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Bush's Immigration Trap

by Workers Vanguard Tuesday, Mar. 28, 2006 at 8:43 PM

Labor: Organize the Unorganized!

George Bush has begun his run for re-election in earnest. Much of what he offers is a continuation of ongoing themes. The Iraq war was great, we are told, although just maybe the "Weapons of Mass Destruction" were nonexistent, with the intelligence "community" currently being set up as potential fall guys for bad information. Similarly, we are told that the current occupation is going swimmingly, and Iraq is on the verge of becoming a "great democracy," notwithstanding the continuing flow of body bags back to the States, the countless dead Iraqis and the murderous enmities —manipulated and inflamed by the U.S. occupiers—between the Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish populations of Iraq. As for the U.S. economy, Bush declares that it's really spectacular, with the jobs to come when the rich are assured that their tax cuts will be permanent. To the reactionary Christian fundamentalists, Bush has offered a campaign against homosexual marriage.

To this reactionary and fetid potpourri Bush has added a proposal to change the laws with regard to the estimated 8 to 14 million undocumented immigrants, mainly from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, who currently reside here. They eke out a wretched underground existence—picking fruits and vegetables on farms, cleaning bed pans in nursing homes, laundering sheets and towels in hotels, washing dishes in restaurants—and all the while living in constant fear of deportation.

Bush's proposal would in no way improve their conditions or give them greater security. If anything, the opposite would be the case. Bush made it perfectly clear that he intends to more effectively organize and enforce the exploitation of immigrant workers, not to extend them democratic rights. Undocumented immigrants who register as "guest workers" would be given no special right to permanent residency, eventually leading to citizenship. "America's a welcoming country," Bush pontificated, "but citizenship must not be the automatic reward for violating the laws" (New York Times, 8 January).

The bill would give an employer near-total control over those undocumented workers who register for legal status. Such workers would have little defense against slave-labor working conditions imposed by their "co-sponsor" employers. Any attempt to change employers could result in deportation. Moreover, by binding the worker to an employer, the Feds will be able to keep tabs on immigrants who today might evade their scrutiny. As one undocumented worker put it: "The job I hold is one that no Americans, black or white, want to do. But this program makes us all scared. It seems to put the power in the hands of the employer, not the employee. You might be better off taking your chances as an undocumented worker" (Newsday, 8 January).

The liberal academic economist Robert Kuttner pointed out:

"Employers already enjoy great leverage over low-wage workers—witness how Wal-Mart has no trouble attracting workers despite dismal pay—but this plan would make immigrant workers something close to indentured servants. Unlike workers with green cards, they would lose their guest-worker status if they lost their jobs. And Bush's plan denies these guest workers the ability to apply for permanent resident status, much less citizenship."

—BusinessWeek, 9 February

No doubt Bush and his advisers figured that any proposed "reform" of immigration laws would lead to further inroads into the Latino vote come next November. But Mexican Americans and other Latinos, many of whom have relatives among undocumented immigrants, easily see through the repressive and reactionary nature of Bush's measure. While Bush's proposal has been welcomed by many capitalists, especially in California agribusiness, every major Mexican American organization has voiced opposition to it. "They're asking people to sign up for a program that is more likely to ensure their departure than ensure their permanent residency," was the immediate response of Cecilia Muñoz, a vice president of the National Council of La Raza (New York Times, 7 January).

Meanwhile, Bush's immigration plan has been welcomed by Mexican president Vicente Fox. Upon taking office, Bush promised Fox some substantial immigration reform. This was shelved by the September 11 attacks and the subsequent "war on terror." The current Bush plan, however—Fox's enthusiasm notwithstanding—has been received with widespread disgust and anger in Mexico.

Over the past few decades, large-scale immigration—undocumented as well as legally sanctioned—has been used by the capitalists to increase the rate of exploitation of labor in the U.S. Currently, over 25 percent of those hired into new jobs are foreign-born, who now make up over 12 percent of the total workforce. But when the economic and/or political needs and interests of the American ruling class change in this regard, the spigot of immigration can be slowed to a trickle and substantially reversed.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal, state and local governments (especially in California) effected, by one means or another, the repatriation of almost half a million Mexican immigrants, some of whom were naturalized U.S. citizens. With unemployment skyrocketing, displaced farmers and workers from the Midwest and South filled the positions of the deported Mexican workers in the fields.

With the labor shortages during World War II accompanied by the internment in concentration camps of Japanese Americans, many of whom worked in agriculture, liberal Democratic president Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated the bracero program. This program, which lasted for two decades, placed millions of Mexican farm workers under conditions of virtual bondage to their American agribusiness employers. Part of their wages was typically withheld, to be supposedly paid when they returned to Mexico. Braceros from the 1950s and '60s are still suing the U.S. and Mexican governments for wages that they never got. It is little wonder that Latino rights activists have dubbed Bush's current immigration plan the "Wal-Mart Bracero Program."

