¡Si Se Puede!: Recent Immigrant Struggles

Last year one of the most remarkable protests in American history took place. Up to a million or more people marched in the streets, effectively staging walkouts from work and school. These marches shocked official society and exposed to many the not-so-hidden conflicts underneath the surface of the supposed booming American economy and civil peace.

Organized by immigrant workers, mainly from Mexico and Central America, but also from parts of Asia, the Caribbean and Africa, the walkouts were achieved through tremendous grassroots organizing. They expressed a critical mass of accumulated frustration with increased attacks on immigrant workers in the U.S. over the past few years by the federal and local state governments, employers and a resurgent racist populist movement.

The immediate spark for the May protests was an immigration bill proposed by Congressman Sensenbrenner—the same official who introduced the Patriot Act and voted against aid to Katrina refugees—that was passed in the House of Representatives in late 2006. The bill expanded police powers aimed at immigrants and criminalized any aid or defense of immigrants by citizens or residents. Protestors correctly saw that the bill represented the growth of rightwing racist populist sentiment mirrored at the local level by daily attacks and harassment of immigrants or anyone who may “look like” an immigrant.

This year successive bills have rolled around Congress. The most recent bill—better known as the McCain-Kennedy bill—has been defeated, representing a failure by the political elites to reach a consensus about how to deal with the growing crisis of immigration.

The bill was status quo legislation that would have legalized the underground workforce by creating indentured labor, euphemistically called a “guest worker program.” It would have closed the gates to family reunification—ensuring cheap and temporary labor—and justified this by opening the door to white collar immigrant labor only.

It mandated the militarization of the border with Mexico and would continue a growing number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) raids. Finally, the bill mandated that undocumented immigrants must pay a $5,000 fine, the head of household must leave the country and apply for reentry and then they will be eligible to apply for residency (another several thousand dollar process). This makes residency extremely difficult and in many cases impossible.

The failure of the elites to reach a consensus has reinforced the growing initiative among racist populist forces and local state officials. I.C.E. raids will continue at their increasing pace, deporting tens of thousands each year. At the same time immigrants and solidarity groups have mobilized, arriving on the national stage last year. Yet these efforts have been seriously weakened for the moment due to the domination of national organizing by the middle class Latino and Chicano organizations, who have harnessed it to the Democratic Party. Some big union bosses have joined them, with the SEIU, one of the most powerful unions of immigrant workers, supporting the Congressional bill.

The protests and walkouts last year were not only victorious in bringing the immigrant fight out of the shadows and setting the agenda. The marches exposed the deep economic and political problems gripping American society. The inability of the rulers to solve the “problem” of immigration, and the failure of the middle class Latino and union bureaucrats to achieve their parliamentary victory, prefigures the crisis of official society as a whole to solve the endemic problems unleashed by neo-liberalism. Yet it has also exposed the failure of American working people as a whole to understand how the struggle of immigrants is central to our own fate. The struggle against racism and imperialism is inseparable from the fight to overturn the thirty year offensive against working people by the state and corporate bosses.

Anatomy of a Crisis

Working people face increasingly difficult circumstances in falling wages, slashed social infrastructure and ideologically militant and hostile management. Decent paying jobs have slowly disappeared for three decades. This has hit rural and especially urban areas hard. Many working citizens blame immigrants and workers in other countries for supposedly stealing American jobs or driving down wages. Others say the American ruling class is no longer loyal to working people (where supposedly they once were) and should be brought back into line. Everyone has a sense that the domestic situation is closely related to wider global developments.

Official society tells us that the freedom of American capital is good for American and foreign workers. In reality, the freedom of the ruling class and its capital mobilizes and controls labor through surplus and coercion on a global scale to impoverish American and non-American workers alike. What becomes clear is that working folks domestically and internationally must aspire to solidarity or else everyone loses.

