The New American Dream: How do Xenophobia and Discrimination Harm Immigrant Workers?



Throughout US history, often during challenging economic times, immigrants have been the target of discrimination and xenophobia. Today, we see discrimination against immigrants manifest in wage gaps, diminished workers’ rights, and unfair court systems. This affects many immigrants on a daily basis. 

Discrimination towards Latin American immigrants is rampant and unfair. Immigrants’ working rights are violated every day, and they are often in a position where they can’t even speak up about it.  For example, immigrant workers often have strict work environments with little to no breaks, having to work more hours to get the same amount of money while also having to handle the xenophobia in their working environment (Campbell). This mistreatment often goes unreported due to the repercussions that come with speaking up, such as getting fired (Campbell). Another way immigrants are discriminated against is through the education system. For example, Latin Americans get fewer GEDs than many other races. “The relatively low level of GED credentialing among Hispanic high school dropouts is especially notable because Hispanics have a much higher high school dropout rate than do blacks or whites. Some 41% of Hispanics ages 20 and older in the United States do not have a regular high school diploma, versus 23% of comparably aged blacks and 14% of whites” (Pew Research Center). In this sense, Latin American immigrants with disadvantaged education often have only unskilled, lower-paying jobs available. The unheard voices of immigrants that face discrimination have to be better broadcasted in the news, public marches, and the work of pro-immigrant organizations.

Why I got Interested

      I am interested in this topic because my grandparents were immigrants, and I have heard many stories of their journey immigrating to and growing up in this country. My grandparents were born in Latvia in the 1930’s and became refugees during WWII, immigrating to this country after WWII as children. My grandfather’s family didn’t speak English, and his father was hired to work as a farm laborer for low wages in upstate New York. I’m also interested in this topic because I speak with them often and I love to hear their stories about immigrating to the US and understand what hardships they had to overcome. This topic is prominent in my everyday life as well due to my regular interactions with immigrants. At Head Royce, two of my basketball teammates are immigrants. Additionally, I enjoy meeting and getting to know immigrant workers like the construction workers on our house.

      I also want to know the different experiences of different immigrant groups, the discrimination they dealt with, and how they overcame it. I want to discover what prompted different people and groups to migrate. To what extent do the waves of immigration caused by hardship in the immigrant’s home county prompt immigration as opposed to the pull from the United States to have immigrants come to the country? In particular, I’m interested in discovering how lessons learned from previous times immigrants were abused can be applied to what’s happening with the immigrants from Latin America today, and how can immigrants overcome discrimination and abuse in the United States.

History of the Problem

In the US, the systematic discrimination of immigrant workers through lower wages started in the 1840s with the gold rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Chinese immigrants started to take these mining and railroad construction jobs, and businessmen were open to them as workers due to the cheapness of their labor. However, this had the effect of turning much of the American public against the Chinese, both as workers and as an entire nationality (Salyer).

False-negative imagery of Chinese workers in the press attacked their color, religion, and wealth. This began a domino effect where the success of the Chinese in the unskilled labor market led to their dehumanization in the news and common use of highly xenophobic terms in everyday language (Brickner)(San Francisco Chronicle).

As Chinese immigrants grew their foothold in the United States, laws and treaties institutionalized the commonplace discrimination and prejudice against them. For example, on May 6, 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which “suspended immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years; permitted those Chinese in the United States as of November 17, 1880” and “prohibited the naturalization of Chinese.”(Misiuna). The Chinese Exclusion Act sought to not only keep out future Chinese immigrants but also discourage those who had entered the United States from staying (Misiuna).

From a labor perspective, the Chinese brought a willingness to perform dirty work that most Americans wouldn’t touch at ⅔ the cost of a white laborer, so the US initially pursued policies that aggressively encouraged immigration (Chinese Immigration and the Chinese in the United States). Immigrants were not aware of this large wage gap, as they simply came to America for a new and better life. Discrimination against Chinese immigrants happened even before they came to the US with the Coolie system, where Chinese immigrants paid high prices for travel to the US, which often resulted in family members being sold to debt collectors to pay off the high debt (Chinese Immigration and the Chinese in the United States). Once Chinese immigrants arrived, discrimination continued. As they were offered jobs and succeeded with their excellent work ethic, they were often paid low wages and worked inhumanely long hours. Even so, resentment built against Chinese immigrants and negative imagery of them was spread by populist politicians. In this sense, these immigrants saw a system that failed to pay them proper wages and a culture that demeaned them for supposedly taking American jobs. 

What You Need to Know

In the present day, Latin American immigrants face discrimination by senior politicians stoking xenophobic fears of many U.S. Americans. When Donald Trump ran for president in 2015, calling for a “great big wall” along the southern border and the idea that Mexican “criminals” were “invading” the United States, these ideas had been well established and even normalized in the media. This was another occurrence of a longstanding historical bias against immigrants, particularly in the unskilled labor market, and “Trump was repeating a message that had been gaining traction for decades and has long been an American tradition”(Lee). This rhetoric is a reflection of past racist attitudes towards immigrants and is manifesting today in discrimination against the immigrant workforce. 

