As the Senate votes to proceed on the so-called DREAM Act — which will give undocumented immigrants a chance to attend college and, next week, may amend farm legislation to allow undocumented agricultural workers to win legal status — I wanted to use the history of this country as a backdrop for thinking about this debate.

To many Americans there is an easy comparison between the plight of illegal immigrants in this country today, including discrimination and lack of legal recognition, and the plight of black American sharecroppers in the South in the early 20th century. Both of these groups were essential to American businesses (and farm production) in that they provided a cheap, reliable, and relatively stable labor force.

They also both found themselves marginalized by the legal system: In the case of immigrants it is about formal citizenship; black sharecroppers had been barred from full participation in the economy by de jure segregation and a custom in the South of denial of civil rights and protections. These practices kept them in their place and prevented them from reaping the true fruits of their labor. On the other hand, the dignity and sense of contribution derived from work, not to mention the income they earned, enabled blacks to achieve some measure of independence, and emboldened them to stand up for their rights. Is a similar process under way for today’s illegal immigrants?

With the onset of the civil rights movement and changes in the U.S. economy, many blacks moved out of that traditional role and attained true working- and middle-class status. Illegal immigrants have largely replaced them in this regard. What lessons can we learn from the past about the value of labor under conditions such as those faced by illegal immigrants? Is America addicted to cheap labor? Does capitalism, as some would argue, require the existence of an underclass that is denied the rights of full citizenship?