In the mid-1950s, however, the Eisenhower administration launched a military-style campaign, Operation Wetback, commanded by a retired army general, in which 1.3 million Mexican men, women and children were rounded up and deported. With Bill Clinton's signing of the "Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act" and the "Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act" in 1996, by 2000 the number of immigrants dying as they tried to cross the southern U.S. border had more than quadrupled.

We fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants; all those who arrive here, by whatever means, should have the full rights available to all Americans. Thrown together in large-scale industry, workers have the power not just to redress the depredations of exploitation and improve their lot through class struggle but also, as an organized social force, to lead the struggles against all oppression and injustice and overturn capitalist oppression and exploitation through social revolution.

Working-Class Unity and the Struggle for Immigrant Rights

Throughout American history, this country's rulers have repeatedly used ethnic and racial chauvinism, including anti-immigrant demagogy, to intensify domestic repression and to maintain their dominance. More importantly, with the growth of industry, the bosses have used such campaigns to set worker against worker, thus vitiating united labor struggle. This is particularly expressed in the racial oppression of black people, the bedrock of American capitalism, which serves to keep the proletariat divided and politically backward.

At the same time, working-class struggle is systematically sabotaged from within by the labor bureaucracy, dubbed a century ago "the labor lieutenants of capital" by the socialist leader Daniel De Leon. These types constitute the very top stratum of the aristocracy of labor, that small portion of the working class that feeds off the crumbs from the sumptuous tables of their imperialist bosses.

In particular, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and his generation of union tops are heirs to those recruited by America's rulers after the end of World War II to drive the reds, who had played a key role in building mass industrial unions in the 1930s, out of the labor movement. If not inspired currently by the frothing anti-Communism of the McCarthyite witchhunt, they are no less committed than their predecessors to the American imperialist order and to labor-management collaboration schemes. Politically, this unholy marriage of counterposed class interests is maintained by their integration into and subservience to the Democratic Party, the supposed left wing of the U.S. ruling class.

The Democratic Clinton administration greatly intensified the militarization of the U.S./Mexico border. Clinton's 1996 immigration reform act called for deporting even longtime permanent residents ("green card" holders) for trivial offenses committed years before. Since the rise of the right-wing Bush administration, the Democrats have if anything baited Bush for being insufficiently zealous in prosecuting the "war on terror," which is in the first place aimed at immigrants, particularly those from predominantly Muslim and Arab countries. In fact, most of the immigrants currently detained by the Bush regime are being held not under the draconian USA-Patriot Act, but rather under Clinton's 1996 "anti-terrorism" act.

The labor tops attempt to appeal to the bosses through their advocacy of "America-first" protectionism. This has been, for example, the main approach of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy in its opposition to the NAFTA and FTAA free-trade agreements. The union tops argue that by "protecting" American industry from foreign competition, American workers will benefit and the outflow of jobs from the U.S. will be stopped. This is false; the capitalists will do what they need to do in order to increase their profit margins—either by intensifying exploitation of workers at home or by moving jobs to countries where labor costs are cheaper. Protectionism is deadly poison for workers in the U.S. because it spreads the illusion that their enemies are the workers of other countries and not the American capitalist class at home. In opposition to protectionism, the labor movement must fight for international labor solidarity, linking the economic and other struggles of workers in the U.S. with those of workers around the world, particularly in such Third World countries as Mexico. This is how the labor movement must struggle against NAFTA and the FTAA.

As a corollary of their sellouts and as a component of their chauvinist protectionism, the union tops have normally been in the forefront of anti-immigrant campaigns, hoping to direct anger in their ranks away from their betrayals. However, the current size of the immigrant labor force in the U.S. has compelled the union tops to tone down their anti-immigrant fulminations and to offer some union support to immigrants. Thus, in February 2000, the AFL-CIO issued a call for amnesty for six million undocumented workers, while not failing to simultaneously accompany this gesture with a call for criminal penalties against employers who recruit "illegals" and thundering against immigrant worker programs that "discriminate against U.S. workers."

The many millions from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America who have crossed the border to work in this country in recent years bring with them traditions of labor and union militancy. Witness the situation in Los Angeles, which in just over a decade has been transformed from an open-shop employer's paradise to the center of labor strikes and class conflict in the U.S.

