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The Immigrant Workers Movement

Last spring, millions of immigrant workers, their families, and allies took to the streets of the U.S. in a spontaneous movement against the draconian anti-immigrant measures being proposed in the form of the Sensenbrenner Bill (HR4437). But this was only the spark that lit up the inflammable material that had accumulated for decades. Some 12 to 14 million undocumented immigrants, a majority of them from Mexico and Central America, live in the shadows of U.S. society, doing back-breaking and dangerous work for low wages, under poor conditions, with few rights. HR4437 was simply the last “last straw” after decades of indignities, and the pent up frustrations exploded to the surface. Hundreds of ad hoc committees were organized in factories, schools, and workplaces to plan for May Day 2006 - which was almost certainly the largest national strike / boycott in the history of the U.S.

The movement was inevitably heterogeneous at first, with “immigrants” of from all layers of society participating in its early days.  Business owners and factory workers marched together in the “spring time” of the movement; there was a carnival atmosphere as millions of oppressed workers felt the strength of their unity for the first time. Latino radio stations and business owners jumped on board, pushing the movement forward. But the seeds for the future division of the movement along class lines were present from the beginning, and have intensified in the months since May Day 2006. Because at root, this was not a movement of “immigrants” – it was a movement of immigrant workers, and the slogans and banners reflected this: “We are workers not criminals!” “You accept our labor, now accept us!”

The traditional, mostly petty-bourgeois leadership of the immigrant rights movement was completely overwhelmed by the masses. Accustomed to decades of slow, uphill work, with a few limited reforms as their goal, they were completely unable – and unwilling – to channel the colossal energy of the masses into real change.  They  were terrified of the movement, and moved might and main to control it, to keep it within safe limits. As has happened so often to mass grass roots movements in the U.S., these “leaders” were quick to sell out the movement to the Democratic Party, who promised larger “crumbs” than they had ever imagined possible.  In so doing, they betrayed the just aspirations of immigrant workers for a complete and total amnesty.

After the mid-term elections in November, the pressure to stop the mega marches and to let the professional politicians handle things intensified. Many of the coalitions that were formed to organize the 2006 marches have split or imploded, others are rent by internal tensions.  Many who, emboldened by the pressure of the masses, made radical speeches and pronouncements a year ago, have retreated back to their reformist positions with the ebb of the movement. These divisions and changes of heart can ultimately be traced to the class, material, and political interests represented by those involved. It is a classic example of the contradictions that arise in all social movements between reformism and revolution, class collaboration and class independence.

The basic, organic demand of the movement: “Unconditional Legalization / Amnesty for All!” goes far beyond the safe limits the corporations and their politicians can accept.  Both big business political parties are interested in having a vast pool of cheap, unorganized, and expendable labor.  This is why they have rushed to push through various “compromise” bills, which although presented as being less onerous than HR4437, are still overwhelmingly anti-immigrant and anti-worker. These are enforcement-first bills, which include “guest worker” programs, national identification systems, and heavy fines and fees. Many bills also include lucrative contracts to companies like Halliburton for the construction of border fences and detention centers.  As with all laws under capitalism, it all comes down to maximizing and protecting the profits of big business at the expense of the working class.

The key lesson of the successful struggle against Sensenbrenner is that politics is not made only by Congress, but on the streets.  This spring, the movement has struggled to pick up steam, abandoned by many of those who supported it in the past. These former allies opportunistically supported the movement in order to pursue their own interests. But they understand that a unified, organized, and militant immigrant workforce that they cannot control is the last thing they want. The lesson is clear: immigrant workers can rely only on their own forces, organization, and class independence, reaching out to their natural allies, the unions and working class in general.

This mass movement of the oppressed represents a real threat to the power of the capitalists, who rely on these millions of workers with no few or no rights in order to divide the working class, drive down wages, and increase profits. In order to  punish and frighten the movement, the government has unleashed a wave of state terror against immigrant communities ranging from “no match” letters to large-scale raids and deportations. This has had an effect on the movement, as entire communities have been atomized. Nonetheless, at the grass roots level, there is still a ferment and desire to continue the struggle, as nothing whatsoever has been resolved.

