Some thoughts on the logical conclusion for allies of undocumented migrants
Imagine if you will, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill of your dreams passing this week. Legalization for millions of migrants, and no guest worker program, no biometrics involved in employment; what could be better? A lot could be better.
Even if this very unlikely scenario of amazing reform were to happen, there would still be the forces that have led to so many people entering the U.S. in the first place. Therefore, since the government is not going to allow all migrants in legally, there will still be “illegal” people. Of course, this would be the case unless the reform bill is not quite as perfect as we thought and also includes more border security, aka militarization, to prevent further migration. And even if so, we know that many will find means to enter anyway, and as a result many of them will not survive their crossing.
People are at risk for harm and even death with the continued militarization of the border. The increased security in areas like Tijuana/San Diego and Juarez/El Paso has led people to cross the border in areas with more dangerous terrain and conditions, and this has led to more deaths from crossing. This is not to mention the abuses they face if they are caught.
Migration is a natural thing, while the necessity of obstructions such as border walls are rationalized by those in power to deal with threats to security against a fortress built on the backs of other people. This fortress is the US, taken and secured by force, built up by slavery and attacks on liberation movements throughout its history. The border is therefore illegitimate and we need not and must not regard migrants as helpless victims to justify their crossing. Shouldn’t’ everyone have the right to freedom of movement?
Within the immigrants’ rights movement, it is forgotten or ignored that other people are living along the border. If the current militarization were to continue or get worse, many people, such as the Tohono O’odham and the Lipan Apache would still be negatively affected. The border dissects O’odham lands and has increasingly impeded free movement across the line drawn without the consultation or consideration of the people living there. Since many do not have birth records, they have no means of proving their right of re-entry when coming back from the land that Mexico still claims. As of recently, passports are required, which further prevent people from visiting family and attending ceremonies if they would have to cross the border to do so. The Border Patrol and National Guard have harassed and physically abused O’odham and other people along the border, and the check points placed on the reservation have led to increases in such incidents. The construction of the border wall has led to desecration of sacred sites, harmed the environment, disrespected the indigenous people’s relationship to the land, and divided people further. We should have little faith that the security and technology companies that have gotten contracts with the US government during the war would give up their contracts for militarization of the border- and they have lots of money with which to sway the government.
The fight for justice for undocumented migrants is often rather vague. Were we okay with the conditions they faced before sheriffs started making more arrests and ICE started doing their massive raids? After all, the raids revealed the reality of unsafe working conditions, child labor, not to mention anti-union activities which culminated with the raids. Recognizing that raids are not the only problem, what does justice for migrant workers look like if it does not address the economic interests in maintaining a system that allows these things to happen in the first place?
Since businesses often rely on being able to exploit migrants as a permanent underclass produced by criminalization, what happens if there is no criminalization based on migration status (or very little, since there will still be some “illegal” people)? Would migrant workers still be cleaning the toilets in office buildings like so many insist the rich should be appreciative of? What I’m getting at here is, if reform legalized most or all of the migrants in the country, would the migrants’ wages and conditions improve since they are not subject to the lack of stability caused by criminalization? Or would precarity be created (or does it already manifest) in some other way? Why would businesses/capitalists allow for a more equal work force? Which leads us to ask if there will still be exploited workers, and the answer is yes, as we know that plenty of “legal” people are currently exploited. I would argue that business just wouldn’t allow something like mass legalization to occur in the first place- at least not without other benefits to the businesses themselves (as an example, over 2 million undocumented migrants were granted amnesty in 1986, but there were also stipulations that while employment of “illegal” migrants was outlawed, businesses didn’t have to verify the documents that they received and they could also participate in temporary worker programs. There was also an increase in the use of sub-contractors). But in the unlikely scenario, we must imagine that something else will be used to divide people so as to continue exploiting labor through low wages, long hours, the lack of safety protections, and that may take the shape of new ways to criminalize people, or encouraging further racial division, or something to that effect.
