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Post-Work Migration and the End of America

Imagine a version of the U.S. that is not a global destabilizer and coercive magnet for those fleeing that destabilization. Imagine a world of movement for pleasure.

People have always moved to live, from early agrarian societies seeking fertile land to the undocumented workforce that currently powers this country’s agricultural sector. More recent, though, are the systematized and codified restrictions on that movement—telling us who can move where and for how long—and one of their preeminent categories through which this sorting is done has been the all-encompassing notion of “work.”

In the United States, where much of that migration is currently directed, there were more than 28 million foreign-born people working as of 2019, collectively comprising more than 17 percent of the country’s entire workforce. Most are some flavor of legally present, whether naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, or temporary visa holders. About seven million are undocumented, many performing tasks so crucial that they were deemed essential during the Covid-19 pandemic, though apparently not enough so to confer protection from deportation or equal access to vaccines.

We have an alphabet soup of visa categories—such as H-1B, for specialty occupations and highly educated workers; and O, for people with “extraordinary ability” or achievement in fields as varied as business, education, arts, and entertainment—that tie workers to their employers, forcing the latter to guarantee that these workers are exceptional but also giving them immense power over them as literal dependents.

A worker’s ability to keep working, their legal presence in the country, their very ability to maintain the life that they have built, is often fully contingent on their continued employment and, by extension, their boss’s continued blessing. This leads to situations like workers being forced to work overtime without pay, experiencing routine harassment, or given tasks outside the scope of their employment, and being unable to quit. Seasonal employees like agricultural workers not only can’t be fired, they often rely on being rehired for the next season, which means not rocking the boat. Undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable in these asymmetries, subject to routine wage theft and threats as a result of their precarious status.

These power imbalances are by design, and a big part of why the promise of comprehensive reform and a mass legalization program has so long been smoke and mirrors: Reforming the way workers legally enter the country might check the power of the bosses, and the undocumented support several industries, like construction and agriculture, that would lose their exploitative edge if their workforce were better protected. Many of the ostensibly pro-immigration business groups and corporations lobbying for more employment immigration are focused on making it cheaper and easier to hire workers but not necessarily to give those workers any more power.

But the nature of work is changing in ways that we haven’t fully grasped, supercharged by a global pandemic, an automation horizon that could banish entire industries, and a climate crisis that will create new demands on labor while environmental catastrophe pushes people out of their homes, upending the lives and jobs they once knew.

It’s clear that the present circumstance is unsustainable for moral and practical reasons. Work as we know it is really just a stand-in for the ability to have the basics of a good life. Much the same could be said for migration. So what would it look like to live in a world where work was disentangled from the personal and state incentives and deliberations around migration? Can we envision a paradigm where the U.S. and other contemporarily work-rich countries are not both destabilizers abroad and magnets for those fleeing their destabilization, where people migrate for other reasons and to other places? The short answer is yes, potentially. The other short answer is: not without more or less ending America as we know it.

The U.S. has never had an easy relationship with immigration, despite the centrality of the immigrant to its national imaginary. That contradiction looks like an economy that seeks out and is dependent on immigrant workers—with immigrants making up nearly a third of the workforce in some industries—and a political and social culture that restricts and demeans them. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, it was Chinese and German immigrants; then it was migration from Southern and Eastern Europe; then Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa, the Philippines. It’s been a boon, but a grudging one, with each wave facing fresh discrimination, including from the wave that preceded it.

This uneasiness has manifested in concrete federal restrictions beginning in the 1880s, most infamously the Chinese Exclusion Act. The modern U.S. framework mostly dates back to 1952, with the passage of the original Immigration and Nationality Act (superseded by another INA in 1965 and modified in bits and pieces since). Some of what is often experienced as timeless infrastructure is even more recent: The U.S.-Mexico border as presently understood and enforced largely materialized in the 1990s under the Clinton administration. The law and regulations are riddled with the tension between understanding that this flow is integral to the country’s functioning and worrying that it might become too integral and give these workers too much power.

These relationships are only getting more complex, with the conditions of that labor shifting due to automation and the crisis of climate change, which will reshape migration in unprecedented ways. Automation is increasingly upsetting the already tilted balance of power between boss and worker, by doing away with the need for the workers’ main resource, labor, and leaving only the boss’s capital. In some cases, immigrant-heavy workforces like those in construction are also the ones most in immediate jeopardy from automation. Eventually, the theory goes, the scalability of technology will obviate the need for a lot of different kinds of work—persuasive arguments hold that a good bit of that has already happened—making many jobs, and entire industries, meaningless or redundant. Squint to imagine it, and this could usher in a new era of widespread prosperity and a more humanistic work culture, a global scenario in which country of origin is not a determinant of your wages, access to health care, or ability to pursue your passions. Global worker solidarity, robust climate internationalism, and other policies are part of that path. It’s not impossible: This kind of freedom of movement already exists for the wealthy, who in many ways inhabit a post-borders, post-work world.

On the other hand, the disruptions on the horizon for how we work could accelerate the oligarchic tendencies already dominating contemporary sociopolitical life and throw us deeper down into a class-segmented dystopian hellhole.