The xenophobia from politicians filters down to the general population. Recent Mexican immigrants and the Latino population in the United States have historically and currently been viewed by many as criminals and being part of the drug trade. When politicians portray Latin Americans as “bad people,” xenophobia and racism are reinforced. This spiked with the Trump administration, which, in the eyes of many, has legitimized xenophobia and racial discrimination against immigrants. In fact, between 2016 and 2017 there were sharp increases in threats, verbal abuse, and hate crimes towards Latin American immigrants (Fitzgerald). We can see how modern-day leaders of the US have normalized and promoted racism and xenophobia against any and all immigrants.

Much like the Chinese immigrants in the 1800s, another major aspect of modern-day discrimination against immigrants can be seen in their markedly lower wages. Many workers have experienced a wage gap with non-immigrant workers in the same industry due to regular low pay as well as illegal, below minimum wage payment. In many cases these workers are deliberately cheated out of the wages they are required to be paid by federal law. A study by Barnhartt et. al. concluded that “While nativity, by itself, has a significant effect on overtime violation rates, there are also substantial differences among immigrants by documentation status. Unauthorized workers had very high overtime violation rates, with 85 percent of those who worked over 40 hours a week for a single employer reporting that they were not paid the legally required time-and-a-half pay rates for those extra hours, compared to 67 percent for authorized immigrant respondents”(Bernhardt). This shows us that foreign-born unauthorized workers have the highest instances of wage theft and illegal withholding of overtime pay.


There are also widely documented examples of violations of immigrant workers’ rights. The immigrant labor market in the U.S. is set up in “such a way that immigrant workers cannot speak freely about the problems because they are at risk of these types of enforcement actions or retaliation from their employers, that does not only damage them — that damages the other workers who are working under the same conditions”(Campbell). Additionally, workers like Luis Alberto Echeverría express reservations at protesting wages or working conditions because most immigrant workers worry that they will be fired if they speak up against their employers at all (Campbell). Adding to this injustice is the fact that workers are put on a “no mistake policy” where injuries are doubly crippling, such as what happened to Echeverría after he was kicked in the ribs by a cow: not only was he injured, but he was promptly fired (Campbell). Experiences like this illustrate the day-to-day experience for Mexican immigrant workers: be paid below minimum wage, don’t complain to your boss, don’t get injured on a dangerous job, or get fired.

(“Opportunities in the Hands of Striving Americans”)

For Now

Non-government organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have a long history of advocating for and defending in courts disadvantaged people including immigrants. The ACLU is currently arguing a Supreme Court case, Department of Homeland Security v. Vijayakumar Thuraissigiam, to protect immigrants from being deported (American Civil Liberties Union).  In 2019, the ACLU filed 15 cases to defend immigrants’ rights, and already in 2020, it has filed 10 cases to defend immigrants’ rights (American Civil Liberties Union).

Though the ACLU and organizations like National Immigration Law Center (NILC) have met with some success in defending immigrants in the courts, and the Wage and Hour Divison of the U.S. Department of Labor has helped to recover back wages, these organizations are not 100% effective and discrimination against immigrants is still widespread. For example, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) has found that the WHD improperly documented complaints of immigrant discrimination, showing that government inaction has a profound negative impact on the rights of immigrant workers. (Government Accountability Office) Additionally, the ACLU has shown that 83% of people deported are not even given a hearing before a judge, indicating that the federal government has not only failed to enforce the rights of immigrant workers but has also failed to give undocumented immigrants the right to due process (American Civil Liberties Union).

History shows that our courts have been effective in reversing wrongs against immigrants even if it does take time. For example, Supreme Court cases like Wong Wing versus the US in 1896 (Wong Wing v. United States), which created an appeals process for immigrants facing deportation, and the US versus Wong Kim Ark in 1898, which ruled that the 14th Amendment guaranteed citizenship to all persons born in the US (M.Kennedy), started to reverse unfair treatment of immigrants that were institutionalized by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1892 and the Immigration Act of 1891 (M.Kennedy). The ACLU and NILC are well-positioned to argue these kinds of cases. Increasing funding and support for the ACLU and the NILC is one macro approach for fighting against the discrimination against immigrants.

At a micro level, my solution towards helping the cause is to raise awareness of immigrants’ challenges. To help these organizations I have put a link down below to raise awareness of their causes and ability to help immigrants. As a society, we can work towards creating widespread awareness of the immigrant cause through social media, labor strikes, or national news outlets. This can give a voice to immigrants like Echeverría as well as helping society as a whole to understand and empathize with the realities of immigrant life. 

Links to these Organizations


Personal Interest Essay:

History of the Problem:

Full Micro and Macro solutions:

Work cited

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  1. April 23, 2020 by Carl Thiermann

    Max—I enjoyed reading your research and the personal introduction about your grandparents was compelling. You transition nicely from the personal (and the past) to the current struggles of immigrants, and especially those fleeing Central America. Your paper inspires me to keep doing my own reading on the subject, including a Memoir I have just purchased called, Children of the Land. Nice work.

  2. April 27, 2020 by max lipacis

    Thanks for checking out my page. It’s great that you are inspired by my paper.

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