This document was originally drafted during the tumultuous events of 2006 when millions took to the streets across the US to oppose the racist Sensenbrenner bill and to demand an end to the oppression of undocumented workers. It was substantially revised in the run up to the national conference of Socialist Alternative in May 2007 where it was formally approved.
We feel that, although the material is inevitably dated in parts, it will be of interest to many activists as a serious attempt to analyze the complex issues posed by immigration from a Marxist standpoint and to develop a program that can unite foreign born and native born workers in the US today.
In the spring of 2006, millions of immigrants, overwhelmingly Latino and working class, came onto the streets of dozens of cities and towns, culminating in the rebirth of May Day in the United States. This represented the beginnings of the first real mass social movement in this country in a generation. The scale of the protests caught most of the organizers completely by surprise. It was nothing less than the uprising of one of the most exploited and oppressed sections of the population and was reminiscent of the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s. It also demonstrated the enormous social tinder lying just under the surface of American society as well as the rapidity with which real developments in the working class can occur.
The explosive reemergence of the immigrants rights movement was in itself of great historical significance but also reflects deeper processes at work in American society. Understanding these processes and their implications is vital for Marxists in the US as is the elaboration of the program with which we intervene in the struggle.
This document will briefly outline the scale of immigration; the broad effects this has had and will have on American society; the debate occurring within the US establishment about immigration; the character of the movement as it has emerged; the perspectives for the role that immigrant and especially Latino workers can play in the next phase of the class struggle in the US; as well as elements of program.
Capitalism and immigration
Over the past 20 years the US has witnessed a wave of immigration, primarily from Latin America (especially Mexico), but also with significant components from the Carribean and East Asia and to a lesser extent from South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet bloc. The scale of this influx is comparable to the massive immigration from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and will have similarly enormous effects on American society. Today there are an estimated 33 million foreign born residents in the US. In 2003, they accounted for 11.7% of the population, the highest proportion since 1910. The current wave of immigration can also be compared to the massive internal migrations of African Americans from the South to the North at the end of the two world wars.
One hundred years ago people were fleeing the poverty and conflicts caused by developing capitalism within Europe. Today millions are fleeing the devastating effects of neo-liberal policies pursued by the major imperialist powers in the neo-colonial world and often taking their lives into their hands in order to get into Europe or the US. In 2005 alone, 1.2 million people have been arrested trying to cross the Mexican border. Since 1994, over 3,600 Mexicans have died trying to get into the US.
People of course do not just flee for their own sake but to help the families that they leave behind. Many poor countries are now heavily dependent on the remittances of immigrants living in the imperialist heartlands.
A particular example of how neo-liberalism has created the conditions for mass immigration is the NAFTA trade deal between the ruling classes of the US, Canada and Mexico which came into effect in 1994. Among other things it prohibited the Mexican government from subsidizing domestic agricultural production while placing no such restriction on the US. The result predictably is that US agricultural produce has been dumped on the Mexican market while Mexican farmers have been forced to leave the countryside because they can’t earn a living, head into the cities where they can’t find adequate work and then head north toward the border.
This massive displacement of people from the “Third World” is both an inevitable result of this phase of capitalist globalization as well as a phenomenon which the ruling class of the advanced capitalist countries, especially the US, has actively encouraged.
This may seem to be contradicted by the resources put into policing the Mexican border or the scale of deportations (which is increasing and reached 160,000 in 2005). The reality, however, is that immigration and especially illegal immigration has provided a massive pool of very cheap labor for American capitalism. Probably more than 15 million immigrant workers in the US today work economically essential jobs on fake documents or under the table, often with the employers’ ‘winking’ acceptance that their generalized labor practices are in violation of their own laws. Not only is the exploitation of immigrant labor highly profitable in itself but the presence of this workforce acts to depress the overall level of wages.
Undocumented immigrants are exploited on all sides, by their employers in industry, agriculture, and the service sectors, exploited directly by the US state which collects tax money earned with fake Social Security numbers, and exploited indirectly by legal entities like cash remittance agencies and slum-lords, as well as illegal entities such as the criminal gangs that smuggle people into the U.S. The working conditions, living conditions, and poor pay that many undocumented workers receive more closely resemble the workhouses of a Dickens novel or the sweatshops of Southeast Asia than they do the conditions of union labor once established as an expected feature of post World War II U.S. society.
The role of internal migration or immigration in providing a pool of cheap labor is hardly new. Every major economic expansion in the history of capitalism has required bringing or driving massive numbers of people into the working class. Peasants driven off the land in Britain provided the human grist to the early mills. Immigration from Europe historically played this role in the US alongside the forcible transplantation of millions of Africans. Over the past 20 years the migration of millions of people from rural areas of China into the cities has fed that country’s enormous economic boom.
In addition, since the earliest days of North American capitalism, the ruling class has always been involved in the conscious and rationalized control of labor supplies. Slavery and indentured servitude played a crucial role in early wealth accumulation in the United States. The triumph of “free-labor” and market relations in the period after the civil war was not the end of obviously “unfree” schemes of labor exploitation. The share-cropping system of debt-peonage in agriculture, systems of prison labor, and the super-exploitation of immigrant and migrant labor have all played their part in the development of the US as a capitalist superpower.
This latter category has included the exploitation of contract laborers brought from China in the nineteenth century, the twentieth century braçeros whose contracts of temporary employment were often directly negotiated between the U.S. and Mexican governments and groups of European refugees recruited from “displaced persons” camps after World War II and distributed throughout the United States at the desire of employers looking for cheap labor and sometimes strikebreakers.
American capitalism since the end of the post war boom 30 years ago has faced increasing international competition and a decline in profitability to which it has responded by a massive increase in the exploitation of the domestic working class. But the presence of a huge pool of immigrant and undocumented labor undoubtedly also contributed to the recovery of profitability in the 1990s and again since the recession at the start of this decade.
It is striking that in recent decades, U.S. capitalism’s approach to maintaining the super-exploitation of immigrant labor has been based on extra-legality. The coolies and braceros of previous periods worked under legal contracts.
Today, foreign guest workers with legal, temporary visas in the United States number only in the hundreds of thousands and work primarily in agriculture. Their legal, temporary status and their low wages, abusive working conditions and lack of rights and workplace protections represents a legal, indentured servitude type condition that many U.S. capitalists hope to extend to broader layers of the immigrant working class. (See for example the Southern Poverty Law Center Study “Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States”). In recent months there have been several dramatic exposures of the conditions facing guest workers, particularly those who were brought to the Gulf area in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
It has become a commonplace in the media to say that immigrants are “doing jobs Americans won’t do”. There is more than a grain of truth to this statement. The native born are not likely, for example, to be lured into backbreaking farm labor even if wages rose significantly. However, it is also true that a large number of the jobs now being done by immigrant and undocumented workers will not be done by native born workers not so much because of the nature of the work but because of the abominable pay and conditions. Clearly the bosses would like to spread these conditions into more sections of the economy.
Immigrant and particularly undocumented labor today plays a key role in agriculture, less skilled parts of construction, the hotel industry, landscaping, restaurant work, building maintenance and custodial work, childcare and some parts of industry like meatpacking in the Midwest.
What would happen to the US economy if immigrant labor disappeared overnight? Some services would become inaccessible or less accessible except to the rich. The cost of eating out would go up significantly. Many families, both middle class and working class, would face a childcare crisis. In reality the capitalists’ attack on the living standards of the lower middle class and better off workers has been partially masked by the cheap services provided by undocumented workers.
