Beyond “Comprehensive Immigration Reform”

Against the Current, No. 130, September/October 2007

Renee Saucedo

ATTEMPTS IN THE U.S. Senate, as well as by the Bush administration, failed to revive the most recent immigration legislation — a proposal which among other things would separate families, heighten worker exploitation, further militarize the U.S./Mexico border, and provide no realistic path to residency for the vast majority of undocumented people now living in the United States.

This legislative proposal, as most “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” proposals in the past couple of years, would lead to more suffering and deaths and is nothing short of a human rights abomination. Its death is welcome — even though it was primarily right-wing racist opposition that killed it in Congress — but leaves the immigrant rights movement facing still-unanswered challenges.

Why has it been difficult for the immigrant rights struggle to push for a just legalization, or amnesty, law? What must we do to build a powerful and radical movement?

State-sponsored Terror

First, the intense level of state-sponsored terror against immigrant communities has made it difficult to organize in those communities. Since early this year, the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have harassed, arrested, detained and deported over 20,000 migrants under “Operation Return To Sender.”

Throughout the country, in cities and small towns, hundreds of workers are rounded up at their worksites and deported, such as the 165 arrested in a raid last summer at three Oregon Del Monte plants. Uniformed ICE agents use Gestapo-type tactics to force their way into people’s homes without warrants. Parents in Redwood City, California were picked up as they dropped their children off at school. And people who “looked immigrant” were randomly questioned by ICE on the street in San Francisco, California.

Immigrants express a high level of terror — so much so that mothers fear taking their children to school, families fear going to the local health clinic, everyone is afraid to deal with police. Organizers have had to combat this climate of fear, and in part blame the recent raids and enforcement activities for the decline in participation since last year’s mass marches.

Refugees, Not Criminals

A second challenge involves the way migration has been characterized as a “criminal” or “illegal” issue, not as a consequence of global economic policies promoted by US corporate interests. “Illegal immigrants break the law to get here so have no right to be here,” say the racist, anti-immigrant forces, as well as moderate and even liberal voices in this country.

Criminality, or illegality, are therefore addressed with punitive policies, including border and inland enforcement, employer sanctions and denial of benefits and services.  Such punitive measures have never deterred people from migrating to the United States, but do cause intense suffering, the separation of families, job exploitation and death.

Migrants are so desperate for economic survival that they are willing to endure these hardships. These are not criminals at all, but rather economic refugees from U.S. policies, including free trade agreements, that displace thousands of workers and farmers.

The North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements (NAFTA and CAFTA) ended subsidies on agricultural products in Mexico and Central America. This forced corn grown by indigenous farmers without subsidies to compete in their own countries’ market with corn from huge U.S. producers, subsidized by the U.S. farm bill.

Between 2000 and 2005, Mexico lost 900,000 jobs in the countryside, and 700,000 in the cities. After the treaty was implemented, six million Mexicans came to live in the United States as this country’s economic policies had made it extremely difficult for them to feed their families.

Immigrant rights opponents conveniently characterize migration as a criminal issue in order to justify the dehumanization of the immigrant community. Public opinion has adopted this characterization, which makes immigrant rights organizing much more challenging.

The Corporate Agenda

A third challenge facing the immigrant rights movement is that corporate interests are fighting ferociously for “reform” legislation that includes a new and expansive guestworker program. In his writings, David Bacon describes how companies like Oracle Corporation and Microsoft Corporation were looking for ways to revive the most recent Senate bill, which contains a massive guestworker program.

Such a program, explains Bacon, treats immigrants only as a reserve of cheap labor.  It sets up contract labor programs, allowing employers to recruit migrants, who must remain employed or else be deported. In exchange for the promise of legalization, the recent Senate bill required undocumented workers to spend more than a decade as contract workers with few rights and no incentive to complain about exploitative working conditions.

Building Power for Change

It has been an uphill battle fighting for just legalization within this context. So in view of these challenges, what do we do to build a viable movement that has the power to push for real changes? The following are a few ideas:

* We need to bring organized labor fully on board. While the AFL/CIO have come out in opposition to the legislative proposals, the SEIU International has supported almost all of them, even when these contain guestworker programs and other anti-immigrant provisions.

Unions like SEIU must disassociate themselves from this coalition of Washington lobby groups, large employers and conservative think tanks that are promoting new temporary worker programs. They must follow the lead of immigrant rank-and-file members and support proposals that do not betray the interests of workers or of the workers’ rights movement.

* We must support grassroots immigrant organizing and leadership much more aggressively. An overwhelming number of grassroots and membership immigrant rights organizations came out against the recent immigration proposal. People on the ground are conscious that negotiating away major rights while gaining little is not an option.

We should work with these groups so that their message and their power are brought forward. Otherwise we’re stuck with the approach of many of the immigration proposals’ proponents, including a network of lobbyists referred to in the press as “immigration advocates.” These groups, including the National Immigration Forum and the National Council of La Raza, have all along supported a legalization/enforcement/guestworker program tradeoff, and have sold out the majority of the immigrant community.

As organizers, we must focus less on meaningless negotiations and more on building power and leadership among those impacted, namely undocumented immigrants.

* We must build multiracial unity. Immigrants, people of color, poor, and oppressed people in this country continue to bear the burden of attacks, criminalization and scapegoating. Latino and Asian immigrants, African Americans, homeless groups, LGBT, and others are successfully working together and forging alliances.

In the Bay Area, California, a group of African-American organizers formed a group called Black Americans For Just Immigration (BAJI), which works with various immigrant rights organizations to make the connections of oppression more explicit for people. Immigrant and African-American organizers in San Francisco have worked together to make connections between the deportation of Latinos and the displacement of African Americans from their neighborhoods due to gentrification.

* We must define, or characterize, migration in the language of human rights and workers’ rights. Migration and immigration cannot be adequately discussed or dealt with unless we address it in terms of economic injustice. Therefore, we must address the underlying causes of people’s desperation. What forces them to migrate to the United States are global economic policies and trade agreements. A major demand of our movement should be repealing NAFTA.

* We need to combat immigrant scapegoating by exposing how the U.S. capitalist system, not migrants, cause economic and social insecurities in this country. We know that undocumented immigrants do not cause joblessness; corporate downsizing and outsourcing — and an economy based more and more on prioritizing the military industrial complex — do.

We also know that undocumented immigrants do not cause crime and instability, poverty, tax breaks for the rich, and the de-prioritization of resources invested in human needs are the culprits. Let us be on the offensive when it comes to putting the current context in perspective so that immigrant-bashing is no longer acceptable.

* We must continue to fight for legalization — not guestworker programs. Temporary worker programs are inherently exploitative and weaken the labor and workers’ rights movements. They only benefit the bosses who want a constant source of cheap, exploitable labor. Instead, we should support immigration proposals that strengthen family unification, protect workers’ rights, and make residency easy to obtain.

Despite the many challenges currently facing the immigrant rights movement, our community is courageous and creative. We will continue to struggle until we achieve amnesty and justice for all.

from ATC 130 (September/October 2007)