As we enter 2008, millions of undocumented workers are thinking about the economic crisis, immigration raids, presidential elections and Spring mobilizations. Two years after the massive marches and the national boycott and strike of May Day 2006, the problems facing immigrant workers are far from being resolved. On the contrary, we have entered a new stage of militarized repression and loss of our political and civil liberties.
From the beginning, the immigrant rights protests had many similarities with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Both had a working class base and took the form of a mass struggle for democratic demands and equality. The Civil Rights movement was a magnificent school for the millions of people who participated, and yet in the end, despite certain advances, we still live in a racist and segregated society. There was tremendous potential for the movement to go beyond basic democratic demands and to be transformed into a struggle to fundamentally transform society. However, the ruling class succeeded in derailing it off the streets and into the Democratic Party.
Now, 40 years later, despite important similarities and dangers, there are several factors that makes the immigrant workers’ movement different. For example, in the 1960s, capitalism was undergoing a postwar boom that lasted over 30 years. Because of this, it was able to give some concessions to the working class, although they were still crumbs compared to the massive profits squeezed from the blood, sweat, and exploitation of the U.S. and world working class.
But since 1973, capitalism has not enjoyed a similar rate of growth, so the only way for the capitalists to increase profits is by taking back the concessions given in the past. The bosses have launched a generalized attack on workers’ wages and conditions, carried out massive layoffs, shifted the economy from manufacturing to services, etc. Under these conditions, the demand for amnesty for immigrant workers meets with the vicious resistance of the big corporations who need this cheap, semi-slave labor for those industries they can’t easily offshore to China, India and Latin America.
We can only understand the massive participation of workers and youth in the movement when we take all of this into account. The “Chinese water-torture” of constant attacks led to a rapid and dialectical change in the consciousness of immigrant workers, who rapidly adopted quite advanced demands and methods. For a few weeks, seemingly out of nowhere, a proletarian army emerged that was more or less spontaneously able to put millions of people onto the streets and paralyze certain sectors of production, showing that, despite the country being controlled by a handful of capitalists and their repressive bodies, the working class cannot be stopped when it rises up.
This was a transformative experience, one that showed the masses of immigrant workers our own power and specific weight in society. Millions of “nobodies” saw in practice that we could build an unstoppable force, and proved that we are much clearer in our goals and willingness to fight to the end than the leadership of the movement.
This tremendous demonstration of force caused a panicked reaction among professional politicians, service providers, a sector of religious leaders, and, of course, the employers. The paternalistic idea that immigrants are “hard workers” with “religious and family values” and are “well-domesticated” evaporated into thin air. Every desperate attempt to put the brakes on the movement further discredited the more moderate forces in the leadership. Sectors of the Catholic hierarchy and other churches, the leaders of la Raza, LaCLA, and many in the Latino media dishonestly sowed confusion and terror to prevent May Day from becoming the first truly national general strike in U.S. history.
The tragedy of the reformism, which seeks to keep capitalism more or less as it is, but with this or that reform, is that in times of crisis, there aren’t even crumbs to go around, just more hunger and misery for the working class. The reformists tell the masses: “Work hard, behave yourselves, don’t get in trouble, and leave the politics up to us.” Their aim is to derail the movement into “safe” channels that do not threaten the system.
When the movement was rising, it swept these people to one side. Nonetheless, the lack of worker and youth cadres in the neighborhoods, factories, and schools made it virtually impossible to create and link-up committees of struggle to strengthen and coordinate the movement. This was painfully obvious the day after May Day. Despite the explosive demonstration of force, the leadership was incapable of clarifying and sharpening its demands and methods and taking the movement to the next level.
The search for a unified and national coordination led to bureaucratic and personal divisions among the leaders of the national mobilizations, which came to the forefront at the August 8, 2006 conference in Chicago. The most combative sectors of the movement, who had creatively and energetically organized the Spring mobilizations, were unable to take the debate to the rank-and-file of the movement, and the ruling class was able to regroup and launch a counter-attack.
In the months after the Spring of 2006, the ruling class moved might and main to derail the independent mass movement. For example, they created “We Are America”, a coalition involving sectors of the trade union bureaucracy, corporate-connected non-profit groups, and strategists from the Democratic Party. The aim was to divide and confuse the message of the movement and water-down its demands.