In some areas of the economy, including parts of construction and hotel work, wages would have to be significantly increased. In the case of agriculture there would probably be a further move towards mechanization. Overall, the economic effect would be very serious. In particular there would be a sharp drop in the capitalists’ profits which could lead to a sharp drop in economic activity.
The ruling class plans for “immigration reform”
But in reality the only way that immigrant labor could “disappear” would be through a serious program of mass deportations which would require police state methods. This would likely encounter enormous resistance, including from a section of native born Americans. It is significant for example that the US Catholic Church declared last year that they would defy the reactionary Sensenbrenner bill (HR4437), passed by the House of Representatives at the end of 2005, if it became law. HR4437 which was in reality a sop to the right wing of the Republican Party by the then-Republican House leadership would have made it a felony not only to be in the US illegally but even to assist an undocumented worker. The effect of the bill if it had become law would have been to begin the forcible removal of millions of people.
The ruling class as a whole has absolutely no intention of going down this path, the more extreme wing of the Republican Party notwithstanding. Listen to billionaire Mike Bloomberg, mayor of New York: “I’m a mayor, I have to deal in the real world. I’m a businessman, I have to deal with the real world. I don’t have the luxury of talking about the ideological wordsmithing of how you call it. The truth of the matter is we have people, they are here because we have wink-winked and let them come in. They are part of our economy. We need them. We need more.”
Nevertheless, over the past year there has clearly been a stepped up militarization of the border with thousands of National Guard troops deployed and the construction of a lot more “wall”. On top of that there has been a stepping of dramatic workplace raids by agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) (successor to the INS/migra and part of Homeland Security) aimed at terrorizing whole immigrant communities. The increase of repression, however, is in no way contradictory to the overall goal of keeping the bulk of immigrants in the US and maintaining the flow of new immigrants for years to come.
It is vital for the capitalists to maintain the second class status of undocumented workers. The goal is a fearful and dependent workforce with few or no rights whose wages and benefits can be kept as low as possible. Up until the uprising of immigrant workers last spring, the strategy seemed to be working.
With millions of undocumented workers having had the experience of participating in mass demonstrations on the streets of major US cities and hundreds of thousands at least having not gone to work on May Day, the ruling class began to wonder whether they would be able to maintain their grip. The increased repression of recent months is in large measure an attempt to put undocumented workers back “in their place”.
But it also clear that for a number of reasons the ruling class wants to end the situation in which millions of undocumented workers live in the country without the government knowing who they are. The ruling class wants to tighten the second class status of these workers. They want to continue the inward migration but to do this in a far more controlled manner.
This is the impetus for “immigration reform”, including an enormously expanded guest-worker program. Guest worker is particularly championed by those groups of US capitalists who depend most on low-paid immigrant labor and who stand to gain the most from a more controlled, legal supply of exploitable immigrants who, holding temporary visas, could be summoned and dismissed with ease.
They are best represented by the corporate-run Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (EWIC) whose long membership list includes such industry organizations as: the American Health Care Association, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the National Restaurant Association, the Truckload Carriers Association, Tyson Foods Inc., the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, numerous groups in the construction industry, and the US Chamber of Commerce. These are the sectors of big business who have been at work behind the scenes lining up politicians behind guest worker legislation.
Scandalously and criminally, the call for guest worker legislation (at least until recently) has been echoed by some leaders of US trade unions. With dollar signs in their eyes, some business unionist leaders like Andy Stern of the SEIU asked for a seat at the table to help plan the guest-worker scheme and organize the contracts for millions of low paid workers that business leaders want to bring in on temporary visas. An important addition to this discussion is the program of the United Farm Workers, which has long lobbied for official temporary status for migrant agricultural laborers. The apparent change in Stern’s position will be discussed later.
The EWIC was founded in 1999. After taking office in early 2001, Bush met with Vicente Fox and publicly began pushing for an expanded guest worker program. September 11th forced him to put these plans on ice since the administration could hardly open the borders to new “guest workers” at the same time that they were whipping up xenophobia and fear of terrorism. However, soon after 9/11 the politicians and business leaders were at it again. In 2002, the EWIC came together with the National Concilio de la Raza, the Catholic Church, the SEIU leadership, and the National Association of Manufacturers to form the National Immigration Forum, which called for guest-worker legislation.
Both the Democrats and the Republicans had “immigration reform” in their platforms for the 2004 elections. Although it wasn’t always stated explicitly, both parties were gearing up to pass guest-worker legislation. Bush’s 2004 State of the Union address included a call for “a new temporary worker program.” McCain Kennedy was not some compromise devised to quell the firestorm unleashed by HR4437. It was the product of years of careful planning and it was introduced into both the House and the Senate more than six months before HR4437. Its basic provisions reflect what remains the basic agenda of most sections of the ruling class with regard to immigration.
Before “immigration reform” became stalled last spring due primarily to the internal divisions in the Republican Party in the run-up to the November elections, the Senate had moved toward a “compromise” position including the following elements: stepped up “border protection” and “enforcement”, ie repression, along with a “path to citizenship” for most undocumented workers. Three categories for undocumented workers were envisioned: those in the US more than 5 years would have to pay heavy fines and wait many further years to become citizens; those here 2-5 years would have to leave the country and be put on a waiting list to reenter; and those here less than 2 years who would be deported. The bill also contained provision for a guest worker program which would bring new workers into the US for a defined period of time who would then have to return to their country of origin.
Some variation on this Senate compromise including a “path to citizenship” for at least some undocumented workers combined with a vastly expanded guest worker program is still the most likely outcome of the “reform” process. The net effect will really be to enshrine the second class status of a large proportion of the immigrant population in law. What the Congress is likely to pass will effectively be a 21st century charter of indentured servitude for millions.
Quietly, the US government has also moved to develop the legal architecture, physical infrastructure and repressive apparatus for a massive guest worker program. Negotiations are underway through the WTO to establish global guest worker guidelines which will enshrine an international “free” market in cheap labor. Inside the US there has been significant investment in expansion of sections of the interstate highway system (particularly the I35 corridor running from Mexico to Canada). The goal is to greatly expand trade in goods and the movement of workers from Mexico and Central America in a controlled fashion to various destinations in the US and Canada. Finally the massive development of Homeland Security “Detention and Removal Operation Facilities” is clearly related to these plans, especially with the integration of the INS/ICE into this super-department (an interesting overview of these developments is contained in Richard D. Vogel, “Transient Servitude”, Monthly Review, January 2007)
One can ask whether it is actually possible for the US state to reach a point where it can account for all immigrant workers and maintain millions of them in a state of indentured servitude. The answer to this question will depend first and foremost on the development of the class struggle in the US in the coming period. What working people, both immigrant and native born, must understand is that this plan is a massive threat to our collective interests and the fight against it must begin now and not after the whole edifice is up and running.
It is clear that the main beneficiary of “immigration reform” or maintaining the status quo is the capitalist class. Having forced millions to leave their homelands in search of a better life through policies like NAFTA, capitalism now seeks to pit immigrant workers against the native born to the detriment of both. This is why we argue that the way forward is to organize immigrant and undocumented workers into the trade unions and to fight tooth and nail against any guest worker program and for a full amnesty for all undocumented workers. Raising the wages and improving the conditions of immigrant workers will help all workers.
But we also point out that until capitalism is overturned it will continue to create the conditions which lead to this vicious cycle of exploitation and general lowering of living standards in both the advanced and neo-colonial countries.
