The Great Job Debate

Every day we hear about the loss of jobs in America. Congress, the President, legislators, all assure us they are creating new jobs and addressing the alarming unemployment rate. At the same time, people use the media to claim that the decline in jobs is due to an increase in Mexican and Latin American immigration. They argue that closing the borders would reduce the need for new jobs and that American citizens would claim these jobs from the undocumented Mexican immigrants that currently fill them. Poet Jimmy Santiago Baca wrote about this very issue back in the 1970s, and it is still debated today.

Jimmy Santiago Baca Courtesy of Poetry Foundation
Jimmy Santiago Baca
Courtesy of Poetry Foundation

Jimmy Santiago Baca was born in 1952 in Santa Fé, New Mexico. He spent five years in jail, for possession of drugs, shortly after his parents abandoned him at the age of thirteen. At the time of his incarceration he was illiterate. He spent five years in jail. During this time he learned how to read and write, and has since become one of the most famous poets of his time.[1] “Baca’s work is concerned with social justice and revolves around the marginalized and disenfranchised, treating themes of addiction, community, and the American Southwest barrios.”[2] Baca has spent many years using poetry in his fight for civil rights and equality for all Latinos. He said that “the work that [he] began very early on was a homage to those who were silenced by oppression.”[3] Baca founded a nonprofit called Cedar Tree in 2004. The organization provides “writing workshops, training, and outreach programs for at-risk youth, prisoners and ex-prisoners, and disadvantaged communities”.[4] Baca’s 1977 poem, “So Mexicans Are Taking Jobs From Americans, is a visual representation of the dramatized argument that Mexicans are physically stealing jobs from American citizens.

Protesters rallying for the release of a U.S. born citizen detained for supposedly being an illegal immigrant.
Protesters rallying for the release of a U.S. born citizen detained for supposedly being an illegal immigrant.

For a country founded on immigration, it is hard to argue that Mexican-American immigrants are the reason for the high unemployment rate. Remember, white immigrant Americans were not the first people to call this land home. During the Mexican-American War of 1846 – 1848 white Americans took Mexican land forcing them to find new homes.[5]. During the period of westward expansion, white Americans believed in what is known as Manifest Destiny – the idea that America’s destiny was to expand the border to the Pacific Ocean, at any cost. Manifest Destiny sparked the Mexican-American War. It was one of the bloodiest wars in American history and reshaped the landscape of the American Southwest, less than two hundred years ago.

In Baca’s poem he alludes to the violent history between Mexico and the United States by saying “do they sneak into town at night, and as you’re walking home with a whore, do they mug you, a knife at your throat, saying, I want your job?”[6] While this line does not specifically use the word take, Baca does use “take” or “taking” four times throughout the relatively short poem. The way Baca uses the word “take” frames the satirical argument he is making. Baca uses such phrases as, “what they really say is, let them die, and the children too,” to highlight the misrepresentation of the current Mexican immigration debate.[7] The conquest of the American Southwest was far more violent than Mexican immigration is today.

Mexican-American rally in support of the 2013 Immigration Reform Act
Mexican-American rally in support of the 2013 Immigration Reform Act

Later in the poem Baca discusses the wealth concentration in America by saying, “below that cool green sea of money, millions and millions of people fight to live”.[8] It is true that Americans are more fortunate than many others. Many argue that Mexican-American immigrants often find agricultural jobs, washing dishes, and doing other things that many Americans believe are beneath them. Yet we debate whether we should let these hard-working people into the country. Most American families were at one time, immigrants. So why is it that some are allowed the opportunity to work for the “American Dream” and others are not?

It is my belief that we should all legally find our place in this country. In order for society to work we must all participate equally. However, the current conditions for obtaining citizenship in America are very difficult. Immigration reform is an important topic and one we must tackle together. I argue, however, the first step is to remember the history of expansion in America. The United States would not exist today were it not for immigrants. Let’s remember the past, both good and bad, and not close the borders and deny the same rights to Mexican immigrants today that were available to other immigrants not so many years ago.

