When voters cast their ballots for Barack Obama last year, they could have been forgiven for harboring the expectation that they were voting for, among other things, a more humane American immigration policy. On the campaign trail, Obama had made such enlightened statements as:
Ultimately, the danger to the American way of life is not that we will be overrun by those who do not look like us or do not yet speak our language. The danger will come if we fail to recognize the humanity of [immigrants] -- if we withhold from them the opportunities we take for granted, and create a servant class in our midst.
For the most disempowered population in the country, as for many others, hope was in the air. For the first time, a person of color (and son of an immigrant) was poised to control America's sprawling immigration enforcement apparatus, and the Democrats riding to Congress on his coattails were bound to loosen the grip that Nativism had held on the Capitol for nearly a decade.
With the news of this week's government-coerced layoffs of a quarter of American Apparel's workforce, those same voters could now be forgiven for looking back on those speeches as so much election season pandering. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency's audit of American Apparel - and the layoffs that it has provoked - have put the President one big step closer to the position of Brian Bilbray, Republican Congressman from northern San Diego County and former lobbyist for the anti-immigrant, vigilante-friendly FAIR, who applauded the crackdown on American Apparel and complained to the New York Times of employers that have "become addicted to illegal labor."
To be fair, the targeting of American Apparel is entirely consistent with Obama's campaign promise to "reform" immigration by penalizing the companies that employ undocumented labor. By this, most would imagine that he had in mind the rampantly exploitative meat packing plants of the Midwest and South and the fly-by-night sweatshops of L.A.'s garment district, not a company that provides full medical benefits to its workers and a fulltime staff of masseurs to get the muscle knots out of the aching shoulders of tired seamstresses.
Why, then, has the Obama administration chosen to make such a special example out of American Apparel? One answer may be related to the special symbolic value that American Apparel, with its obstinate and principled resistance of the federal immigration enforcement regime, holds for anti-immigrant demagogues like Bilbray. The conjured image of American Apparel among American Nativists is part and parcel with the unique role the company plays in the Los Angeles economy, both symbolically and materially.
The American Apparel factory in downtown L.A. is one of the biggest manufacturing plants left in a city denuded of a once thriving manufacturing industry. During the 1980s, Los Angeles, like much of the country, experienced an exodus of blue-collar jobs as factories closed en masse as an outcome of America's losing position in the global race to the bottom (and Los Angeles' losing position in a regional flight of capital to the suburbs).
As scarcity of employment was replaced by an almost total absence of jobs for L.A.'s low-skilled workforce, the ghettos and barrios of South Central and East L.A. found themselves without even the prospect of upward mobility. The conditions of poverty ossified; rising crime rates, substance abuse, gang activity and other social dysfunctions followed. With no viable economic model emerging to fill the void left by the erosion of industry, and with "welfare reform" destroying the last pretense of government responsibility for the least among us, poor neighborhoods became veritable warehouses for the surplus working class, surveilled and contained by an increasingly paramilitarized LAPD. Indeed, if not for the enormous foreign-born population of Los Angeles, with its immigrant entrepreneurialism, its underground economy and its internal labor market, much of L.A. today would be the Sunbelt equivalent of a post-industrial Rust Belt wasteland.
In this context, the American Apparel manufacturing plant has been a monument to anachronism. In the '90s, as companies all over the country went "flat" and "flexible," spinning off actual manufacturing to contractors in far-flung continents and abandoning their downsized rank-and-file workforces to the low-wage service sector while consolidating design, finance and marketing in corporate headquarters in the financial districts of U.S. cities, American Apparel reintroduced old-fashioned Fordism to downtown Los Angeles. Vertically integrated from top to bottom and from production to retail (even its advertising posters are designed and printed in-house), the company is structured as much to produce employment as to produce t-shirts and underwear.
With the exception of the Green Dot charter school system, no other private employer in Southern California has made the kind of investment in an inner city community that American Apparel has. What the flat and flexible global economy was unable to do for Los Angeles' enormous poor population, American Apparel did for a lucky several thousand among them: provide good-paying, benefited jobs for low-skilled workers. It is this promise, this model for the economic advancement of poor workers, that in the midst of a recession of historic proportions Obama's ICE threatens to destroy for the sake of appeasing a few bigots in Congress.
If American Apparel were located in downtown Cleveland or Pittsburgh or Detroit, perhaps its workforce would have comprised laid off black and white American workers, and Republicans could join in bipartisan applause for its achievements. But as it so happens, it is located in L.A., the city with one of the largest immigrant populations in the country and easily the largest undocumented immigrant population (twice the size of New York's). No matter how much Brian Bilbray may dream of a lily white Mayberry in Southern California, this primarily Latino and Asian population constitutes the majority of the working class of the city of Los Angeles, and it is these workers who comprise the labor market that the garment industry draws from.
American Apparel is not unique among garment manufacturers for employing immigrant workers, with or without papers, it is unique for doing so by offering decent wages and benefits rather than subcontracting production to American sweatshops or offshoring manufacturing altogether. The President should be pointing to American Apparel as a model of the kind of investment our country should be making in our inner-city communities in order to steer ourselves out of an economic morass and toward broad working class prosperity.
Instead, at the Obama administration's behest, 1800 of these gainfully employed workers are out of a job in the midst of a national recession and a complete economic meltdown in California.
Where will these workers end up? One possibility is the underground economy. Other possibilities are homelessness and crime. Their families will be pauperized. Their children will be far more likely to turn to truancy and juvenile delinquency. And the city's threadbare social safety net will be strained that much more.
The forced downsizing of American Apparel is more than a tragedy in its own right. It is a canary in the coalmine for how the most vulnerable populations in this country will fare under the Obama administration's economic regime. Immigrant workers and America's inner city communities are overlapping populations that have suffered from vicious attacks and malignant disregard under administrations going back much farther than Bush. Whether Obama continues this tradition of neglect and criminalization or whether he seeks to create real opportunities for economic advancement for these communities is a litmus test of whether the mandate for change is in fact a meaningful commitment to social justice or just another of a long list of specious campaign slogans offered as an empty promise to a population starved of hope.