These efforts did not stop a new wave of smaller mobilizations in 2007, nor will it stop mass mobilizations in the future. But without a doubt, the artificial divisions and above all the lack of a serious debate among millions of immigrant workers and their allies about the future of the struggle has diminished our capacity to respond to the new and systematic attacks against our class.
The reformist forces of class-collaboration are still in a difficult position, because it is hard to call for social peace without being able to offer anything concrete in return. They call for a “reform” of the immigration system, even if it is as limited as a new guest-worker program or to give papers to those who have been here for longer than five years. But even these tiny concessions would be difficult for the capitalists to give without damaging their economic interests and political power. Capitalism does not want to give documents, nor be forced to give them, therefore, they have resorted to repression.
While the reformists await the opportune moment to sell-out the movement completely, ICE, the strong arm of the exploiters, has increased its attacks by five, ten, even twenty times more than two years ago. They have launched a campaign of terror with the aim of smashing the confidence of the masses. Nonetheless, as Marx explained, the whip of the counter-revolution often pushes forward the revolution.
In the final analysis, despite the efforts of the reformists and opportunists to derail the movement, despite ICE’s attacks and intimidation and new laws further limiting the already few liberties enjoyed by undocumented workers, there are only two choices: stay in the U.S. or go back to our countries of origin.
The U.S. multi-nationals have so thoroughly destroyed the economies of the home countries that it is almost impossible to return. Those that are forced out of the U.S. find only worse misery than when they first left. Undocumented workers in the U.S. are the only hope for millions of poor families in Latin America. If anything, the worsening economic crisis will unleash a new wave of immigration as most of these countries fall even deeper into poverty. This was the reason for the exponential increase in immigration over the last ten years, an exodus motivated by the economic and social war being waged against the people of Latin America.
Immigrant workers are between a rock and a hard place, or in this case, between militarized repression in the U.S. and economic misery and a bleak future back at home. The only option, therefore, is to struggle.
From the legislative point of view, full and immediate legalization for all is possible. Many legal experts are in favor of new legislation that reflects the new situation and reality of immigration into the U.S. It is also possible from the economic point of view. Immigrant workers and their families not only add their labor to the economy, but are also consumers. Many cities have fallen into economic destitution, with factories, schools and shopping centers shutting down due to immigrants fleeing ICE repression. This is a graphic reminder of the economic role played by immigrant workers. Immigrants provide a steady stream of largely young labor power which is steadily increasing in skill. Immigrants are important contributors to the Social Security system, which is in danger of collapse without a steady stream of younger workers paying into it, as baby boomers retire and live longer than ever. The $360 billion paid into Social Security by undocumented workers is helping to prop up the system.
Therefore, resistance to immediate and unconditional legalization for all does not arise due to its impracticability, but because of the search for maximum profits by U.S. capitalism. The big corporations know that the only way to survive a major recession will be to even further cut wages, conditions, benefits and social services for all workers and the poor. By scapegoating immigrant workers while still exploiting their labor, they can keep wages down while confusing the broader working class as to the real causes of the crisis. By setting workers against each other over scarce jobs and resources, they can drive down the conditions of life of all workers.
Only the united working class can change this situation. Only we can end the double morality of the bourgeois and the artificial division they sow in our factories, neighborhoods and schools, between those with documents and those without. Only by arming ourselves with a program of class independence can we stop those elements of the ruling class who are already preparing the racist thugs that will serve as shock troops against the revolutionary masses.
At root, the struggle for immigrant rights is a class question. In the coming period, the illusion of “national unity” between workers and capitalists will be shattered. When the masses of U.S.- born workers join the struggle against the chains that exploit us all, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, etc., the ruling class will be put on notice.
The main weakness of the immigrant workers’ movement is the lack of a clear class-independent program that can unify all workers regardless of their immigration status. We should fight to nationally coordinate and link up the struggle of immigrant workers around such a program, with a firm orientation to U.S.-born workers and the trade unions. We should work to build mass, united and nationally coordinated actions that can not only win amnesty for immigrant workers, but play a key role in bringing about a fundamental change in U.S. society.
On May 1st, International Workers Day, all workers, with or without documents, should mobilize in a broad united front in defense of our common rights and economic interests.