Although some union organization has gone on among immigrants, the union bureaucracy is not disposed to greatly expand these minimal efforts. Last year, the AFL-CIO bureaucracy organized the "Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride," mobilizing thousands of immigrant workers and their allies in order to pressure Congress to provide an undefined "road to citizenship." But the whole thrust of the rallies held across the country was to boost the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party. What is necessary is that the labor movement fight to organize immigrant workers into the unions, as part of the struggle for full citizenship rights for all immigrants.

The refusal of the labor tops to take up the fight for immigrant rights has been put in sharp relief during the four-month-long grocery workers strike against Safeway and others in Southern California, where the tops of the United Food and Commercial Workers have resisted pleas from their ranks for an organizing drive at Wal-Mart, where a large component of the workforce is immigrant. The unionization of Wal-Mart, the largest private employer in this country, would be a giant step forward for the labor movement and could ignite the struggle for union rights in all sectors of the working class.

The racist imperialist rulers of this country have promoted prejudice among workers, and the national chauvinism of the union bureaucracy serves to magnify such bigotry. Black people have been less than equal, indeed, considered less than human, for over 350 years in the U.S. From the days of slavery, through the years of Jim Crow and up to the present, anti-black racism has underpinned the whole structure of American capitalism. As waves of immigrants gradually assimilated into mainstream American society, black people, who had been in the Americas as long as anyone else with Old World antecedents, remained forcibly segregated. At the same time, they have long been a strategic part of the working class. The fight for the emancipation of labor through a socialist revolution in this country is impossible unless the working class as a whole actively takes up a fight for the full integration of black people into an egalitarian socialist society.

As victims of racist oppression concentrated at the bottom of American society, blacks are that section of the American populace least supportive of flag-waving patriotism and imperialist militarism. Thus, opposition to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was substantially greater among blacks than among whites or, for that matter, than among Latinos. But while many immigrants adopt the anti-black sentiments that are prevalent in racist American society, many black people are not immune to anti-immigrant right-wing demagogy.

Much of the black population views Latino immigrants in particular as competing with them at the low end of the job market. For example, in California in 1994, the notorious Proposition 187, which denied health care, education and social services to undocumented immigrants, passed with about 50 percent support from black voters. At the same time, black, Latino and white workers stand shoulder to shoulder during strikes, battling scabs and the scab-herding cops. And black working people are generally sympathetic to labor struggles involving mainly Latino workers, including immigrants. The social organization of labor and the impulse toward working-class unity in struggle are obstacles to the ruling class' attempts to manipulate and inflame national, racial and ethnic divisions.

It is we communists who are the most consistent champions of working-class unity in struggle against the capitalists and their state. Thus in February 2002, the Partisan Defense Committee and Bay Area Labor Black League for Social Defense organized a labor-centered, united-front protest in Oakland, California against the USA-Patriot Act and the Maritime Security Act, which calls for "background checks" under which waterfront workers can be fired for any conviction in the past 10 years on any of 20 felony offenses. Called against the witchhunt of immigrants in the name of the "war on terror," the mobilization linked the struggles for labor, black and immigrant rights. As the Spartacist League speaker at the demonstration declared:

"In fighting every injustice and every oppression, we in the Spartacist League have the aim of making the working class as a whole conscious of its historic tasks: bringing down this whole system of greed, exploitation and war that is capitalism. It's necessary to fight, and in the process forge a party of professional revolutionaries that acts as a tribune of the people—addressing questions like the oppression of women, the right to abortion; a party that fights against anti-gay bigotry; a party that recognizes the centrality of the fight against black oppression in the fight for socialist revolution."

Immigration and the Capitalist Nation-State

In opposition to our proletarian internationalist outlook and program, there are self-described "revolutionary" groups in this country who have adapted to a reactionary nationalist outlook. Such an adaptation is propelled in varying ways by their evaluation of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the first and only successful proletarian revolution to date. Representative of one path is the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP). This grouplet is in the historical tradition of those who determined, conjointly with the Cold War mobilization against the USSR by their imperialist masters, that Stalin's rise to bureaucratic dominance made the Soviet Union reactionary in character and thus not deserving of defense against the imperialists. The scope of the betrayal contained in that position can be measured by the social holocaust that has followed the overturns of proletarian rule, however distorted by the bureaucratic overlords, in the USSR and in East Europe between 1989 and 1992. Others who have made such an adaptation are to be found among the ranks of today's anarchists, who share the imperialist analysis that the destruction of those workers states proves that proletarian revolution has no progressive content and thus that a different course (one not coherently described) must be charted.