Immigrant workers rise up: the mass movement of 2006
The threat of HR4437 was the main catalyst for the massive wave of working class demonstrations which reached deep into immigrant communities throughout the US last spring. The Sensenbrenner bill was passed on Dec. 16th, 2005 – rushed through right before the holidays as congress was about to recess. The holiday break and the general lack of attention that most immigrants (not to mention US born workers) pay to the activities of Congress meant that the eventual surge of opposition to HR4437 began as a trickle.
The actual repressive content of the Sensenbrenner bill had little to do with the program of big business or with the political plans of the Bush administration. In fact, the passage of HR-4437 was in some sense a symptom of the political weakness of Bush, who by 2006 was no longer able to command complete loyalty among the Republican Party and the right wing in US society.
However, given the drop-off in immigrant rights protests after May 1st; the lack of political clarity in the working class about the need to oppose the guest-worker program; and the strong forces in both parties that are likely to back a new guest-worker bill, there is a real possibility that HR4437 will wind up being the “wolf” that the capitalists paraded around in order to drive workers into the arms of the “fox.”
The origins of the Mass Demos
The spring demonstrations had some important, recent precursors such as the 2003 Immigrant Freedom Ride protests, organized by the AFL-CIO. This action was the result of the significant change in the AFL-CIO’s position on immigration in 1999.
Much as the mass demonstrations were galvanized by the repressive threat posed by HR4437, many of the earlier protests were organized in angry response to a fairly small but significant wave of racist, anti-immigrant organizing. On July 1st 2005, there was a protest of between 20 and 40 thousand people on the southwest side of Chicago against the Minutemen. Although far smaller than the protests of spring 2006, this one was a ringing success and it attracted many more people than the organizers had expected. As with many of the spring 2006 protests, the large turnout at the July 2005 Chicago demonstration had a lot to do with Spanish language radio disc jockeys who publicized it.
In the Western U.S. there has been a long tradition of immigrant rights organizing and there are many activists who carry the experience of struggles like agricultural workers’ strikes, the East LA high school walkouts of the late 1960s, and more recent struggles against attacks like proposition 187, and in campaigns for reforms such as the local immigration sanctuary laws.
As in Chicago, an important precursor to the spring mobilizations in LA were smaller protests against the particularly virulent anti-immigrant organizations active in California such as the Save our State Initiative and the Minutemen. Initiators of the call for the May 1st boycott such as Gloria Saucedo and Jesse Diaz along with some of the left groups and anarchists were involved in fairly risky and confrontational border protests against the Minutemen who in the summer of 2005 started a failed campaign to patrol the California border.
Chicago March 10th
Before the massive explosion of protest with the first mega-march in Chicago on March 10th, some of the earliest protests against HR4437 were tiny affairs that barely made any news coverage. The Chicago March 10th demonstration was the beginning of the large spring protest wave and the related frenzy of attention from the capitalist media, which did a lot to build both the mobilizations in immigrant communities as well as the support for anti-immigrant groups like the Minutemen.
Press estimates about the size of the Chicago March 10th demonstration ranged from 100,000 to 300,000. The size of the mobilization surprised many organizers of the event and the demonstration played a key role in attracting national attention to the passage of HR 4437. The bourgeois press reported that the demonstration had the character of a spontaneous outpouring. In anticipation of later mega-marches, some businesses closed early, and major politicians made sure to come out and speak to the crowds.
In a phenomenon witnessed in the big cities like Chicago and LA, and probably also in some of the smaller cities and towns that witnessed impressive mobilizations, some Spanish language Disc jockeys with faithful listener bases, predominantly among working class Mexican immigrants, were able to generate big turnouts for the demonstrations. In Chicago, El Pistolero and his competitor El Chokolate had called out the crowds to the July 2005 anti-Minutemen protest and El Pistolero did a lot to mobilize people for March 10th 2006 demonstration. DJ’s in LA, with equally colorful names such as El Piolin and El Mandril, were approached by organizers of the massive March 25th protest and played a big part in generating turnout, not only because of their commitment to immigrant rights but perhaps in some cases from fear of losing listeners in the competitive morning DJ game.
Of course, Spanish language radio, although very significant, was hardly the only factor in the building of the mega-marches. A number of churches, but especially the Catholic Church, played an important role. The Catholic Church is partly responding to the reality that Latinos are rapidly becoming the biggest part of the US church if not in absolute numbers then certainly in activity. But the Catholic Church is also facing intense competition from Protestant Evangelicals in the Latino community. In addition, a number of unions, especially SEIU, played a big role in some of the protests, such as the ones in New York City. And obviously, at a certain stage, a section of the Democratic Party and the Latino bourgeoisie moved in to try to corral the movement.
May 1 and beyond
The most important facet of the present situation for us, however, is that millions of undocumented workers have taken action and have gotten a taste of their own collective power. While it is an exaggeration to say, as one protestor’s sign did, that “immigrants are the backbone of the economy”, May 1 showed that even the partial withdrawal of immigrant labor could have a real economic impact. Large numbers of small businesses in major cities closed for the day. Tyson meatpacking plants in the Midwest were shut down and agricultural activity in several states was severely effected. Most impressively, the port of LA, the biggest in the nation, was effectively shut by the action of immigrant truck drivers who move goods from the port.
In addition there was the action of working class youth, either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants, who walked out of high schools, especially in California and Texas, and joined the protests. This uprising of immigrant youth is of huge significance for the future.
While the movement in the spring of ‘06, including the May 1 actions, was mainly led by middle class and even some bourgeois elements, the base of the movement was overwhelmingly working class. These workers will not now go quietly back “into the shadows”. In the course of the spring, the base partially bypassed the more conservative wing of the leadership including the churches and elements tied more closely to the Democrats who urged people not to participate in the “day without immigrants” actions. A significant part of the working class base also went beyond the goal of simply rejecting HR4437 and demanded amnesty, not the second class status on offer from the ruling class.
These workers poured onto the streets on International Workers Day. Many of them have a far better idea of what it represents than the native born workers of the country which gave birth to May Day. For many, therefore, coming onto the streets was a conscious act not only of standing up for immigrant rights or of Latino pride but also of identification with working class and anti-imperialist struggle. It was noticeable as well that the May 1 actions in many parts of the country brought out a more diverse representation of immigrant communities and were therefore less overwhelmingly Latino. It was also noticeable that other political issues were being raised by protestors indicating the attractive power of this movement to many native born Americans looking to fight back against the right wing Republicans as well as the corporate agenda.
But given that the immigrant movement will inevitably remain heavily defined by the predominance of Latinos among the immigrant population, there can also be little doubt that it is also being affected by the wider Latin American struggle against neo-liberalism. This points to the potential for the movement of Latino immigrants in the US to link itself to this hemisphere wide movement and to act as its forward detachment fighting imperialism in the belly of the beast.
Our organization was correct to appreciate the significance of these mobilizations and intervene whole-heartedly in them. However we should not lose sight of the ways in which the bourgeois politicians sought to control, manipulate and get political mileage out of the spring 2006 mobilizations. The Democratic Party hardly inititated the wave of protests. But an array of often well financed, pro-democrat organizations quickly jumped all over the mass mobilizations and created the liberal “Somos America” coalition which welded together longstanding immigrant NGOs, democrats, and many union locals. Comrades will remember their slogan: “Today we march, tomorrow we vote,” which was an attempt to channel the movement into electoral gains for Democrats.
