominate about Central American migrants: President Donald Trump portrays them as a national security threat, while others respond that they are refugees from violence.

Little is said about the substantial contributions that Central Americans have made to US society over the past 30 years.

For one, Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants have helped expand the US labor movement, organizing far-reaching workers rights’ campaigns in migrant-dominated industries that mainstream unions had thought to be untouchable.

Migrants and Unions

More than 1 million Salvadorans and Guatemalans came to the United States between 1981 and 1990, fleeing army massacres, political persecution and civil war.

Since the 1980s, I have researched, taught and written about this wave of migrants. Back then, President Ronald Reagan warned apocryphally that Central America was a threat to the United States, telling Congress in 1983 that “El Salvador is nearer to Texas than Texas is to Massachusetts.”

Just 2 percent of Salvadorans and Guatemalans received asylum in the 1980s – so few that a 1990 class action lawsuit alleging discrimination compelled the US government to reopen tens of thousands cases. Today, about 10 to 25 percent of their asylum petitions are granted.

Then, as now, many undocumented immigrants in the US worked in agriculture or service industries, often under exploitative conditions. Unionization barely touched these sectors in the 1980s.

More broadly, the bargaining power of labor unions was suffering under Reagan, whose presidency started with his firing of 11,0000 striking air traffic controllers. Downsizing and outsourcing at American companies in the 1980s also eroded union membership and pushed wages down.

Many Guatemalans and Salvadorans were veteran community organizers. They had faced…

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