The capitalists along with national elites everywhere have organized production and markets on a global scale. This has been accomplished by smashing working class and farmer political organization abroad. They build factories and export jobs to other countries to exploit working people abroad to drive down wages and benefits here in the U.S. With the help of local ruling classes they kill union organizers and terrorize the population who are organizing against their oppression. When they find easier exploitation the capitalists leave and set up shop somewhere else. They flood other countries with cheap goods, making millions jobless or landless, sending people to look for work in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Examples are endless. American agri-business corn floods Mexico, forcing millions of farmers to lose their livelihood. Many come here to find work. A Dominican teacher is laid off because of Washington-mandated disinvestment in education in her country. That teacher moves to New York and works as a janitor to avoid starving in the street. A textile factory worker in the same country is forced to work at a quarter or less of the wage here and for twice as many hours. The teacher, textile worker or former Mexican farmer may organize against their situation at home but to do so means they will be invaded or terrorized by Washington elites and their local allies. And this story repeats itself in every region of the world today.

This international arrangement is closely tied to our domestic situation. It is imperialism that creates cheap consumer goods, floats vast budget deficits and national debt for Americans alone on working people’s dime in other countries, and imposes access to cheap natural resources. U.S. empire gives the illusion that working people here are living an “exceptional” life. In reality, this arrangement is not only at the expense of workers abroad, but also at the expense of American workers. White supremacy and imperialism enrich the ruling class and prepare the ground for the kind of decades-long cut backs and impoverishment of working class political power that is only now beginning to really dawn on larger numbers of people in this country. The employer and politician attack internationally on working people in other countries has strengthened their hand to attack working people’s political power domestically. In fact, it has moved along a parallel course.

The illusion that an alliance with American rulers will give a special deal to American workers is not only morally wrong, it is an impossibility. For what has been the result of such an unsavory alliance? Unemployment, underemployment, deindustrialization, anti-union laws, massive social disinvestment with slashed budgets for everyday people, big tax breaks for the rulers and a parasitic and bloated manager middle class, raiding of pension funds, incarceration and police terror.

The success of imperialism in smashing workers and farmers’ democratic movements abroad has helped the rulers to structure domestic competition among working people for increasingly scarce, decent-paying jobs and social investment. In the U.S. this is reflected in ethnic competition through an ever shifting hierarchy of ethnicities under white supremacy. For this reason the American ruling class has turned on and off immigration when it suited its purposes. With the immigrant struggle we see a direct challenge to decades of employer and politician offensive. The failure to join, support and extend immigrant struggles to other fronts will mean another decade of victories for them.

Racist collaborators and opportunists claim that the people on the bottom of the working class are to blame for the economic and political crises created by their ruling class masters. By trying to divide working people they hope to lead folks only to more serfdom. The rulers show no loyalty to working people in the U.S. or around the world. They claim they are good citizens, but they are loyal only to their own profits whose interests cross all national boundaries. Why can’t ordinary people’s interests and solidarity cross those same boundaries? History has shown they must.

Repeating History

There have been two camps warning the capitalists and official society about the direction of this situation. Each seeks to solve it by devising new ways to manage white supremacy, imperialism and labor. From the Right we have seen an upsurge in racist populism. From the Left we see, seriously weakened but waiting in the wings, the old coalition of liberals and union bosses. On very different grounds, each camp seeks a closed shop partnership with the rulers. Both of these positions have a long history in the U.S. and have proven to be a disaster.

Racist forces say they want to rally working folks to the “threat” of immigration. They say this is the reason why wages are low and social services are bankrupt, using classic racist images of “crime” and “Third World invasion” in a bid for leadership of what they think is the white worker. Congressmen like Tom Tancredo see a lot of brown and black people in Miami, and say it looks like a “Third World country” and the fate of white America is clear if they don’t do something about it. Less overtly racist politicians and demagogues may not advocate white racist militias like Tancredo as the final solution to cleansing America, but they all interpret the forces unleashed by neo-liberalism, that the ruling class is increasingly unable to control, as the overturning of the racial order.

