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Immigrant Laborers Will Be the First Victims of the Robot Takeover

America relies on immigrants to do the grunt work. So what happens when machines are able to take over menial labor?

Still from 'Sleep Dealer'

Imagine a future where robots do all of the blue collar jobs. Construction workers, cab drivers, landscapers—they've all been replaced by metal and microchips.

This scenario propels the story line of Sleep Dealer,a 2008 dystopian science fiction film that considers what happens to immigrant labor when robots take over the grunt work. In the movie, the machines can't completely control themselves. Mexicans operators remotely perform tasks in the United States from cyber-maquiladoras on the Mexican side of the border. It's a xenophobe capitalist's fantasy: All the labor from immigrants, without having to welcome the people themselves. And given recent advancements in robotics and the ongoing political debate on immigration, it could be closer to a future reality than we realize.


While the film could be understood as a preview of our country's mechanized future, it's also a metaphor for America's ongoing love-hate relationship with immigrant labor. The start of the Bracero program in 1942—a temporary work program that issued millions of short-term contracts for Mexicans to come to the US ushered in an idea that the law could separate immigrant labor and culture. Pick our strawberries, fine. Just leave before people start calling them fresas. The program ran until 1964, but the conversation continues today—perhaps more vehemently than ever. Americans want cheap services, but they don't want to pay for their gardener's kids to attend school.

Steven Bender, a law professor and associate dean for research and faculty development at Seattle University, broached the topic earlier this month at a campus screening of Sleep Dealer, which is in some ways even more relevant today than in 2008. I spoke to Bender about his recent event and his expectations for how technology with change the nature of immigrant labor in the near future.

VICE: What were some of the issues you wanted to bring up by hosting an event framed around Sleep Dealer?
Steven Bender: Our economy is addicted to precarious and cheap labor, so we rely on Mexicans for dangerous or monotonous jobs, from crop picking to baby butt-wiping, to slaughterhouses, to steep roof repairs, to unwashed dishes. We outsource the work that we can, whether it's in a maquiladora on the US-Mexican border manufacturing heavy goods, or it's the same factories in Guatemala, and the Caribbean, and Asia manufacturing lighter goods like apparel.


We try and outsource what we can, but for what we have to do here, we are addicted to cheap labor.Sleep Dealer asks, well, what if that cheap labor could be supplied from outside the United States? Instead of a border maquila where Mexican workers are manufacturing consumer goods, they are connected through their bodies and wiring to the global network, the global economy, and they are manipulating robots performing dangerous tasks in the United States. The movie says that it's the American dream. We give the US it has always wanted: all the work without the workers.

Is this a vision that you think could become reality? Or more a metaphor for how things could go?
Well, it's a little of both. Technology has replaced a number of jobs, and there's a great deal of research being done in the agricultural industry for the development of technology that can pick certain crops, and obviously that was transformative for the cotton industry. But for certain crops like grapes, it's very difficult to engineer a machine that has the delicacy of the human hand and the human eye in terms of what to pick.

But it's likely those technologies will eventually come to fruition, and one of the things we have to think about is whether that's actually a good thing in some ways, because of all the dangerous conditions in the fields. We've never really progressed from dangerous migrant farm labor conditions, with pesticide-laden workers in sweltering fields. We haven't really progressed in terms of the labor conditions for those workers, so maybe it is best that for those types of jobs, we do have technology replace them.


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Is this the future of labor in the US? Workers abroad controlling the machines around us?
In the movie, virtually everything that was being done in the United States in the way of low-wage labor was being done by these machines, whether it was driving a cab or picking oranges or constructing buildings or working in a slaughterhouse. But eventually, I imagine robots will replace the operators and even build themselves. So what does that mean for immigration, when we only really tolerate immigrants if they bring money or they bring labor? We really don't tolerate their culture, their dreams, or their families. The future may be even more dystopian than Sleep Dealer imagined.

In a future where immigrant labor is less necessary, will immigrants still even want to come to the US?
Right now, immigrants want to come to this country, and we don't let them, at least lawfully. So the question really becomes: Will we allow for immigrants who want to come here if we're not reliant on their labor anymore? Because that's really been the main rite of passage, aside from family reunification and refugees. Our immigration policies mostly accommodate those who come to work. We know that immigrant populations have rejuvenated this country, both culturally and with their demographic, which is young. And as the country ages, what does that mean when we all get older and we have no need for immigrant labor? If we're still restrictive in our immigration laws and not allowing people to come in, do we just age, but not so gracefully?


Is that a future that you think will happen?
It is one of our possible futures. Another possible future is that as the population ages, we actually go out and do what we did in World War II, which was during the Bracero program years, when we actively sought out Mexican workers and brought them in to pick crops in the fields. We may be in a situation where we are actively recruiting Mexican and other global laborers to come and do the dirty work that needs to be done, everything from changing bedpans to boosting our Social Security system so it doesn't go bankrupt.

So that's another possible future, one that relies on human labor and realizes as we age that we're not able to supply it, and that it's actually been to our benefit that Mexican and other workers have been willing to come here and do that work. What do we do if we need that labor and it's not here? We have to actively go out and recruit it.

In a way, this seems like the opposite of the political conversation in the Republican presidential primary right now. Do you think there will be an awakening, where this country says, "Hey, we really do need immigrants right now. They're working, they're bringing culture, they're bringing a younger demographic."
I am hopeful, but all of the signs are already there, which we seem to be ignoring. At the same time that many recognize how our culture has been enhanced, we still have calls for increasingly deadly border policies and increasingly restrictive immigration limits. So some people haven't gotten what I think is the inevitable message—and whether through an interest convergence of a recognition of how much labor we need from immigrants, or from some epiphany of compassion toward the humanity of immigrants who want to come here, either way, I do see that we're long overdue for a change in our immigration laws.

This transcript has been edited for clarity, length, and grammar.

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