The paradise version of post-work, with the machines taking over our necessary production and leaving us to community and creative pursuits, imagines that all members of the group are taken care of. But who gets to be a member? If the answer isn’t “everyone,” it’s a recipe for just the kind of stratified society proponents want to avoid. Even in the likelier scenario of work changing instead of going extinct, longtime economic trends point to a shrinking production and growing service sector.

In the hypothetical where human work becomes truly unnecessary in almost all applications, or even just scarcer, we could see accelerating trends of ultranationalism and immigration restrictionism. Parts of the American right have already embraced this style of nationalism, and you can see versions of it in European social democracies, where life looks very much as it does in the U.S. but a little gentler, on account of a robust welfare state.

The backlash isn’t aimed at just economic migrants but all immigrants, including those fleeing war and famine. The images of rioting and terrorism at the nation’s Capitol this week shocked many people who had dulled themselves into complacency about the fascistic inclinations of their neighbors, but this was the endpoint of a movement that has also blamed migration for perceived cultural and economic decline (a narrative that has been pushed by mainstream conservatives for decades). It’s not difficult to envision how the mass joblessness of post-work, in the absence of equitable distribution of the spoils, will create ever more fertile soil for this type of ethnonationalist grievance to be planted. The climate crisis, again, heightens all of this: It will affect both work and migration in profound and somewhat unpredictable ways. The existence of post-work society, or really any society, is dependent on the viability of the planet and our ability to avert the worst of the climate catastrophe.

Not every job will disappear—some because they can’t, others because we don’t want them to. Donald Kerwin, the executive director of the Center for Migration Studies and author of a recent paper on the future of work and international migration, said, “Caregiving service jobs, some of that can be automated and reduced to algorithms, but some of it can’t be. Caring for kids, caring for [the] elderly. In a lot of cases, people won’t want it to be all mechanized.” Kerwin believes that work won’t ever totally go away but merely change, and migrants tend to be among the most adaptable people anyway: “There’s a lot of uncertainty about it, but what is certain is that it’s going to award people that are flexible, adaptable, and willing to move. And those are really the migrant qualities.”

There’s also the possibility that there will be plentiful work of the sort that people don’t need to do but want to do. In an in-depth 2015 Atlantic article on a future without work, Derek Thompson explored various potential courses, including one where there is abundant work on communal creative pursuits not necessary to subsistence, calling it the “artisans’ revenge.” He visits a community space in Columbus, Ohio, where people gather to work on baking, welding, 3D printing, and other projects for the artistic merit of it. In such an arrangement, there’d be no shortage of work for everyone, because we would all create our own work how we wanted it. This vision upends the arguments both for and against worker migration, as societies wouldn’t really “need” these workforces to function, but there is also no domestic workforce to protect zealously. People could tend to their new occupations anywhere, though they may well agglomerate with others doing the same thing: Perhaps Columbus would become known as a haven for bakers and Milan as the place to be for 3D printers.

Here, we connect to the other side of the coin: the motivations for migration. If the benefits of a post-work society would not be made available to them—if a nationalist vision of abundance for citizens that excludes noncitizens takes shape in the U.S.—would people still want to go? For those seeking safety from persecution or ecological devastation, this incentive shift won’t matter, but there’s a large subset of more elite global travelers who would probably see little point in packing their bags. We’ve seen a preview of this with falling international student enrollments in the U.S. as the Trump administration limits access to post-graduation work opportunities.

Which is why the question of migration post-work is really a question about the world and, for our purposes, America’s place in it. If the U.S. ceased to be a negative and positive driver of immigration—both a beacon of a certain kind of opportunity and an engine for profound violence and inequality across so much of the rest of the world—does that change anything about the need or desire to move in the first place? Does a globally weaker America, due to either its willing jettisoning of the gospel of growth-at-any cost or an empire in decline, get us closer to a vision of migration as a personal choice that is the province of individuals and families and not governments in a true internationalist world?

Which itself would require a transition away from the primacy of national borders. Countries and cultures may well still exist, but people might move with the fluidity that only capital does in our current landscape. Our fierce clashes over immigration—the venom of the discourse and its primacy over our political life—may come to seem somewhat bizarre and antiquated. As my colleague Atossa Araxia Abrahamian has noted, this only works with a certain ability to resettle fully and access the full rights available to the local population. Easy mobility alone can provide economic benefits, particularly in the interim period before a full post-work existence, but is a recipe for disaster if it comes with tight social stratification.

Many of these questions remain further off. Still, automation has already changed migration: Visiting or resettling in the U.S. is subject to vetting systems that have algorithmic components, including the infamous “no-fly list,” which is really just a black box algorithm making unreviewable real-time decisions based on unknowable factors.

Kerwin of CMS points to this as the big ethical quandary of future migration. “Migration systems and technological developments and all these other large issues, they ought to be subject to human control and put in service to people as opposed to people just being kind of subjects of them,” he said. No matter what policy and personal decisions get made in the post-work world, the least we can hope for is that ultimately we’re still in charge.