Their goal is to restore this order. In suburban and rural towns across the country we have seen new immigrants (mainly from Mexico and Central America, but also elsewhere) arrive and move into predominately white, or in some cases black, working class neighborhoods, while working in food processing plants, agriculture, restaurants, small factories, and as day laborers. Immigrants have worked heavily in the construction boom. Working class neighborhoods deteriorate (along with working class jobs) next to gentrification for the Mcmansion new neighborhoods of the middle class—many of whom sponsor the attempted pogroms and who have benefited from the new economy at the expense of all working people.

In response there has been a new upsurge in white racialist sentiment. There is organizing against brown people moving into the neighborhood. We hear complaints about who is using a park, flying the Mexican flag, or the existence of Spanish-language newspapers or music. Some bitterly decry the supposed lack of learning English, an inability to “assimilate,” or an upsurge in crime. All of this shows the racialist roots of the populist upsurge. Why should there be an exception for immigrants of color since all immigrants historically have necessarily created transitional communities between the old country and the new. Further, how ironic the claims of lacking assimilation into American culture by immigrants, as if these racists somehow are the true Americans and do not have a “strange” culture that is in fact in the minority even among white ethnics. But it is this sentiment that allows Italians, Jews, Polish or Irish to complain about Mexicans as somehow a foreign fifth column in the U.S., when Mexicans have been living here a lot longer than them.

Today the white supremacists are on the offensive. They have been mobilizing at the local level and networking nationally to challenge local and state laws, threatening to impeach legislators and judges, and forming rudimentary militias. These street forces are increasingly working in alliance with local police, to harass “immigrant-looking people,” to set up check points to check for driver’s licenses, to break up day laborer sites and raid construction sites. In places like Hazelton, PA, Farmers Branch, TX, and Long Island, NY suburbs we see things like the passing of housing discrimination laws much like those enacted in Louisiana towns against black people fleeing post-Katrina New Orleans. In Morristown, NJ, the mayor shares the speaking platform with Nazis and Klansmen. In Los Angeles an immigrant solidarity picnic is attacked by police gangs, beating men, women and children, cheered on by this white racialist movement. Meanwhile, at the federal level I.C.E. raids in workplaces continue to pick up pace with the aim of assisting employers in breaking up union activity among immigrant workers.

This is nothing new in American history. Africans who were enslaved, indigenous nations who were ethnically cleansed into ghettos, and successive waves of immigrants have struggled against attempts by the state and capitalists to squeeze super-profits for an expanding capitalism out of their labor by keeping them a subordinate caste. In response to this the state has mobilized, enforcing a reign of police terror when necessary or implementing legislation to defuse immigrant working class resistance to maintain this caste. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, laws were passed to close the door to the “immigrant threat”, excluding or criminalizing at various times Chinese folks, Italians, Jews, Mexicans, and Haitians, as just a few examples. But European ethnic workers—even the immigrant Irish in the 19th century—have also falsely linked their interests to the rulers as true “citizens” or “freemen.” They formed patronage networks that were supported by the rulers to systematically bar non-Europeans from unions, job positions and social welfare from the state.

Seeking out patronage is not unique to whites at all, but white supremacy supports white patronage more than others. The rulers need white supremacy to try and control the majority of white workers. In some other countries, stratification within the class is across skill; but in multi-racial America such stratification along skill is enforced along a hierarchy of race. One can only see class through the prism of race; they are part of a single social process. This is exactly why the current immigrant struggle is central to working people’s struggle today to go back on the offensive against the employers and the politicians.

At the moment the racist populist movement is dominated by a bourgeois strategy, subordinated to the parliamentary right-wing. So was the Klan. This movement could expand into more directly “assisting” the “good” sections of the state and elites in carrying out terror. Yet fascist potentials also exist. American racists historically have had no need for fascism to keep the racial caste system in place. However, if traditional methods fail, we may see something quite different emerge.