And while a majority of working class protestors were and are clearly in favor of immediate legal status for all workers in the country, plenty of politicians and employers were content to try and use the mass mobilizations to put steam behind the guest worker legislation. Senator McCain’s quote in the Associated Press demonstrated this fairly clearly. McCain said that “turnouts in the hundreds of thousands -- particularly among Hispanics -- at recent rallies in Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington helped galvanize support for the bill.” He was of course speaking of his McCain-Kennedy guest worker bill.
It is clear that, for the time being, the Latino bourgeois elements and the churches, especially the Catholic Church, will continue to play a dominant political role in the Latino community, acting as a brake on the movement and directing it into the channel of bourgeois politics. But there are definite limits to this process because no section of the political establishment, including the Latino establishment, can offer a path to meeting the demands of this movement for equality, justice and decent living standards. For this reason the radicalization of immigrant workers will tend – although not in a straight line – to deepen in the next period.
The mass demonstrations and strike actions in the spring of ’06 succeeded in bringing the position of undocumented workers forcefully to the attention of the wider population. The movement to some degree checked the reactionaries and made clear that mass deportations are not an option. At the same time, we must be clear that despite the scale of the actions by undocumented workers, if the movement does not win support within the wider American working class for the idea of amnesty, the most it can achieve at this stage is to negotiate the terms of indentured servitude.
A quite extensive Pew survey in March 2006 found that 53% of Americans believe that undocumented immigrants should be required to go home while 40% said they should be able to apply for some form of legal status that would allow them to stay. However, recent polls suggest a significant shift towards supporting a “path to citizenship”. According to a Catholic website, “an assortment of polls overt the last six months showed between 57% and 65% favoring a path to citizenship”. A USA/Gallup poll conducted in mid-April found 78% in favor of giving undocumented workers a path to legal status and citizenship. This of course is separate from people’s views about whether the flow of immigration should continue, whether there should be further militarization of the border, etc. It does, however, strongly suggest that last year’s mass protests and public debate did huge damage to the notion promoted by the far right that the solution to the “problem” of the undocumented is mass deportations.
Nevertheless, the ’06 Pew poll showed significant general hostility towards immigrants which cannot have dissipated in a year. The same proportion of white respondents (55%) as black (54%) agreed with the statement that “immigrants are a burden because they take jobs, housing and health care.” Only 29% of Hispanic respondents agreed with that statement. There was also significant support (42%) for a constitutional amendment to bar citizenship to children of illegal immigrants; two thirds support for a government database of all people eligible to work; and 76% support for a new national ID card. Interestingly the Pew survey also found that overall attitudes towards immigrants have improved over the past decade.
Of course, right wing populists are demagogically trying to exploit the fears of sections of the population about undocumented workers “taking jobs” from American workers and about the alleged “burden” that immigrants place on social services and about the “erosion” of American culture. They make the argument which has more than a grain of truth that immigrants are being used by the corporations to undercut the living standards of the working class and middle class. Of course their answer is not to unite the working class to oppose the corporate agenda but rather they call for “enforcing the laws” and “sending the lawbreakers home”.
Immigrant workers and the labor movement
The only way forward for immigrant workers is to unite their struggle with the struggle of the native born working class against the attacks of corporate America. In doing so they will also make an enormous contribution to the reinvigoration of the US labor movement. This is not simply a question of what should happen. It is the clear direction in which many current developments and processes are pointing. Of course immigrant workers have played a vital role in a number of class battles in recent US history, the most famous being the Justice for Janitors campaign beginning in Los Angeles. However, this process is set to accelerate.
As we have argued repeatedly, the class divide in US society has widened dramatically over the past 20 years. The social contract which the bosses entered into with the labor movement after World War II has been ripped up. Working people are under attack from all sides.
The trade unions, shackled by a bureaucracy wedded to a business unionist model, have been shrinking for decades. Nevertheless even the bureaucracy can recognize from a pragmatic point of view that immigrant workers are a vital source of desperately needed new forces. It is very significant that the AFL-CIO in 1999 dropped its generally hostile attitude towards immigrant rights. Sweeney, the head of the AFL-CIO, came out last year against the bipartisan Senate “compromise” saying that it would create “an undemocratic, three-tiered society that degrades and marginalizes millions of immigrant families in our communities while driving down wage and benefits standards for everyone.”
On the other hand, SEIU, the main force in the Change to Win coalition explicitly endorsed the McCain Kennedy approach including the guest worker program and, as stated earlier, has also aligned itself with the bosses’ Essential Worker Immigration Coalition. However, in an important development Stern and the SEIU leadership modified their position at the start of this year. In a letter to Ted Kennedy, they stated that they no longer endorsed the “Senate compromise” reached in 2006: “SEIU recognizes the need for new workers in the low-wage sector of our expanding economy. However, any new worker program must include worker protections including: portability of visas so that workers can change jobs, the right to join unions and have full labor rights, the right to bring their families with them, and the ability to self-petition for permanent residency and citizenship…We neither subscribe to nor endorse a repeat of the failed ‘guest worker’ programs that are temporary in nature and require immigrants ‘touch-base’, or return.” Stern essentially is arguing for a more “humane” guest worker program but implicitly acknowledges that this is not what the bourgeois have in mind. This followed some dissent within the union, especially in California, and a partial recognition of the inevitably reactionary nature of the guest worker proposals. But there is also a recognition that the position of the union was out of sync with their heavily immigrant base.
However, while it is clear that pressure from below and the desire to maintain credibility among immigrant workers can drive leaders like Stern away from support for guest-worker schemes, we can’t rule out that increasing sections of the union bureaucracy won’t read the bourgeois “handwriting on the wall” and accept some form of guest-worker compromise.
SEIU played a bigger role than any other union in last year’s protests and is poised, along with UNITE HERE, to be the main beneficiary of an influx of immigrant workers into the labor movement. For example, SEIU represents janitors at the University of Miami, overwhelmingly immigrants, who won union recognition and a 25% wage increase after a bitter 9 week strike last year. SEIU also successfully organized thousands of janitors in Houston who went on strike and won significant improvements in pay and benefits in late 2006. Even the carpenters’ and laborers’ unions have recognized the necessity to organize immigrant construction workers and this has begun to happen in some areas.
Last year’s drive by UNITE HERE to coordinate contract negotiations at the major hotel chains (Hotel Workers Rising) also indicates the role immigrant workers are already playing in pushing forward developments in the labor movement.
The UFCW is making headway among the heavily immigrant meatpacking workforce at the Swift plants in the Midwest. The long-running recognition fight at the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, has also entered a new stage and efforts are being made to unite Latino and black workers at the plant. In November, over 1,000 Smithfield workers walked out for two days after 50 immigrant workers were fired because they came up as “no matches” for valid Social Security numbers.
Besides the ICE raids that are clearly aimed at terrorizing whole communities, “no match” Social Security letters are also being increasingly used to intimidate immigrant workers and discourage union activity. According to the Nation (2/19/2007), “No law requires employers to fire workers whose Social Security numbers don’t jibe with the records. But this past summer, George W. Bush, through DHS, proposed a new federal regulation that would tell employers to fire anyone with no-match. The regulation has never been officially issued, but some companies claim they’re already complying with it.”
While there are some important examples of unions organizing immigrant workers, the generally ineffectual response to this repression highlights that the union leadership could be doing far more to recruit immigrant workers. With a fighting leadership, the unions would inspire far more confidence as a force which could bring real material benefits to immigrant workers and their communities. Because of the nature of the current leadership the process of bringing immigrant workers into the unions will be longer and more complicated.