There is enormous pressure on grass roots immigrant rights groups to support the “Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act” (STRIVE).  This proposal, put forward by Republican Jeff Flake (AZ) and Democrat Luis Gutierrez (IL), is being presented as a “lesser evil” and “the best we can get”.  While on the surface it isn’t as overtly aggressive as Sensenbrenner’s HR4437, and imposes lower fines than the White House’s current proposal, it remains an enforcement-first bill that offers little or nothing to immigrant workers and their families.

Far from amnesty and full rights for all, the STRIVE Act includes several provisions from the Sensenbrenner bill, excludes millions of immigrant workers, and imposes many conditions, restrictions, fines, and fees in order for just some immigrant workers to achieve even partial legal status. The vast majority of immigrants between ages 21 to 65 will have to leave the U.S. to “touch back” in their country of origin within 90 days of the application process, which would be extremely costly and disruptive. Those who entered the country after June 1, 2006, or who temporarily left the country after that date, or were unemployed (or unable to prove employment) during that period would also be ineligible.

The proposal indefinitely delays any legalization program until the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) certifies to Congress that new systems to make immigration document verification  more secure are ready to use; that a new Electronic Employment Verification System has been implemented; and that new border surveillance technology has been adopted and implemented. It is unclear how many months or years it will take to achieve these “trigger” milestones before a partial legalization program would be implemented.

In the meantime, the act criminalizes all those who entered the country without documents and expands the list of crimes for which immigrants can be denied legal status. Those who cross the border without documents would be criminalized and subject to six months in prison for a first offense; two years for a second offense, and five years for a third offense.

It also accelerates technology and border infrastructure, including unmanned aerial vehicles, cameras, sensors,  etc. It would double the number of Border Patrol agents to about 24,000 by 2012, with emphasis on the recruitment of former military personnel with experience in border enforcement in Iraq and Afghanistan. A further 1,200 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents would be added as well. It also extends deployment of National Guard troops. It requires the DHS to build at least 20 additional detention facilities with the capacity to detain 20,000 people.

The Democrats’ proposal also includes a “New Worker” temporary Visa Program, which is just another name for a “Guest Worker” Program. This is presented as a “realistic” solution, one which would “legalize” hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers. However, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), these programs leave workers in slave-like conditions despite legal protections on paper. A report titled “Close to Slavery” released by the SPLC, explains how “guest” workers are routinely cheated out of wages, live in cramped, unhealthy housing and are held “virtually captive” by their employers. The often have their identity papers and travel documents confiscated, leaving them entirely at the mercy of the employers. They have little or no access to health or medical care in the event of illness or an accident. The report also notes that many must pay thousands of dollars to recruiters for jobs and visas. They often have to sign over deeds for property or cars in their home country as collateral, leaving them with crippling debts carrying high rates of interest.

According to SPLC president Richard Cohen, “The mistreatment of temporary foreign workers in America today is one of the major civil rights issues of our time.” Mary Bauer, director of the immigrant justice project for the Center said in a recent interview that, “Workers are abused fairly systematically. This is not a question of bad employers. It’s built into the structure of the program.  There are few legal rights and the legal rights that do exist are almost never enforced … A small guest worker program now is terrible. What makes us believe that a giant guest worker program is going to be better?”

“New Workers” would be tied to a single employer and required to work for the duration of the contract. Leaving the job early would be considered breach of contract, allowing the employer to have the worker deported. Workers would only be able to leave an abusive employer if they can prove in advance that they have another job with another employer, who must be registered with the government to participate in the program. All workers participating in the program would be tracked through an “Alien Employment Management System” to allow for easy deportation. STRIVE does not guarantee the right to join a union or engage in collective bargaining. It is precisely this level of control and atomization of the workforce that makes the proposal attractive to big business, who would be able to bring in workers not only for agriculture, but throughout the economy.  This would be used as a battering ram against the unions.

STRIVE also creates significant civil penalties for employers who do not comply with requirements under the new system and establishes serious criminal  penalties for knowingly hiring undocumented workers (fines of up to $5,000 and three years in prison). It also creates an national biometric system to electronically verify employment authorization which will apply to all workers in the U.S. These measures can only lead to increased discrimination, racial profiling, and infringement on civil rights in general.