Among the liberals and the union bureaucracy we see a contending effort to put forward to the rulers a new strategy for overcoming the crisis. Their attempts—with the last Congressional bill—have been fatally hampered not only because they have formed a coalition with some big business interests who have an interest in maintaining cheap wages and a super-exploited caste of workers. It is also because the social base for their project no longer exists. The old base of the “social democratic” coalitions linked to the liberal labor and state bureaucracies—among labor and communities of color—has long since been destroyed. It was destroyed because the union bureaucracy, joined in the 1970s by the middle class, attacked the self-organization of everyday people.

In seeking a “partnership” between labor and capital, between oppressed communities and the ruling class, this establishment not only attempted to coerce working people’s loyalty to imperialism where necessary. It also sought to maintain a closed shop in terms of immigration. The SEIU, National Council of La Raza, LULAC, the United Farm Workers (UFW), and MALDEF all formed a coalition with a section of the politicians and the employers to deliver this. This was not done as some sort of strategy to fend off the backlash against immigrants of color. It was in their class interests to do so.

A quick look at the history of the UFW shows the pattern. Over the decades-long struggle of industrial farmworkers, criminalization, indentured labor and business unionism went hand in hand. Famed UFW organizer César Chávez supported the forceful exclusion of undocumented laborers in order to solidify UFW control over the farmworkers’ movement and place itself at the head of the negotiating table with employers; all to the detriment of autonomous organizing in the fields. He went so far as to organize a march against illegal immigration in 1969 (where, ironically, he was joined by Walter Mondale and Ralph Abernathy among others). “Operation Wetback”, which targeted over 1 million Mexicans living in the U.S. for deportation, the Bracero program, and the use of the UFW to keep out farmworkers in partnership with the state—as somehow a defense of its own members against strikebreakers—demonstrates the closed shop loyalty that prepared the ground for the new employer and state offensive of the last three decades. Rather than build solidarity among workers in the U.S., the coalition between liberals and labor bureaucrats has often represented its final defeat.

New Forces and Old Challenges

There is no doubt that some momentum has been lost since last year. No doubt the failure of the massive marches to lead to federal intervention against harassment by local forces has demoralized many. It can only be hoped that it has also cured many of any illusions about relying on the politicians and their fellow travelers. This must be measured against the challenges collective organizing in the workplace and community faces under conditions of federal and local state terror as well as racist vigilante attacks. Many union chiefs opposed the immigration bill, but they put forward no competing program. Many speeches have been made, but we have seen no threatened solidarity strikes.

Grassroots organizing and solidarity are at a crossroads. Facing a breakup of the cross-class alliance, disillusionment, and the stepped up attacks on immigrants, many are continuing to fight back. There have been important developments of local union militancy and new workplace strategies. There are multi-shop and neighborhood orientations which strengthen the possibilities for victory among relatively isolated workplaces like small grocers and restaurants where many immigrants work. The growth in workers’ centers across the country has encouraged solidarity, and we have seen the beginnings of a boycott against anti-Latino businesses.

Support for these measures is essential, but it must be remembered that much of this work has been defensive in nature. It is necessary to build a movement that takes the offensive, not only protecting what few gains are still ours, but pushing these struggles onto new ground. Alliances and united fronts are key to build solidarity, but no principled democratic movement should be subordinated to any one alliance. Direct action will be a necessary component, such as a revival of the sanctuary movement or other forms of militant defense of undocumented immigrants and resistance against detention and deportation. The state has no place invading our communities and kidnapping our family members and friends, and only our direct intervention against such practices will bring about their end. Where immigrants face attacks and intimidation by the Minutemen or other racist squads and goons, in self-defense those forces must be physically confronted and beat back.

Ultimately, the only way to overcome this political and economic crisis caused by official society, a crisis of epic proportions, is not by pledging allegiance to the rulers and bosses so that we can get “our piece” of the American pie. Moving forward will require a total rejection of the forces that see fit to destroy autonomous working class movements both domestically and internationally. Yet we still have contradictions that must be overcome. Without a new working class movement to fight white supremacy and imperialism, the chant “¡Si se puede!” from last year’s protests will become a mere echo of a movement defeated.

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