Subcomandante Marcos, in the Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona of 2005 writes,
Capitalism means that there are a few who have great wealth, but they did not win a prize, or find a treasure, or inherit it from a parent. They obtained that wealth, rather, by exploiting the work of the many. So capitalism is based on the exploitation of the workers, which means they exploit the workers and take out all the profits they can. This is done unjustly, because they do not pay the worker what his work is worth. Instead they give him a salary that barely allows him to eat a little and to rest for a bit, and the next day he goes back to work in exploitation, whether in the countryside or in the city.
And capitalism also makes its wealth from plunder, or theft, because they take what they want from others, land, for example, and natural resources. So capitalism is a system where the robbers are free and they are admired and used as examples.
And, in addition to exploiting and plundering, capitalism represses because it imprisons and kills those who rebel against injustice.
Then he also writes, “Then, in neoliberal globalization, the great capitalists who live in the countries which are powerful, like the United States, want the entire world to be made into a big business where merchandise is produced like a great market. A world market for buying and selling the entire world and for hiding all the exploitation from the world. Then the global capitalists insert themselves everywhere, in all the countries, in order to do their big business, their great exploitation.”
We often embrace the Mexicans and others who have already entered our borders, but we might feel too overwhelmed to try to consider solutions to the problems that lead to people leaving their homes and families to enter an unwelcoming nation. Just to give one example of the situation in Mexico, in order to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which the U.S.-based neoliberal capitalists insisted would be beneficial to Mexico (it was to certain elites in Mexico), Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution was changed, which allowed the land to be sold off to the highest bidder, causing loss of land, work, and subsistence for millions of Mexicans.
Could we expect any reform to address the ways in which Mexico, Central, and South American countries have been negatively affected by the U.S.? Is it the free market run amok, through the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, NAFTA, CAFTA, etc., removing tariffs, lowering wages, privatizing such things as water, lifting environmental protections, and getting and keeping communities in debt, that should be regulated by government? No, it is in fact the government, of the U.S. and each local government in many cases, which allows and perpetuates these things by impeding resistance to these injustices, through assassinations, imprisonment, military attacks, and the destruction of community autonomy and subsistence. Can or would each government just cut off the ability of the neo-liberal globalization efforts, or are they deeply and corruptly involved?
You know how so many anti-immigrant movement people say that Mexicans should go back to Mexico and fight to better their country there, instead of just escaping it? Well, la lucha has been going on constantly in one form or another. But despite the seeming support of the nativists, if there were some major uprising in Mexico that seriously threatened the stability of the State, do you think the US government wouldn’t step in to help prevent it?
We must also consider the massive force of the drug trade. Because drugs are illegal, drug smugglers have protected their lucrative trade with the use of arms and violence, thereby becoming more powerful and more harmful. Members of government in both Mexico and the US (and other countries) are corrupt and participate in the drug trade, making it all the more powerful. Meanwhile, many drug smugglers bring harm to the communities along the border, such as on the Tohono O’odham reservation, and are also involved in human smuggling and human trafficking, and provide further justification for the militarization of the border which obviously is not meant to help the people on the reservation. The drug trade brings in a massive amount of money to those involved, who would otherwise likely be poor, and therefore will continue as long as it is illegal and profitable. Were drugs legal or were the US population less susceptible to the allure of drugs, the drug trade wouldn’t cause so many of these problems. But even more so, if there wasn’t so much poverty and alienation in this world that causes people to be so enticed by a trade that damages our fellow humans, then drug abuse and the drug trade would be quite isolated if in existence at all.
Respect for the Law
Some supposed advocates for immigrants’ rights tend to fall over themselves making it known that they don’t disrespect the law. As the reasoning goes, if we advocate law-breaking, it will negatively affect our reputation, especially in the eyes of those who promote the rule of law. This reputation-saving is especially important to those who want to gain political power or maintain a relationship with the government within the non-profit industrial complex (which tends to manage and control dissent). In addition, some may even be in favor of immigration law because they don’t want to look at solutions that address the bigger picture. Meanwhile, if we choose not to oppose the laws that criminalize migrants, then those laws will always exist.
