Go to Project Gutenberg and you can read for free my chapter in The Silicon Jungle (Ballantine, 1985) about the fabulous Kaypro II portable computer. But there is an angle about which I’d written more—Andy Kay’s use of undocumented immigrants from Mexico.

What I did say was this: “Not everyone fared so well; Kay said his labor costs were half those of competitors. ‘The wages on the line are so low,’ quipped a disgruntled ex-employee, ‘I’d call them south of the border.’ Kaypro was typical of many high-tech companies; the production workers were mainly women, many of them foreign born, some of them incapable of speaking English, all of them nonunion.”

Decades later, I’ve just run across a New Yorker article on robots vs. human workers, and the paragraph below may fill in a few gaps:

In the nineteen-eighties, the sociologist Patricia Fernandez-Kelly conducted a study of the electronics and garment industries in Southern California. More than seventy per cent of the labor force was women of color, and more than seventy per cent of those women were Hispanic. In San Diego, Fernandez-Kelly interviewed a woman she called Fermina Calero (a pseudonym, to protect her from deportation). Calero was born in Mexico. In 1980, when she was twenty-one, she began working in Tijuana, soldering filaments of metal for sixty-five cents an hour. In 1983, Calero crossed into the United States, illegally, to work at Kaypro, the maker of the Kaypro II, a personal computer that briefly rivalled the Apple II. In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, Andrew Kay, the company’s founder, had hired management consultants to help him reimagine his labor force. In the eighties, when people speaking English responded to the company’s newspaper Help Wanted ads, they were told that there were no openings; when people speaking Spanish called, they were invited to apply. By the time Calero started working for Kaypro, its workforce consisted of seven hundred people, nearly all undocumented Mexican immigrants. The company’s general manager said, ‘They are reliable; they work hard; they don’t make trouble.’ At Kaypro, Calero earned nearly five dollars an hour. When the Immigration and Naturalization Service raided the factory, she hid in a supply closet. She was not a robot.

In fairness to Kaypro, $5 an hour back then was equivalent to around $12 today, but that’s still far less than what English-speaking, American-born equivalents could have earned at the time.

My own take from a 2019 perspective? (1) Robots and other tech are now far more of a threat to American jobs than immigration, (2) the Trump administration should stop being so racist and xenophobic, and (3) if jobs are the issue, then why can’t the government get more serious about policing employers? E-verify, relying on Social Security and Homeland Security records, should be a requirement, not a voluntary option. The Trump Organization turned to E-verify only after word came out about the company’s use of undocumented immigrants at a New Jersey golf club.

From crop-picking to healthcare, countless American industries would be in trouble without hardworking people from abroad—ideally paid more fairly than the Kaypro workers were. That’s what unions and effective minimum wage legislation can accomplish far better than walls.

Photo credit: Here.