WASHINGTON – Tamyra Murray didn’t always organize protests against illegal immigrants.
She obviously wasn’t born a tea party activist, either.
What she was, until a few years ago, was the owner of a plastering business.
The demise of her business and the birth of her political activism offers a solitary snapshot of the tea party movement, the populist rebellion rattling American politics.
The immigration issue has pit the Republican Party’s Wall Street-friendly leadership against grassroots activists like Murray, who are dead-set against any immigration reform that offers a form of amnesty to illegal migrants.
“We Americans, regular citizens, we’ve been struggling for the last few years,” the Michigan woman said in an interview. “And they need to know what we are going through. And they’re just going to cripple us even more by allowing this.”
For her, the issue is personal: She blames illegal immigration for squeezing her out of business.
And she believes the big-business-aligned politicians in Washington either don’t care, or are beholden to chamber-of-commerce-type donors who see immigration as a pool of cheap labour.
She said she used to make about $25-$30 an hour in her plastering work, and employed up to 15 people. But it became increasingly difficult to compete, she said, against companies hiring illegal migrants who worked for a fraction of that sum.
She said one competitor even joked about paying undocumented employees a few dollars an hour, while they slept on his property.
The final blow came during the recession when, she said, she was banking on a contract to plaster the walls in a new old-folks home to keep her afloat in an otherwise meagre year.
Murray said the general contractor declared he’d found someone willing to do the job for one-third of her bid price.
“(Their) price … would have only covered labour and materials,” she said. “I told the general contractor, ‘The only way that company could do that job for that price would be to employ illegal labour.’ And they laughed and said they didn’t care.”
Fast-forward six years, now active in a local tea party group, Murray has been organizing protests over the migrants arriving at the Mexican border. Many of them are children, escaping horrific gang violence.
But, Murray says, the United States can’t take care of the whole world.
A few people have carried guns and rifles while protesting. Murray chuckles when asked about it, and says it’s their right under the Second Amendment. She’s been carrying a gun lately, too — because, she says, she’s been receiving threats.
It’s not just Republicans exercised over this issue.
Fred Bronson voted for Barack Obama in 2008. He’s now disenchanted with the president and believes American workers have been sold out by a political class that does the bidding of big business.
The electrician is suing his former employer in a North Carolina court, attempting to make the argument that his equality guarantees under civil-rights law have been violated.
He blames illegal immigration for forcing down his salary by almost two-thirds, if you count inflation.
Bronson says he was making $19.75 an hour two decades ago, then gradually saw his pay drop to about $13 — which would have been $7.13 in 1990 dollars.
“I went in for a raise one time. The owner… looks up and he says, ‘Listen, Freddie, I can hire two illegals for what I’m paying you,'” he said in an interview.
“It’s hurting the Americans, it really is. The immigration’s really killing us.”
Bronson is representing himself, without a lawyer, and he admits it’s been tough to keep up with all the legal procedures.
There may indeed be a link between immigration and salaries, according to some academic research.
But the phenomenon is playing out very differently in Canada, suggests one study.
Research by Harvard labour economist George Borjas and Abdurrahman Aydemir of Statistics Canada in 2007 found that a 10 per cent change in the labour supply affected wages by three to four per cent.
But they also found that the big long-term difference in Canada is that immigration actually reduced income inequality — while it did the opposite in the U.S. and widened the gap between rich and poor.
The researchers noted that Canadian immigrants tended to be higher-skilled, and therefore the pressure on wages occurred on higher income levels. In the U.S., the salary effects were felt by lower-paid workers.
One economist who specializes in income inequality, and also in immigration, cites a couple of reasons for the difference in Canada.
One is the design of Canada’s immigration programs, including the traditional points-based system, said the University of Ottawa’s Miles Corak. The other is geography, he said.
“I suspect if Canada was much further south and was bordering Mexico it would be a different issue,” Corak said.
He suggests one way the U.S. might address the problem — and the tea partiers won’t like it.
Corak says amnesty for current illegal migrants would bring them into the normal labour market, give them the freedom to change jobs, and drive up their cost to employers.
But Murray offers a sarcastic laugh when she hears that suggestion. She points to the amnesty bill Ronald Reagan signed in 1986 and wonders why a repeat now would be expected to stem the tide of illegal immigrants.
It’s the opposition of grassroots activists like Murray that has stopped the Republican leadership from bringing a comprehensive immigration-reform bill, which has already passed the Senate, up for a vote on the House floor.
There’s one idea she doesn’t laugh at, not even sarcastically.
And that’s the argument from some of her opponents that the anti-illegal cause is at its core racist — a modern-day equivalent of the Know Nothing Movement and the Native American party, which in the 1840s and ’50s blamed the U.S.’s problems on poor immigrants.
Murray calls such slurs a distraction from the debate.
“I have Latin American friends that came here legally,” she said.
“They’re my very dear friends. I don’t have anything against any person that looks, or talks, different. To me, that doesn’t mean anything. It’s about breaking our laws to come and take advantage of what we have been working for all along.”