In the last few months, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has stepped up its raids across the country, tearing families apart and terrorizing entire communities. The STRIVE Act offers no moratorium on raids or deportations.   In fact, it expands the ability of the DHS to subject immigrants to “expedited removal” (deportation without a hearing). This will result in far more erroneous deportations, separation of families, etc. The Act also grants immigration enforcement authority to state and local police, allowing the federal government to “deputize” local law enforcement to work with immigration agents in areas within 100 miles from the border and in “high impact areas” – i.e. any community in the country where immigrants are concentrated. The proposal declares that the “law enforcement personnel of a state, or a political subdivision of a state, have the inherent authority of a sovereign entity to investigate, apprehend, arrest, detain or transfer to federal custody (including the transportation across state lines to detention centers) an alien for the purpose of assisting in the enforcement of the criminal provisions of the immigration laws of the United States in the normal course of carrying out the law enforcement duties of such personnel.”

Politicians from both major parties support this legislation.  Those that oppose it do so on the grounds that it is “too lenient” on undocumented immigrants. And we are supposed to believe that this is a “pro-immigrant” law? Even if passed in the House in its current form, the STRIVE Act would have to be reconciled with the even more anti-immigrant Senate Bill. This is not what millions of immigrant workers marched for last spring. The only way we will win our rights and dignity is by organizing in our workplaces, schools, and communities, and through mass mobilizations. We can rely only on ourselves.  We cannot rely on the politicians of big business to help us.  Their interests are diametrically opposed to ours.

The natural allies of immigrant workers are our class brothers and sisters in the U.S. and around the world. An important result of last year’s movement has been the ferment of debate within the trade unions, many of which previously supported a “guest worker” program. Now, due to the pressure from the rank and file, support for unconditional legalization and full rights for all has been mounting in major unions both in the AFL-CIO and the “Change to Win” coalition. The way forward is clear: All workers in the U.S. must unite to defend the rights of all working people, no matter where they were born.

In the last 20 years, millions of immigrant workers have fled poverty, exploitation, and repression in their countries of origin only to find much the same and in some cases even worse in the “land of milk and honey”. In the final analysis, there is no solution to the question of immigration within the narrow limits of capitalism. The struggle for immigrant workers’ rights is a transitional struggle, which must ultimately be linked to the need for the socialist transformation of society.  But winning unconditional legalization for all would be a tremendous victory for all workers, it would unleash a wave of organization and unionization, and inspire the broader labor movement to fight for its rights, improved wages and conditions. This is precisely what the capitalist class fears. These attacks are in reality a sign of weakness not of strength. They would prefer to rule through “legality”, the media, public opinion, etc., but have had to resort to terror and violence.

The ruling class also fears the effects the spreading Latin American revolution will have on the millions of Latinos living in the U.S.  The attacks on immigrants and the push to increase security and militarization of the border is precisely to stem the flow of radicalized workers and peasants into the U.S. - Revolutions do not respect borders. The U.S.-Mexico border serves as a transmission belt for all the pent-up contradictions in Latin America, right into the heart of world imperialism.

Any legislation passed by the corporate parties will be anti-immigrant and anti-worker through and through, and will have a negative effect on the entire labor movement. It will serve to undercut and disorient the movement for immigrant rights, and will give legal cover for increased repression. The pro-Democrat reformists may raise a few demagogic complaints, but in the end will content themselves with a few crumbs and paid positions, while the masses will be left with nothing.

However, nothing fundamental will have been solved, and the contradictions of the world economic system, with immigrant labor in the U.S. as one of its most acute expressions, will continue to build up, preparing the way for even greater explosions of the class struggle.  Events in Latin America will also play an important role in determining how things develop, with the Mexican revolution reaching the boiling point right across the U.S. border.  It is the duty of the Marxists to provide a clear internationalist class analysis and orientation to the movement, and to prepare the forces of Bolshevism among immigrant workers, who will be on the front lines of the struggle for socialism in the U.S.