by Jarred Bean
In his series Immigrants Are US, award-winning photographer Mark Tuschman photographed and interviewed over 100 immigrants across varied socio-economic and documentation status. The grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants, he hopes to highlight the contributions and humanity of those who are now the target of rampant discrimination.
All too often, even the most well-meaning people tend to minimize stories of working class immigrants in favor of those many in society believe are more deserving of a fair shake or a top headline.
Like DACA recipients who are part of the country’s bright future and came here, as so many so insidiously put it, “through no fault of their own”.
Or skilled immigrants who make up a significant percentage of our scientific and engineering fields, without whom we’d face shortages in those industries.
And entrepreneurial immigrants who make up a large portion of our nation’s job creators and help drive economic growth.
It’s easy to see why this happens. By highlighting the most exemplary of immigrant stories, supporters hope to cut through the stigmas and stereotypes all too many associate with the issue. Pundits and legislators similarly hope to uphold certain groups, in particular DREAMers, in order to advocate and push forward laws that would at least enshrine and extend protections for those immigrants they think could pass a divided Congress with hope, a prayer, and a non-denominational sacrifice.
It’s an unforced error, though, to only highlight working class immigrants when they’re already the subject of detention or deportation, or when they’re in limbo waiting for their chance to come to the United States to begin with. Everyone deserves dignity and justice, just as all work is dignified.
Pedro arrived in the United States from El Salvador when he was fourteen years old and has been working since he was sixteen. A proud worker, he made sure to note how his entire family works full time and pay their taxes despite pervasive myths to the contrary, and how he hopes that they will be able to get green cards so they can pursue their American dreams without fear of repercussion.
Pedro went to college with a desire to study culinary arts but had to drop out because it was too expensive, despite the fact that he had worked non-stop double shifts for the three years after high school in order to save for it. As we have seen time and again for working class people across demographics, hard work and determination alone can still leave one short against systemic issues in this country.
He still works twelve hour shifts, but is thankful that he now works just five days a week for a single company. What’s more, he’s working as a chef and kitchen manager - a position he loves in the field he wanted to work in.
Juan Gonzalez decided to cease his studies and leave Oaxaca state, one of the poorest regions of Mexico, when he was twenty in order to support his aging parents back home. Now a gardener and a school maintenance worker, he works seven days a week in order to send money to his sister and help his niece attend college.
He takes pride in being able to help his family, pay taxes, and donate to charity, and just wants people to understand the level of poverty (and the danger that arises from poverty) that causes people to emigrate from countries like Mexico and Guatemala in the first place. After all, who wouldn’t do everything possible to help those they care about?
Safety can be elusive for working class immigrants in the United States just as it is in the countries they emigrate from, as protections from employer abuse are often negligible. Teresa became a domestic worker when she left Mexico after her family’s land was seized by the government, and she has experienced firsthand the myriad ways in which the working class can be taken advantage of. Cleaning houses, she discovered how people would take advantage of the assumption that immigrant workers don’t know their rights and try to pay her for far fewer hours than she worked, as well as how advocating for earned pay runs the risk of losing business. Sadly, she has also experienced physical violence from a previous boss while doing janitorial services, who also used the assumption that she was undocumented as leverage to keep her quiet about the injustice she endured.
She was eventually able to obtain her residence visa and apply for her children to come to the United States through a U visa, which she was awarded due to violence she endured in Mexico back in 1999. But even now she lives in fear of an immigration system that targets immigrants regardless of removal priority or even legal status. For someone who endured violence on both sides of her immigration journey, much less someone working in a labor intensive field to provide a decent life for herself and her family, this campaign of cruelty is doubly cruel.
It should go without saying that everyone deserves a decent life, particularly those in labor-intensive jobs that make up the underpinning of our economic system, and yet immigrants - particularly working class immigrants - are often relegated to be easily targeted pawns in the system. When immigration authorities aren’t targeting hospitals and courthouses, they’ve gone as far as to eviscerate entire towns by targeting working people in businesses and processing plants.
None of this is by accident, and that is precisely why solidarity must extend across social and economic strata.
Jarred Bean is a writer and analyst working in the New York City Department of Education. Coming from a working class family in North Carolina, he has gone on to live in and serve working class communities in the US and abroad. He has previously written for Brand New Congress.