  1. The Poetry Foundation, “Jimmy Santiago Baca Biography”, last modified 2015,
  2. Ibid.
  3. NPR Books, “Jimmy Santiago Baca, From Prison to Poetry”, last modified January 3, 2014,
  4. The Poetry Foundation, “Jimmy Santiago Baca Biography”, last modified 2015,
  5. Oboolo, “Mexican-American War”, last modified July 30, 2014,
  6. Jimmy Santiago Baca, Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems (New Directions, 1990) 24
  7. Baca, Immigrants in Our Own Land, 24
  8. Ibid.

14 thoughts on “The Great Job Debate

  1. Baca’s work shows the frustration with no opportunities for Mexican-Americans and the desperation for a living wage. We need to remember that all immigrants deserve an equal chance at success, because many of our ancestors were immigrants once- by choice or by force. Thank you for highlighting this, Melissa.

  2. Great post, Melissa! Your post makes me wonder why there is such a hostile reaction against Mexican and other Central and South American immigrants. It seems to me as though Asian and European immigrants are more accepted than their South American counterparts. I wonder if this has to do with perceptions of education. Perhaps American view Mexicans/South Americans as less educated, while many of the immigrants coming from China and India, for example, are highly educated professionals. However, I would think that, along this logic, more Americans would be worried about an Indian doctor taking their job than a Mexican migrant worker.

    This whole debate is confusing to me, but I believe that anyone who legally enters the United States should be given a fair opportunity to create the lifestyle they want.

  3. I so appreciate how you mention the need for immigration reform. I feel like politicians from both sides throw those words around all the time, but nothing concrete is ever done. I absolutely believe that all immigrants add to the fiber of our country, and that everyone has something wonderful to contribute. However, the process of becoming a citizen is far too complex. People need to work, and provide for their families, but how can they do this if it takes years and copious paperwork to become a citizen? I admit that I am someone who gets upset when I find out that undocumented individuals are given aid to go to college, when current citizens are forced to pay full tuition. However, this is something that is not the fault of immigrants but of the government. I think Americans need to redirect frustrations and annoyance from the immigrants themselves and redirect it toward the government and finding actual solutions that will solve these issues.

  4. I absolutely can’t stand the “Immigrants are taking jobs from Americans” idea. As you point out, with the exception of Native Americans, we’re ALL immigrants. We all came from somewhere. I believe it all comes down to race; as proven by immigration restrictions and quotas, the US has always been more receptive to immigration from Western Europe, and there’s a intense stigma against non-white immigration.

    I thought Baca’s poem was very powerful, especially the imagery of “below that cool green sea of money, millions and millions of people fight to live”. The poem dramatically makes the point that all these immigrants want is a chance to work, provide for their families, and have a decent life. And what gives us the right to deny them a chance?

  5. My only concern with working with only legal people is ignoring the children who immigrated (illegally) with their parents. So I am a bit conflicted. There needs to be some innovative solutions. Everyone blames immigrants when it’s really the government which makes everything so difficult. Do we, as a society, need to encourage an alternative government?

    I wonder how we can help both our citizens and immigrants? Is it even possible? Does it come down to capitalism?

    1. Matt, thank you for bringing that up. I definitely want to clarify that in an ideal world I would like to see becoming a citizen a process that is easier for everyone to achieve. This however, means a change in the government, which you are alluding to, and I am by no means saying that we should kick everyone out of the country until this happens, actually the opposite. I would just ultimately like to see a better system that helps, not hinders.

  6. Melissa, this is a great post and I agree wholeheartedly! I’m on the same page as Emily – it makes me mad when people claim that Mexicans are taking jobs from Americans. I think that people can want to place the blame on someone else for the difficulties in their life (such as not finding a job) and point at immigrants (especially Latino immigrants) as the source of these problems. I read an interesting article that debunks this myth – it’s a good read if you have time to check it out!