With respect to the immigrant question, many anarchists call to "open the borders." This was a longtime slogan of the LRP, though they dropped it in 2002, pointing out, "‘Open the Borders' is an ambiguous slogan at best and conveys a utopian confusion at its worst.... The idea that any state in the world—especially an imperialist state today—would even begin to tolerate open borders is an impossible fantasy" (Proletarian Revolution, Spring 2002). The LRP now calls to "End all Restrictions on Immigrants and Refugees." Of course, Marxists oppose reactionary restrictions on immigration by the imperialist states. As Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin explained in a 1915 letter:

"In our struggle for true internationalism & against ‘jingo-socialism' we always quote in our press the example of the opportunist leaders of the S.P. [Socialist Party] in America, who are in favor of restrictions of the immigration of Chinese and Japanese workers.... We think that one can not be internationalist & be at the same time in favor of such restrictions."

However, the LRP's call to "end all restrictions on immigrants" is nothing but the "open borders" slogan refashioned, as it promotes the illusion that the capitalist-imperialist state will end such restrictions—the very "impossible fantasy" the LRP supposedly rejected. In fact, the LRP raises its slogan in conscious counterposition to our call for full citizenship rights, castigating the latter because it applies to immigrants "only when they get here." In reality, the call for full citizenship rights for immigrants is a central and longstanding tenet of Leninism. As Lenin explained in his 1916 document, "Tasks of the Left Zimmerwaldists in the Swiss Social-Democratic Party":

"In order that acceptance of internationalism by the Swiss Social-Democrats shall not remain an empty and non-committal phrase—to which the adherents of the ‘Centre,' and Social-Democrats of the epoch of the Second International generally, always confine themselves—it is necessary, first, consistently and unswervingly to fight for organisational rapprochement between foreign and Swiss workers bringing them together in the same unions, and for their complete equality (civic and political). The specific feature of imperialism in Switzerland is precisely the increasing exploitation of disfranchised foreign workers by the Swiss bourgeoisie, which bases its hopes on estrangement between these two categories of workers."

For the LRP—whether it's "open the borders" or "end all restrictions on immigrants and refugees"—their calls amount to a demand that all should be able to go where they desire. This seeming heaven on earth has no small measure of reactionary and/or inhuman consequences on the real planet Earth.

Should the American Indians have opened their terrain to the invading European powers? Should the Aztec leader Montezuma have welcomed the Spanish conquistadors with open arms? Should Jews have been allowed unlimited immigration in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust into the Palestinian protectorate of British imperialism (a "right" opposed by Palestinian Trotskyists before the formation of the state of Israel)? Or should Mexican regimes in the early 19th century have allowed unfettered American immigration into what is now the American Southwest and California? Or should the East German deformed workers state have opened its borders to counterrevolutionary West German imperialism? (The LRP cheered the counterrevolutionary annexation of East Germany, labeling the workers state "state capitalist.")

In each case, deferring to the "rights" of the intruders resulted in historic injustices on a large scale. As Friedrich Engels observed, civilization has been constructed on a mountain of skulls.

Insofar as such leftists would argue that demands to "open the borders" and other such calls are only to be made on the major capitalist imperialist states, the only powers in the world capable of really defending their borders, it has a fatuously utopian quality. In fact, the only people upon whom no immigration restrictions are imposed by the U.S. are Puerto Ricans. And that is because Puerto Rico is a colony of U.S. imperialism. It is largely for fear of losing such privileges that many Puerto Ricans are today reticent about independence.

Since the turn of the 20th century, the main character of human migration has been the need for labor (or the lack of need for labor). In turn, imperialist countries are the only states that have the power to control the mass migrations of peoples. The imperialists will yield to the demands of the LRP and others only when they abjure their "right" to exploit workers, to oppress other nations and to engage in wars of conquest. This will happen just after pigs begin to lay eggs and fly.

The ultimate logic of such a stance is that social questions are to be resolved by the mass migrations of peoples, that is, by an ethnic rat race, rather than through workers taking power. By the LRP's logic, Lenin and the Bolsheviks made a mistake. Instead of fighting for workers revolution, they should have told the hideously oppressed peoples of the tsarist empire to pack up and move elsewhere. Fortunately for the workers (and unfortunately for the Russian tsar and bourgeoisie), the Bolsheviks organized the many captive peoples within the Russian empire as participants in the working-class revolution that overturned the Russian imperialist order.

The dissolution of the prerogatives of the nation-state can only occur in the aftermath of international proletarian revolutions that will unleash economic and social progress from the strictures of the capitalist profit system. The reorganization of society along socialist lines will provide the basis for a tremendous expansion of production minus, to the extent possible, obligatory labor, and thus end human want and establish for the first time the substratum for human freedom, material plenty. Then mankind will indulge in whatever pursuits and activities its individual components desire and, freed from the circumstances of economic scarcity, realize its true potential. Only then will all borders and states disappear.

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