But in fact, the role immigrant workers will play in revitalizing the labor movement will not be limited to increasing union membership or sparking important battles. Immigrant workers, now energized and radicalized by the mass movement for amnesty, will not be prepared to simply submit to the dictates of a bureaucratic apparatus like that which rules the SEIU. They will shake up the internal life of the unions and help to redevelop the activist layer (the shift in SEIU’s formal position at least partially demonstrates this point). Not only that but they will play a crucial role in the next period in forcing a serious discussion about the political affiliations of the trade unions and the necessity of independent working class politics.
In doing this, today’s immigrant workers will be playing the same role as immigrant workers did in the past. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries immigrants workers were decisive in the building not only of trade unions in general but in bringing radical traditions of struggle and socialist ideas into the American labor movement. The developments which led to May Day involved radical German workers in Chicago. The IWW, the early Socialist and Communist Parties were all dominated by immigrant or second generation workers.
Nevertheless the difficulties of forging unity among workers who spoke so many different languages and had many cultural differences should not be underestimated. There were, furthermore, complications created by the prominent, even dominant, role of immigrants in radical politics. Many of the radical immigrant activists reflected the insularity of their own communities. The Socialist Party, for example, had a number of “language federations” which produced publications in their native language but had little connection to the native born working class.
Looking at this history again is very useful in the current context. There are of course important differences. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the socialist movement was emerging as a powerful force in Europe. Despite the radicalization underway in Latin America this is clearly not the case today. It is also worth pointing out that while immigrant workers today – as in the past – speak many languages, most immigrants in the US now speak a common language, Spanish. This is generally speaking an advantage in breaking down the insularity that could develop among immigrants from different Latin American countries.
Long term perspectives: race and immigration
One of the key effects of the current immigration wave is to shift the ethnic and racial balance of American society. Already at the time of the 2000 Census there was considerable discussion about the rapid growth of the Latino population in the US as the result of the wave of immigration over the past 20 years. At that point the racial/ethnic breakdown was as follows: out of a total population of 275 million, 226 million were white (82%); 35 million were black or African American (13%); 11 million were Asians and Pacific Islanders (4%). 32 million were of Latino origin (12%); of these, 29 million declared themselves to be “white”. While a small minority described themselves as black there was also an emerging trend of Latinos who refused to declare themselves as either white or black.
If one removes Latinos, the white population in 2000 was 197 million (71%). Demographers projected on the basis of the 2000 statistics that Latinos would be the largest minority group in the country by 2005 (38 million), slightly larger than African Americans. But by 2050 the projection was that the Latino population could triple to 98 million. In this scenario, the white, non-Latino population would decline to a bare majority of 53%. Of course, any projection for a 50 year period must be seen as extremely provisional. There are a whole range of variables which could alter this outcome.
Nevertheless, new statistics strongly support this trend. It is estimated that Latinos now account for 14% of the total population and fully 22% of the population under five years of age. Overall, nearly half of the children under 5 in the US are part of racial or ethnic minorities. Furthermore, as the Washington Times explained, while, “The nation’s Asian population growth is dominated by immigration, the census report shows […] among Hispanics, births added more to the population growth than immigrants did this decade. That means the growth trend among the youngest Hispanics ‘is only going to accelerate under almost any scenario you can think about, even without immigration,’ said demographer Jeffrey S. Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center. ‘As the children age, they are the ones who in 20 years will be having children.’”
The effect of these demographic changes is being felt across the United States in big cities and small towns alike. However, the biggest concentrations of immigrants have been in several metropolitan areas including Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and New York City.
For example, it was recently reported that “non-Hispanic whites” will soon be a minority in the entire New York metropolitan region. This has been the case inside the city for some time but the metropolitan area as defined here includes Long Island, the city’s northern suburbs and parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, though not Connecticut. In the city itself 2.9 million, out of a total of 8 million, residents were born outside the United States according to the 2000 census. Neighborhood after neighborhood in the city has been transformed by immigration and it is interesting that immigrants from different parts of the world are to a large degree not moving into narrow ethnic enclaves but into polyglot communities.
In considering the impact of the current immigrant wave and especially the growth of the Latino population on the racial balance of society we must bear in mind that, after class, race, defined as white vs. black, has been the key division in the US historically. Previous waves of immigration complicated this picture but did not ultimately change it. Catholic immigrants from Southern Europe, Jews from Eastern Europe and even the Irish were not initially considered part of the “white” population. Over time the definition of white expanded from white Protestants to include white “ethnics” as these immigrant groups were assimilated into the mainstream of American society. But as each group of European immigrants rose out of poverty into better working class and middle class jobs, African Americans were still left at the bottom.
This by the way is part of the reason for the ambivalence felt by many African Americans toward the current immigrant rights movement. While there is considerable sympathy for the struggle of another oppressed layer of US society there is also the feeling that this could be the beginning of another group “moving up” and leaving them behind. It is also the case that the black working class is in more direct competition with immigrant workers than white workers generally are.
But what are the prospects for significant assimilation of Latinos into the mainstream of US society? First it must be remembered that the bulk of Latinos already have legal status and are either citizens or are on the way to becoming citizens. Secondly it is likely, as has been outlined, that Congress will eventually create a “path toward citizenship” for a significant part of the current undocumented workforce. While this will create a massive caste of second class residents with very limited rights there will be movement over time for many of the undocumented toward citizenship and in addition their children will automatically become citizens. Whether the workers entering in a new guest worker program will have a “path to citizenship” is far less clear.
In fact we can already see a section, albeit a minority, of second and especially third generation Latinos who are assimilating into US society, speaking English as a first language and, in some cases, no longer being Spanish speakers. A more stable Latino working class exists, integrated into the wider economy beyond the sections in which undocumented labor predominates. A Latino middle class has emerged as well.
But as last year’s movement attests even the sections of the Latino population that are partially assimilated were deeply affected by HR4437 and the offensive of the right wing Republicans which they correctly saw as a racist attack on all Latinos. There is a strong collective memory in the Latino community and especially among Mexican Americans of the long history of racist abuse suffered by Latinos in the US including the infamous bracero program of the 1940s, mass deportations in the 1930s and 1950s, the struggles of farm workers led by Cezar Chavez, etc.
Amongst Mexican Americans there is also the strongly held and correct view that large parts of the geographic US were stolen from Mexico in the early 19th century. This does create an element of a national question among longstanding Latino communities in the border areas but with the important qualification that almost no one is seriously arguing for these areas to be reintegrated into Mexico.
This does not in any case contradict the point that the process of assimilation will continue. However, given the likely outcome of the political debate on immigration “reform”, what will also characterize the Latino population will be increasingly sharp class divisions.
The point should also be made that assimilation can take several forms including the integration of Latino workers into a revitalized US labor movement. Such a development which we advocate has nothing in common with the chauvinist outlook that Latinos or other immigrants should abandon their cultural heritage and their language and be “proper Americans”. We are in favor of the developing integration of all the ethnic and racial components of the working class through common struggle but we start from an internationalist point of view seeking to link the increasingly diverse US working class to the working class across the entire American hemisphere.
However, the most likely perspective is that, even with the reemergence of a strong working class consciousness, racial identity, defined in terms of color, will remain a fundamental feature of US society until the socialist revolution. A significant section of Latinos will tend to be drawn over time into the “white” category even despite anti-Latino racism. A smaller section of Latinos as well as Carribean black immigrants will become integrated into the African American population.
