US Perspectives 2006 – The Immigrant Rights Movement

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In recent months, millions of immigrants and their supporters have hit the streets in the most massive social mobilization in decades. No longer afraid of “la migra” (the INS), and feeling the strength and solidarity of their numbers, the sleeping giant of the immigrants’ rights movement has begun to stir on a grand scale. The relief and joy felt by the participants at finally being able to come out into the open and express all their pent-up frustrations and aspirations is a common feature seen at the beginning of every revolutionary process. This mass movement  has important implications for the coming American Socialist Revolution.

Although these demonstrations seemingly erupted out of nowhere, the social, economic, and political contradictions that set the stage for this have been simmering beneath the surface of American society for decades. For generations, millions of immigrants from around the world, and above all from Latin America, have lived in the shadows of American society, working hard to make a decent living for themselves and their families. Far from being “criminals” or “terrorists”, as the right wing media portrays them, immigrant workers in the U.S. are among the hardest working and longest suffering people on the planet. With their families’ well-being often dependent on the money they can send back to the country of their birth, the last thing they want is trouble.

But trouble came looking for them. Politicians from both big business parties have been playing with the lives of millions of people in a cheap attempt to gain votes in a mid-term election year. They were also hoping to distract the public’s attention from the quagmire in Iraq and dissatisfaction with the economy by once again playing the “national security” card here at home. House of Representatives bill HR4437, sponsored by Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrennner, is a vicious attack on the rights of undocumented workers, and by extension, on the rights of all working people in the United States.

Low or even unpaid wages? Undocumented workers took it. Dangerous slave-like working conditions and exposure to toxic chemicals? Undocumented workers took it. Violence and extortion by the bosses and the police, who know that those without documents can hardly complain? Undocumented workers took it. Racist insults and being treated like second-class citizens? Undocumented workers took it. No political, trade union, or even civil rights? Undocumented workers took it. Deportations for trying to organize a union and the constant fear of raids by the INS? Undocumented workers took it. The sudden and traumatic splitting up of families as a result of deportations? Undocumented workers took it, all in the hopes that their children and their grandchildren’s lives would be better. But as with all things in society and nature, a “tipping point” has been reached where “enough is enough”.

Not surprisingly, some business leaders oppose the Draconian legislation which threatens their pool of cheap labor. Many employers support immigrant workers being in this country because without them, many industries simply could not function. Immigrant workers allow for greater profits to be extracted from all working people by forcing competition between “documented” and “undocumented” workers, thereby driving wages to the bottom in an economy where jobs are increasingly hard to find. A lack of legal protections against low or unpaid wages, unsafe working conditions, and poor housing conditions, makes undocumented workers ripe for super-exploitation and increased profits. By pitting workers against each other, the bosses can divert our attention from the real problem: an economic system that puts profits before people.

Due to its overwhelmingly working class composition, the rank and file of the movement for immigrant rights has a working class outlook. The immigrant community is made up millions of working people doing some of the most difficult and tedious jobs in the country. According to the AFL-CIO, workplace fatalities among foreign-born workers have increased by 46 percent between 1992 and 2002.

An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrant workers live in the U.S., and they form a major backbone of the U.S. economy: as agricultural workers doing back-breaking work in the fields; as maids and janitors in hotels and office complexes; as meat packers, in the factories, and on construction sites; as cooks and dishwashers in restaurants.

Due to the economic crisis in the countries of their birth, millions have been forced to look for a better life on this side of the Rio Grande. This is the direct result of U.S. foreign policy and the neo-liberal economic policies of the World Bank, the IMF, and “free trade” agreements like NAFTA. Many have also escaped political persecution, and have come to rebuild their lives in the “belly of the beast” – the country whose policies forced them to flee their homes in the first place. Having fled economic hardship and persecution at home, they now face the same situation here in the “land of milk and honey”.

It’s not surprising therefore that millions have come to the conclusion that there is nowhere left to run – that if they have to make a stand for their rights, they may as well make it here. It is an ironic and dialectical twist of history that there are some 600,000 El Salvadorean expatriates in the Washington, DC area alone – many of whom fled the U.S.-sponsored dirty wars of the 1980s and 90s. Now they are bringing their organizing skills and burning desire for social justice to the struggle for immigrant rights – right in the shadow of the White House and the Pentagon.