The rule of law is a way of unquestioningly using the law as a way of advancing the agenda of those in power. The law has historically and presently been used to give privileges to one group and keep them from another. Take for example the laws that historically kept black people, Mexicans, indigenous people, and women from owning lands, and allowed military, police, militias, or posses to force them from that land.
Mainly since Obama was elected, activists have looked to the federal government to bring reform and to crack down on local law enforcement. Indeed, ICE raids decreased dramatically. Yet, when we look to the federal government to protect us (or others) from the local government (or anyone), we are confined to the law. If detaining migrants is legal, but racial profiling is illegal, then we document the racial profiling and hand over the videos to the feds, hoping something will come of it. The problem is that much of the injustices against migrants are perfectly legal.
Law enforcement has been used to enforce the color line. We can see this with their origins in the slave patrols, the relationship between the klan and the police, to, for example, the death of Fred Hampton forty years ago, other efforts against groups that empower their communities, as well as the drug war, racial profiling, and now the anti-immigrant efforts. As I state in my essay No Borders or Prison Walls, “The war against “illegal” immigration is just one part of institutional racism, except this is an example that makes it all the more clear that crimes have been made out of the actions of people because of who they are. It is clear that the law has been used purposefully to render people powerless and exploitable.”
Criminalization of people is a primary weapon of institutional racism. If we were to take away one of the means of putting people in jails and detention centers, that being the fact that so many people are “illegal”, it would make a dent in the system. But undoubtedly, other ways of criminalizing people would be conjured up, just as in the case of the abolition of slavery when black men were charged with vagrancy and other such crimes so they could be imprisoned and their labor compelled. As it is right now, the Department of Homeland Security has been making the distinction of “criminal aliens” while the criterion of what crimes constitute a “criminal alien” are unspecified. Sure, murder would be obvious, but failure to pay a fine? Time will tell. Aside from that, legalization is not likely to stop racism, but would provide more fuel to the Tea Baggers and Minutemen-types to promote more hate and discrimination.
One problem with appealing to the government, such as asking for reform, is that to do so would require not being a threat. But any real just solution to the “immigration problem”, inevitably involving the dismantling of NAFTA and other neoliberal projects, as well as a serious change in social/political structure, is and always will be a threat to the government.
Another problem is that the government has an interest in appearing to be able and willing to deliver justice. But overall it is not in its interest to truly liberate the people from injustice and in fact its existence is actually antithetical to such an action. It would like to have people ask instead of demand changes, however, and would like us to think of it as a benevolent force in such cases when it’s actually worth their time to make reforms that benefit the people. Therefore, if we ask and they give, they are the heroes. If we demand and they give, they are still the heroes although we still have some sense of having played a part. While we may want to improve conditions for people now, reform often does nothing but function as a moderating force. In Direct Action, Voltairine De Cleyre states,
The main evil is that it destroys initiative, quenches the individual rebellious spirit, teaches people to rely on someone else to do for them what they should do for themselves; finally renders organic the anomalous idea that by massing supineness together until a majority is acquired, then through the peculiar magic of that majority, this supineness is to be transformed into energy. That is, people who have lost the habit of striking for themselves as individuals, who have submitted to every injustice while waiting for the majority to grow, are going to become metamorphosed into human high-explosives by a mere process of packing!
The government is not a just one. We cannot expect a government that has been built on racism and continues to practice it in various ways (much higher rates of incarceration of people of color than whites, lack of indigenous rights, wars, just to name some examples) to be a force against white supremacy. The operator of immigration detention centers (or the ones who outsource private detention facilities), the performer of raids, is not the one who’s going to save us from the similar actions of local law enforcement like Sheriff Arpaio. He is doing their work for them. He's just doing it in an extra "look how demeaning I can be to these people" way. If the federal government does anything about it, it will only be to legitimize and continue its own actions and those of other jurisdictions.