There is, however, also an important section of the immigrant Latino population that does not fit neatly into the dominant black/white US paradigm. This relates primarily but not exclusively to those whose ancestry is wholly or largely indigenous. How their ethnic identity will evolve in the US is less easy to predict
The key point is that Latino workers will come to play an increasingly important role in the class struggle in the US. But this will not dissolve the existing racial identities. Nor is it the case as some on the left believe that an alliance of all “people of color”, i.e. all non-whites including Latinos, will be the key to transforming US society.
There is of course a tendency for all oppressed layers to unite. However this point of view ignores the sharp class divisions within the African American and immigrant communities. The Latino elite has profoundly different interests to the undocumented Latino workers. It is the working class, black and white, native born and immigrant, which has the social power and historic interest to lead the struggle of all the oppressed. This point of view also ignores the divisions which can develop between African Americans and Latinos as outlined earlier.
Furthermore, even if white, non-Latino workers become an absolute minority of the working class which could happen in the next historical period, it will remain strategically necessary to win the majority of white workers to the struggle against capitalism. But in that struggle the most oppressed layers of the working class will play a decisive role as they have in the past.
Short term perspectives: The effect of the immigration debate on political perspectives
As stated earlier, the “comprehensive immigration reform” sought by the ruling class did not happen in 2006 primarily because of the sharp divisions within the Republican Party which at that point controlled both houses of Congress. Bush favored the “Senate compromise” based on McCain-Kennedy. However, he did not have the authority to force the House -- where the right had pushed through HR4437 -- to accept this approach. It was also feared that to push harder would risk alienating conservatives to such an extent that many would simply stay at home in November in protest, something the Republican leadership felt they could ill afford.
But Republican strategists also see a longer term problem for the party’s electoral strength in the current debate because it has the potential to fundamentally alienate Latinos from the party. Latinos remain a small part of the national electorate though they are important in some states. However, the number of Latino voters is set to exponentially increase over the next ten to twenty years as the children of immigrants reach voting age. The irony is that the Republicans had made significant headway in wooing Latino voters away from the Democrats. In 2004 the Republicans got 40% of the Latino vote, twice what they got in 1996.
It is important to see that the division in the Republican Party on this issue is quite deep and could even lead under certain circumstances to an outright split in the party. On the one side are those who advocate a harsh anti-immigrant policy including a full-scale militarization of the border, a crackdown on employers hiring undocumented workers, no legalization of undocumented workers and, at the extreme end, mass deportations. This wing of the party clearly seeks to appeal to the more reactionary sections of the white population. But right wing populists are also skillfully trying to exploit the fears of native born workers generally about the effects of globalization, including immigration, on their living standards.
The other wing of the Republicans, more strongly represented in the Senate, reflects the broad consensus of the ruling class about the need to maintain the flow of immigrant labor while regularizing and bringing it into a legal framework. This is Bush’s position as well.
The outcome of the 2006 election was a rebuke to the most extreme end of the Republicans. For example, in a widely publicized race in Arizona’s 8th District which borders Mexico, the Republican candidate, Randy Graf, welcomed the endorsement of the Minutemen. Graf was subsequently disavowed by the National Republican Congressional Committee which pulled funding as it became clear that the Democrats were going to easily win what had previously been a safe Republican seat.
There is a degree of truth in Andy Stern’s statement in his letter to Ted Kennedy that, “Candidates who ran on anti-immigrant, anti-immigration, and enforcement-only messages lost their races because voters saw through the political rhetoric, not solving the problem. Voters know that deporting 12 millions individuals is unrealistic and morally repugnant.” However, this is not a sufficient explanation.
Immigration did not loom as large in the ’06 elections as might have been expected partly because other issues were more pressing in voters’ minds including the war in Iraq and broad concerns about the economy. Secondly, as already indicated, the Republican leadership chose deliberately not to emphasize immigration for risk of exacerbating internal differences or alienating Hispanic voters even further.
But the other important factor is that the Democratic Party, at local level, had moved in many areas to compete with the Republicans on this issue by helping to enact anti-immigrant legislation and ordinances. For example, in July the Colorado legislature approved a ban on non-emergency state services to adults who fail to prove they are in the country legally, a measure modeled on a law passed in Georgia a few months earlier. According to the Los Angeles Times (7/12/2006), Colorado Democrats were “boasting that their measure was the toughest in the nation…Democratic State Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald smiled widely when a reporter said at a news conference Tuesday morning that ‘you’re now the party of “tough on immigration.”’” According to the same piece more than 400 anti-immigrant measures were proposed in statehouses in the first half of last year. The bulk of these failed but this does not even count the hundreds of ordinances passed by municipalities, often with Democratic support.
The Nation (3/5/2007) also gave the following quote from Jon Tester of Montana, one of the “left-populist” Democrats elected to the Senate: “Our first priority must be to secure ports and borders to keep out terror threats, illegal drugs and illegal immigrants…People who want to come to America should follow the rules – and we should enforce them. There should be no cuts in line. Moreover, hiring illegal aliens is no laughing matter…We need to enforce the law on employers who hire illegal immigrants no matter who they are. It’s not just a matter of fairness – it’s a question of national security.” This could have come out of the mouth of Lou Dobbs or Tom Tancredo. Of course, Democrats in districts with a heavy Latino vote will tell voters that they are the party which will defend immigrant rights. And, as pointed out earlier, the Democrats sought consciously to gain political mileage from last spring’s protests. As usual the Democrats wish to be all things to all people.
Indeed the Democrats did benefit from a significant swing of Latino voters away from the Republicans, a clear punishment for HR4437. The Republican share of the Latino vote dropped from 40% to 29%. Whether the Democrats can turn this decisively to their advantage and win the allegiance of the large numbers of young Latinos who will soon be eligible to vote is very much an open question. The rhetoric of some “progressive” politicians aside, the party’s general position on immigration actually differs little from Bush and “mainstream” Republicans. This is being rapidly exposed as new legislation is being brought forward in Congress.
The EWIC has called 2007 “The Year of Comprehensive Immigration Reform” reflecting the desire of big business to complete the political process and the expectation that a Democratic-controlled Congress and a pro-reform president should be able to close the deal.
The most recent piece of guest-worker legislation to be presented in Congress is the STRIVE bill, HR-1645, introduced at the end of March and co-sponsored by both a Democrat (Gutierrez) and Republican (Flake). Like the Kennedy-McCain and Hagel-Martinez bills, STRIVE includes a guest-worker program (under the title “new worker visa”) and further border militarization. However, the bill goes further than the Senate compromise of last year in requiring all [?] undocumented workers to leave the country and pay fines before they can begin a “path to citizenship”.
This so-called “touch-back” position has now also been endorsed by Bush whose leaked plan for “Z visas” would include a $10,000 fine for undocumented workers and a $3,500 for each renewable three year visa. Meanwhile John McCain who has been under sustained pressure from right-wing Republicans on the campaign trail in Iowa has also endorsed the “touch back” idea. Other Republican Senators are even reportedly moving away from the idea of a “path to citizenship” for guest workers.
The competition in Congress to make the conditions for the path to citizenship and the guest worker program even more onerous has reached the point that the corporate interests pushing for a guest worker program are beginning to sound alarm bells. Randel K. Johnson, a vice president of the US Chamber of Commerce was quoted in the New York Times (March 23) as saying, “If the process doesn’t work and it strands people outside the country, the word will get around and people will stay in a subterranean economy.” Otherwise put, why would undocumented workers agree to turn themselves in, return to Mexico or Central America, go “to the back of the line” and pay tens of thousands in the hope of entering a brutal guest worker program and eventually becoming citizens? The irony is that it is Ted Kennedy, the famous liberal and “friend of labor” who now most effectively articulates the desires of corporate America in arguing for a “humane” and “workable” guest worker program.