    1. Meghan, this is an excellent article and so articulately highlights the debate. The Lump of Labor argument is really fascinating. While it can seem very straightforward that there are x amount of jobs and more people means less jobs, the author does a great job of showing why this may be inaccurate. I also like how he discusses immigrants having a direct effect on economic recovery . For a recovering economy, every dollar that is spent is a move back towards stability. It also addresses what Sammy brought up in her post, the influx of Cuban immigrants in the 1980s and their effect on the country at the time. Thank you for sharing!

    2. I agree with you Meghan. It angers me that some people are quick to judge all Mexicans or Hispanic people coming into this country. As if they did not come here looking for the same opportunities that many of us are all striving for, the American Dream. A dream that promises opportunities for prosperity and success for families through hard work. Yet, some people are quick to set up barriers and exclude others perhaps over fear, anger, ignorance, or any justification they give their actions.

      I remember last summer reading several news articles about all of the unaccompanied children coming into the U.S from Mexico and Central America. This issues was certainly a humanitarian issue, but it was heartbreaking to hear how communities did not want to help shelter these children because they were disrupting their way of life; or how some felt angry when children were sent to wait with for deportation with relatives already in the US, leading some to believe that they were being allowed to stay in the U.S permanently. These children came to the U.S seeking refugee from economic difficulties and violence in their home countries. And, some of us couldn’t even put aside our own differences to come to the aid of children. I think you said it best Mellisa…Let’s remember the past, both good and bad, and not close the borders and deny the same rights to Mexican immigrants today that were available to other immigrants not so many years ago.

  7. Melissa, I really appreciated the way you analyzed Baca’s poetry. His poems are so rich and striking in their candid portrayal of the realities of Mexican Americans. Sometimes I feel like U.S. citizens are so caught up in this “illegal” immigrant issue that they don’t stop and think about the fact those illegal immigrants are people too. It is interesting to read the perspectives of our classmates who have lived near the U.S.-Mexico border (you, Caitlin) because I feel like the issue is so much more contentious there than where I am from.

  8. I love your deep reading of this profound poem. I also love that you connect historical events and reshaping of the landscape to contemporary debates on immigration. I agree that if historical context were truly part of the dialogue, many individuals in this country may have very different opinions on the issue. It is interesting that concepts like “citizenship” “boarders” and “being American” are so obviously socially constructed and have changed wildly over time, yet they are used as iron weapons of xenophobia and racism.

    1. Tori, I love your comment. I’ve been thinking a lot about immigrants crossing the border recently because of our class discussion about who is being lynched today, when Will cited Mexican immigrants. I think your comment about words like “citizenship” and “borders” being culturally constructed ties in perfectly with one of the pictures Melissa posted about Mexicans already being in their homeland. Baca’s poetry struck me particularly because of his references to the violence inflicted on Mexicans by Americans throughout history, compared to the relatively benign worry of people “taking our jobs.”

  9. I agree immigration reform needs to happen immediately. Perhaps its my own bias from years of volunteering with newcomers to this country, but how can one deny basic citizenship to someone who worked so hard to get a better life?
    Perhaps by allowing cultural institutions to tackle issues like immigration reform and the myth of job stealing, we can educate Americans on the real stories of newcomers and immigrants. Its time to debunk the myths of immigration in this country.

  10. Melissa, thank you for a brilliant “unpacking” of Baca’s poetry and shedding some light on his personal history. It seems like most of the class is in agreement with much of the country, that immigration reform is a mess, people are getting hosed left and right just for wanting the same chance that our parents, grandparents and generations before us sought. While the current version of Congress clearly has no desire to work with the other branches of government, I do hold out hope that a new President in 2016, from any party, will be able to find as Matt put it “some innovative solutions”.

    For now, we as Americans need to recognize that the deeper issue is the scapegoating of Latin American immigrants. While I have confidence in America to remain the land of the free, it is this type of unabashed, inaccurate stereotyping that played a big role in the eugenics movement gaining traction in the early 20th c., as we discussed last week. Based on the amount of reflection posts this week, nobody wants to see anything like that ever again!

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