What’s the solution?
Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them. -Assata Shakur, Assata, 1987
So we must ask, what solutions can we come up with for these problems?
When looking for solutions, we must not look at migrants as one-dimensional people. They have concerns beyond their migration status or how they are perceived based on their skin color or language. There are various struggles such as those for gender equality, sexual orientation, maintaining indigenous culture, etc. Therefore we should not look at solutions only to the “migration problem”, but to the bigger picture problems of domination and coercion. We must also look beyond just the problems border security causes for the O’odham or the Lipan Apache, and we must look at the ways in which many issues of forced relocation and obstructions to movement are in place, to see that autonomy for all indigenous people is essential, and the effects of colonialism reversed where they can be. We need to somehow solve the problems, on this side of the globe at least, that cause forced migration, so we can keep people from being subject to the whims of their governments and capitalists, so that poverty and lack of access to subsistence, particularly where they have been created by outside forces, can be addressed. We need to oppose the environmental degradation, and the hierarchy that exists. Needless to say, the “immigration problem” is but one of the many more and bigger issues that necessitate revolution as a solution.
It is necessary to choose once and for all between two things: either to be free, completely free, refusing all authority, or to be enslaved perpetuating the power of man over man. The boss or government is necessary only under a system of economic inequality.
In Mexico, we have had and have hundreds of proofs that humankind does not need bosses or government if not in the case of economic inequality. In the rural villages and communities, the people have not felt it necessary to have a government… They needed it for nothing and they could live in that way for hundreds of years, until the natural riches were snatched away for the benefit of the neighboring landholders. They did not eat one another, the way that those who have only known the capitalist system feared would happen; a system in which each man has to compete with everyone else to put a piece of bread in his mouth; the strong do not exert tyranny over the weak, as happens under a capitalist civilization, in which the most idle, greedy, and clever rule over the honest and good. All were brothers in these communities; they all helped out, and sensing equality, the way it really was, they did not need authorities to watch over the interests of those who had them, fearing possible attacks of those who did not have.
-Ricardo Flores Magon, “Sin Jefes,” Regeneración, March 21, 1914
Freedom cannot be given by the government. Yet, although we may have varying ideas of what freedom means, isn’t that what the people really want? Isn’t fear of retaliation the only thing that would keep them from fighting for freedom? Is it not, then, the responsibility of those who benefit the most from this system to fight for freedom? Still, revolution is not to be led by folks like myself, but those who have the most to gain. We must look to the people who are most effected by the issues at hand- not necessarily the leaders who claim to speak for them. But if we are silent or instead, putting all our effort into reforms that stifle liberatory movements by giving out crumbs, then migrants might still think we want to see them waving american flags. The idea of revolution is not foreign to them. I wouldn’t claim to speak for them, but without an emphasis, by whites/citizens, on liberation, and efforts that would make it harder for the opposition to crush it, we are settling for the status quo or slightly better. If we are not calling for liberation, then the relatively measly request of legalization for all migrants currently in the US is the extreme position in the current debate, and true freedom is not even on the table. The answer to the question, “What is the solution?” is not an easy answer. But if we settle for what seems pragmatic, what would upset the least number of privileged people, we are not doing anyone any good. In many cases, we are responsible for the conditions that others face, depending on our level of participation or complacency, and we must find our humble place in this struggle.
We anarchists do not want to emancipate the people; we want the people to emancipate themselves. -Errico Malatesta, l'Agitazione, 18 June 1897
Ideas: Solidarity with local indigenous and migrant communities; Direct action against profiteers of oppression against migrants and local indigenous, and against the state and capitalism; Fighting white supremacy/racism within white communities; Combat the criminalization of people of color.
Further Reading: Chaparral Respects No Borders blog http://chaparralrespectsnoborders.blogspot.com (check out the menu on the right titled Understanding Immigration Issues: Fliers and Articles)
Anarchist FAQ www.infoshop.org/faq/