At this stage it is not really possible to say whether Congress will succeed in passing legislation this year though it is still broadly more likely to happen than in 2006. The Republican Party leadership is now caught in a very difficult dilemma trying to balance between the interests of the ruling class and the views of their right wing base while trying not to lose all their Latino support. The problems are being exacerbated by the early start of the ’08 presidential campaign. It is worth mentioning that Tom Tancredo is running for President and even though he has no chance of getting the nomination he may still be able to participate in debates during the primaries and be a thorn in the side of the Republican leadership.
The Democrats have their own dilemmas. They want any legislation to be firmly “bipartisan” so the issue can’t be used against them by Republicans during the ’08 campaign while simultaneously trying to convince Latinos that they are the party which will be “fair” to immigrants.
Upon the passage of any guest-worker bill and even in the run-up to the passage of such a bill we should be prepared for an angry response from those reactionary forces that would attack any guest-worker law and even the most limited legalization of undocumented workers as a hated “amnesty”. The potential is being created for the emergence of a new far-right party in the next period along the lines of what has been seen in a number of European countries. It is, however, very difficult to be precise about the exact timing of such a development.
On the other hand, partly as a result of last year’s uprising of the immigrant population and partly as a result of closer study of the actual content of “immigration reform”, it is clear that an important section of immigrant workers as well as parts of the labor movement will draw the conclusion that the guest worker program represents an immediate and dire threat to the interests of the whole working class. The potential exists for a mass movement to develop on this question although probably not on the scale of 2006.
It is also clear for the same reasons that, while the main political beneficiary of the immigration debate in the short term will be the Democrats, an important section of the Latino working class will not be taken in by their hollow rhetoric. The question of standing candidates who more clearly represent the interests of Latino workers will inevitably be posed in the next period.
Short term perspectives for the movement
With hindsight it is clear that May 1 represented the highpoint of the immigrant rights struggle for the time being. A mass movement with a working class base temporarily went out of the control of the middle class and bourgeois elements who had dominated in the earlier phase. This was exhilarating and very educational but it was also not sustainable given the lack of a coherent political force with real roots to take the movement forward.
At many points in the recent upturn in struggle around immigrant rights, socialists, union activists, and genuine working class organizers have played important roles in the mass mobilizations. The character of the protest leadership has varied greatly from city to city.
In most cities there is an existing apparatus of NGOs and immigrant/refugee service and advocacy groups. Not only are these groups generally run by politically conscious, dyed-in-the-wool liberals, many of them also feed at the trough of federal funding for naturalization and refugee resettlement programs. Although these groups were on board with the Catholic Church, union bureaucrats and the business elites in opposing HR 4437, most of them do not support the call for amnesty and can generally be expected to act as opponents to independent working class politics.
As we have identified before in our material, there is a fundamental tension in the recent immigrant rights movement between working class forces willing to support the demand for amnesty and the more conservative forces unwilling to do so. This tension has played out in various ways in different cities throughout the country.
The Chicago March 10th coalition has been heavily shaped by union officials, leaders of Jobs With Justice, and members of the CP who have organized mass mobilizations but have tended to cooperate closely with many Democrats. The LA March 25th coalition, which issued the call for the May 1st boycott and mobilizations, at its height included many of the socialist groups and was in total opposition to the liberal, Democrat-controlled immigrant rights coalitions of Somos America, Chirla, and Carecen.
On a tiny scale in Boston we were involved in starting a coalition entirely devoted to calling for immigrant rights actions that were not receiving the support of lobbying groups, NGOs, and other Democrat-controlled bureaucracies.
In the aftermath of the spring 2006 events, there existed a danger of overestimating the role of the small radical forces, which issued many of the calls for the large demonstrations. Even though progressives were clever enough to harness a mass mood and manipulate the bourgeois media into publicizing a partial political general strike on May Day, this movement achieved neither the level of mass political education, nor the organizational infrastructure necessary to politically defeat the conservative forces.
With the liberals neglecting or undermining the many proposals that were issued for further mass mobilizations in the summer and fall; with widespread confusion about the legislation in Congress; with feelings of protest-fatigue; and with propaganda from liberal groups about the wonders of McCain Kennedy and Hagel Martinez, none of the working class, pro-amnesty forces had the level of organization required to continue and escalate the mass mobilizations.
The LA March 25th coalition was surely one of the most robust expressions of the independent, working-class leadership of the spring 2006 mobilizations. Last spring it was commanding national headlines and riding high on a wave of historic mass mobilizations. We should not forget that following May 1st 2006 and the abrupt downturn in mass mobilizations, the March 25th coalition was left hanging in mid-air. Their Labor Day demonstration, which they had hoped would again attract hundreds of thousands of workers, was comparatively tiny and drew considerably less than 10,000.
One thing we can conclude that if there had been even a moderately sized revolutionary organization in the US working class and with cadres rooted in some of the country’s largest immigrant communities, much of the national discoordination of the immigrant rights demonstrations and the abrupt end of the mass mobilizations could have been prevented.
There was some discussion last year among comrades about the element of Latino nationalism which was evident on some of the protests. To some degree this is completely understandable as a reaction to the racist nativism reflected in HR4437. The movement has given vent to long simmering anger and frustration among undocumented workers and immigrants generally. The waving of Mexican and other Latin American flags reflects national pride but does not mean that undocumented workers are closed to common struggle with native born workers if the trade unions gave a lead. Nor was there much evidence of the attitude that “this is our movement and outsiders are not welcome”. On the contrary our comrades and the material we have produced was very well received overall.
However, it is true that many immigrant workers do not believe that the native born working class and the white working class, in particular, represents a social force with which they have much in common. This can even be expressed as the view that immigrants are the only real working class in the country. This reflects a vast difference in day to day experience as well as a substantial difference in living standards especially between immigrants and the better off section of the native born working class. But while this type of consciousness does not necessarily imply a nationalist outlook, the realization of the common interests of the working class will require major, convulsive struggles.
As stated already, the political makeup of the immigrant movement has varied tremendously between different regions of the country. Besides the generalized “national pride” of many immigrants who have brought various national flags to the demonstrations, in some regions there are small but vocal groups of radical-sounding people who could be described as Latino nationalists. Especially on the West Coast some of these groups of ethnically exclusive activists are grouped around tiny publications like La Voz de Aztlán and some more politicized chapters of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) In some cases these nation-less nationalists or “indigenistas” distinguish themselves with fairly wild political programs such as the irredentist demand for the repatriation of the Southwestern states to Mexico, or the creation of a borderless “indigenous” confederation of all the Americas.
Aside from being a lightning rod for right-wing attacks on the immigration movement and perhaps a slight annoyance in the areas where they are active, it is not likely that any serious ethnic separatist organizations are likely to take hold among significant groups of working class Latinos in the US, most of whom have some experience of working alongside workers from other ethnic groups and being exploited by their own. MEChA’s very name (which translates to the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan) suggests the fact that ethnic separatist politics do better in the university lecture halls than they do in the barrios. Given the multi-ethnic and multi-racial mixture among US immigrants (even among just the Spanish speaking groups), it is unlikely that immigrant communities in the US will produce any powerful, rooted organizations analogous to the cultural nationalist groups or the racially exclusive religious movements like the Nation of Islam or the 5 percenters that grew up in African American communities during the black power movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Of course, if the struggle of immigrant workers remains isolated from the wider US working class for an extended period or if the ruling class succeeds in creating a new “underclass” through the guest worker program, a stronger nationalist mood could develop among sections of the Latino immigrant population. We can also expect that if the political struggles of sizeable numbers of immigrant workers develop in a class direction, bourgeois elements in the immigrant communities will seek to cut across this through appeals to ethnic identity.