Many trade unionists and even some union locals have been extremely supportive of the immigrant rights movement, especially in the service industry. Many rank and file members fully supported the May 1 work stoppage / boycott and have come out strongly against some of the main proposals being debated in Congress, in particular the two-tiered system which would relegate so-called “guest workers” to permanent second-class status.

The unity of all working people in defending immigrant workers is of fundamental importance. The courage of undocumented workers who face deportation just for standing up for their basic rights is an inspiration for all working people. The bosses can clearly see the danger of workers without documents uniting with the rest of their working class brothers and sisters, and they seek to divide us. There are no more crumbs to be had these days; in fact the bosses are aggressively forcing even more givebacks and concessions from the workers. With immigrant workers at the forefront, the labor movement as a whole can finally turn back the bosses’ offensive that has had us on the defensive for nearly three decades.

Latinos are now the largest minority group in the country, and millions are among the most oppressed workers in American society. For years we have explained that due to their conditions of life, these workers were destined to play a leading role in the working class’ struggle to change society. This is now becoming a reality. There are hundreds of thousands who have never participated in any political activity whatsoever who have now participated in a mass demonstrations, work stoppages and boycotts. This is how rapidly consciousness can change based on changing conditions.

At the present time there is a general feeling of “immigrant unity” – regardless of class. For example, many Latino businesspeople are supportive of the movement at the moment and have agreed to give their workers the day off on May Day. However, this “springtime” of the movement won’t last forever. It will eventually split along class lines, as the business owners’ interests and those of their workers collide. Immigrant business owners who now have citizenship are some of the worst exploiters of their communities, as they know the newer arrivals have no option but to take the wages and conditions they are offered. They may be willing to give their workers one day off today, but if the movement were to move in the direction of an indefinite strike / boycott, they would do everything in their power to stop it.

The only allies undocumented workers can depend on are other workers. To really succeed, undocumented workers must unite with all other working people, and link up the fight for immigrant rights with all the other social movements and struggles that are developing nationally, including the anti-war movement and above all the labor movement. In workers’ unity there is strength!

The development of the movement has in many ways been a microcosm of a full-fledged revolution, with important implications for the future and important lessons that working people and revolutionaries must absorb. All the ebbs and flows of a revolutionary process, the advances and retreats, the optimism and confidence followed by moods of pessimism and defeatism have swirled through the movement at various stages. The rapid rise in consciousness has led to an extremely dynamic and fluid situation.

In many cities, the energy of the masses has swept aside the traditional leadership of the immigrant rights movement, who have become accustomed to decades of slow work and fighting uphill battles for a few minor reforms, unable to cope with the radically changed situation. Important as they may have been in keeping things together in the past, they have in many cases become an obstacle to the advance of the movement. More and more, it is the rank and file that is setting the tone of the movement, and throwing up new leaders and spokespersons.

The spontaneity and ad hoc organizing of the movement so far has been impressive, far exceeding all the organizers’ wildest predictions. Those active in the movement will emerge from this process with a wealth of experience and insight, and it is clear that many of the best leaders of the coming American Socialist Revolution will emerge from the rank and file of this movement. But methodical organization and a trusted, tested, and accountable leadership that has deep roots in the working class cannot be thrown up in the heat of struggle.

The need for a revolutionary party that fights shoulder to shoulder with the rest of our class is vital. This in no way minimizes the incredible élan, creativity, and fighting spirit of the working class, but we know all too well that revolutionary movements and opportunities don’t come around every day. We must painstakingly build a far-sighted and experienced revolutionary leadership that is organically connected to the struggles of our class. Otherwise, all the enthusiasm and energy of these movements can dissipate without achieving what must be our ultimate goal: ending this exploitative system once and for all.

A revolutionary wave is sweeping Latin America. The effect this will have here in the U.S. will be far-reaching, especially after the recent show of strength by Latino workers. Along with the resurgence in the Labor Movement, the mass immigration rights demonstrations of the recent period are yet another indication of what is to come as other sectors of U.S. society join their undocumented brothers and sisters in a united struggle against the decaying profit system. From the tip of Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, working people united are going to change this continent and end the misery of capitalist exploitation once and for all.

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