The consciousness of immigrant workers is in flux and will undergo rapid shifts as events unfold over the next few years. Last year, there was initially a tremendous euphoria created by getting millions of people onto the streets. Immigrant workers began to flex their muscles and to realize the power they have. But the realization of the limits of this power if immigrants are isolated soon also set in.
The slogan “Today we march, tomorrow we vote” may have been aimed at corralling the movement into the Democrats but it can also point in a different direction. The Democrats argued that immigrants’ best hope lay in helping them win back of control of Congress. As immigrant workers begin to wake up to the full reality of what both wings of the political establishment have in mind there will be a deep sense of betrayal. A wing of the movement will move towards the idea of political action independent of the Democrats and Republicans.
What form this will take is hard to predict in advance. But what is clear is that even now we can gain an echo for the idea of the movement standing independent pro-amnesty candidates on a working class program. Furthermore, directly posing the need for unity of the working class and for a workers party representing all the oppressed is immediately appealing to many immigrant workers. It was very well received for example when we raised it explicitly in speeches at the Boston rally on May 1, 2006.
The key point at the moment is that the ground is being laid for the reemergence of the mass movement as Congress begins moving towards the final form of “immigration reform”. If legislation stalls again, the movement could again recede temporarily but since the bourgeois are determined to push ahead the issue will come to a head at some point in the next couple years. The recent demonstration of 10,000 in LA, the biggest since last spring, is a potential harbinger of things to come. And at the time of writing it is clear that a bit of momentum is beginning to build towards this year’s May Day protests but it is highly unlikely that protests or strike action will be on the scale of last year. There have also been and will continue to be important local protests against particular attacks, such as the large rally in New Bedford after the recent ICE raid.
Our program and intervention
The demands we raised last year in our material and interventions included “papers for all – immediate and unconditional amnesty for all undocumented workers; stop the deportations and attacks on immigrant communities”. We have also linked these demands to general demands for a living wage of $12.50 per hour and free universal national healthcare. And as just mentioned we have also raised the need for independent political action. In this way we programmatically place the struggle for immigrants’ rights within the wider working class struggle against capitalism.
As stated earlier (paragraph 87), we oppose the chauvinist view that Latinos or other immigrants must abandon their language and cultural heritage. All immigrants should be able to communicate with the local, state and federal government (and schools) in their own language, to have information for them translated into their language, be represented in the government, and to meet with someone from their culture when meeting with officials of that state body if they wish. We also defend bilingual education. Schools should teach the culture, language and history of immigrants. We oppose the idea that English should be the “official” language of the state.
At the moment we need to place particular emphasis on demanding an end to the ICE raids and the use of no-match Social Security letters to target militant undocumented workers. We also need to stress and explain in detail our total opposition to a guest worker program in any form. As we have explained in this document the massive expansion of guest worker will enshrine the second class status of a big section of the workforce and will be used to further undermine the wages and conditions of the rest of the working class.
However, we need to be very conscious that we are addressing two audiences. On the one hand there are the immigrant workers and activists we are meeting on the protests. On the other hand there are the native born workers whom we intersect on community paper sales or our workplaces. In all arenas we are arguing for the same fundamental program and the same key demands. But how we present that program and the arguments we need to address will differ significantly depending on the audience we are addressing.
In talking to native born workers we need to forthrightly acknowledge that the corporate agenda is to use immigrant workers as a cheap labor force to depress wages. However we need to say that the best way of defeating this agenda is to oppose second class status, give immigrant workers full rights and bring them into the trade unions. We need to explain how the corporations have raped Latin America and created the conditions for this massive and often desperate migration of people. NAFTA should be stressed as an example. We should emphasize that a socialist foreign policy would mean assisting in the economic and social development of poor countries rather than creating conditions for their further exploitation. We must oppose repression and the further militarization of the border while making it clear that we do not call for open borders under capitalism.
This last point needs to be explained a bit further. Under socialism, as the state apparatus withers away and the political form of the nation state becomes superseded by a global political order based on the interests of the working class, borders will become redundant. But to call for “open borders” or the abolition of borders now is equivalent to calling for the abolition of the nation state, or the abolition of the police, prisons, money, etc; it is an abstract, ultraleft slogan. Nor is it in any sense a transitional demand. The transitional method and program aims to build a bridge from the present consciousness of workers to the necessity of overturning capitalism. Put another way, a transitional demand is one that workers see as just and reasonable but that points beyond capitalism. But “open borders” is not seen as just by the majority of the American working class. It is seen as either absurd or terrifying. This “demand” is simply an obstacle to dialogue between socialists and native born workers.
Our material directed to immigrants must naturally stress that immigrant workers must continue to mobilize to defend themselves against corporate America’s agenda and the attacks of the far right. However, we must skillfully explain that the full demands of the movement can only be achieved through a wider struggle involving large sections of the native born working class. As the mass movement regains momentum, we must also support the idea of the more militant wing of the movement taking definite organizational form with a democratic structure. Such a structure will be necessary if the movement on the streets is to continue in the face of opposition from the churches, Latino business leaders and union bureaucrats who will try to damp down protests saying this would embarrass the “allies” in Congress.
Last year, despite initially lagging behind events and despite our very limited resources, Socialist Alternative made an effective intervention into the unfolding mass movement. In both Boston and Tacoma we played a key role in organizing protests on May 1. We also began with issue #48 of Justice to include Spanish language material in our paper. Now we are considering moving to produce four page Spanish supplements three times a year which would allow more space to develop arguments and address a wider range of issues than two pages in Justice.
The production of regular Spanish language material is a very important step forward for the American organization and must be maintained. But we must also look at how this material is being used. Are we organizing regular tables in immigrant areas? Is the material being used effectively to aid us in meeting and discussing with Latino contacts?
We must also bear in mind that while Spanish language material is by far and away the most necessary in trying to develop a presence among immigrant workers and youth, there are other languages in which it would be very useful to have material, including Portuguese, Chinese and Haitian creole.
Developing our intervention into the immigrant rights movement would be enormously assisted by developing a presence in California. This year we have recruited a couple of young people in San Bernadino, near LA. This is a good beginning but far more needs to be done.
It is also important to recognize the mutual relationship between our work in Latino immigrant communities in the US and the CWI’s work in Latin America. Recruitment of Mexican immigrants, for example, can play an important role in laying the basis for a group in Mexico itself. But we should also emphasize the work of the CWI in Latin America in our discussions with immigrant workers. Exchange of information and visits, as we are proposing to do with the new CWI group in Venezuela, are very important as is the continuation and expansion of collection of extra dues to support the Latin American work
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the struggles of immigrant workers to the redevelopment of a fighting labor movement in the United States. But it also critical to see how serious a battle is ahead of us in trying to stop the bosses’ plans for a massive guest worker program or, if it is established, to prevent if functioning in the way the bosses want.
May 1, 2006 showed both the enormous potential as well as the limits of the immigrant rights movement at this stage. But in the next phase of mass upheaval which cannot be far off there will be a further political differentiation and the potential for the emergence of a substantial radicalized wing is clear. For socialists it is a strategic task to assist such a development in whatever way we can while seeking to win the best activists to an internationalist, Marxist perspective.