The following article appears in Proletarian Revolution No. 78 (Fall 2006).
Millions of immigrants marching in Los Angeles, Chicago and other major U.S. cities this spring grabbed the attention of the country and the world. The mass mobilizations included partial strikes and stayaways as well as student walkouts. Undocumented workers from Mexico, as well as other countries of South and Central America, had finally “come out from the shadows.” Long overdue, a courageous movement championing the rights of all immigrant workers and inspiring a strong feeling of pride was in the making.
The million-strong “Gran Marcha” in Los Angeles on March 25 and the huge outpourings across the country on May 1 were unlike anything seen before in the U.S. As a result, Congress backed away from the blatantly racist and anti-worker Sensenbrenner bill, HR 4437, which the House of Representatives had passed last December. This measure, backed by the Republican House leadership, would have branded every undocumented immigrant and all those who help them as felons. In response, the Senate adopted the “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act,” S 2611, which offered some sops to immigrants and whose basic features were supported by George W. Bush.
Once Sensenbrenner was off the table, however, the mainstream leadership of the immigrant rights movement in effect told people to stay off the streets. Despite the gains of the momentous upheaval, the leaders turned from mass action to voter registration efforts, the oldest idea in the populist book, with the aim of electing supposedly friendly Democratic Party politicians. The plan was to lobby for a House-Senate compromise that would look like the Senate bill.
But what happened? In the absence of mass protests, all that Congress faced were a number of “enforcement only” bills, including one that authorized state and local cops to enforce immigration laws. As Miguel Perez wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times (Sept. 26), the proposals “were part of the House’s extremist legislation that sparked immigrant rights demonstrations all over the country last spring. In other words, it is all repackaged repression.”
The bill that passed Congress in September was a total setback. Supported by almost all Republicans and a majority of Senate Democrats, it called for walling off parts of the Mexican border. According to the Associated Press (Sept. 29), “The House and Senate are trying to speed construction of 700 miles of fencing along the nation’s southern border aimed at keeping Latin Americans and criminals from entering the country illegally.” Demonizing immigrants as criminals and terrorists is the bipartisan racist method. Such a wall would force even more migrant workers away from populous areas and into remote desert and mountain regions, increasing the already horrendous number of deaths.
Even the Bush-friendly Mexican government denounced the border wall as a hostile gesture. Voting for the bill were hypocritical liberals like Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, who had appeared at the mass immigrant rights rallies last spring. Once again relying on the Democratic Party has proved to be a dead end for a mass struggle.
To nail the point, the “comprehensive” S 2611 pushed by the Democrats was in fact nothing that any fighter for immigrant rights had any business supporting. It did not offer a blanket amnesty for all undocumented immigrants, clearly the minimum immediate demand the mass of marchers wanted. The supposed “path to citizenship” it dangled as the promised carrot was attached to a big stick. It was heavily punitive, and it made citizenship open only to those immigrants who could jump through a bunch of hoops.
Thus S 2611 represented a divide-and-conquer policy toward the undocumented. It called for the deportation of all undocumented immigrants who were in the U.S. for less than two years, while requiring undocumented immigrants in the U.S. for two to five years to leave the country before they could apply for citizenship or a visa. For those lucky enough to have been slaving away in the U.S. for more than five years, they were to pay thousands of dollars in penalty fees and back taxes in order to apply for citizenship.
Furthermore, S 2611 provided for increased militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border—including the “fence”—among the enforcement proposals in this “comprehensive” bill. It also advocated a guest worker program that would require immigrant workers to return to their home countries for a year after working in the U.S. for up to six years. This echoes the notoriously abusive “bracero” program of the 1940’s, ’50’s and ’60’s, which was called “legalized slavery” by the Labor Department official in charge of it when it ended.
The reason for all these proposals is that most big capitalists want to see immigrants with second-class status in the country, because they form a layer of the working class that is most easily exploited—they have a much harder time fighting back against rotten conditions and sub-minimal wages. Having such a layer of workers bound to miserable conditions weakens the whole working class, since other workers face the threat of replacement by this underpaid sector of the workforce.
Some mainstream leaders of the immigrant rights movement were a bit more critical. The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) ran a big headline commending the Senate’s bill, “For Historic Immigration Vote”—with a small disclaimer indicating that their organization “has significant reservations as the bill moves forward.” NCLR President Janet Murguía stated, “We have deep concerns about some of the provisions in this bill, but in the end the Senate has voted today to put millions of immigrants on a path to U.S. citizenship. … This is a major step forward in a debate that is vital to our community and to the nation.”
None of the mainstream immigrant organizations wanted to directly oppose bills associated with the Democratic Party. The unions that claim to be championing immigrant workers acted similarly. They have their criticisms of the Democrats, to be sure, but the last thing they want is to expose the anti-worker character of the Democratic Party and its immigration proposals.
Since the community leaders and union bureaucrats support the capitalist system, they inevitably push support for the “lesser evil,” and that is always the Democrats. A common slogan in the mass marches in the spring was “Hoy marchamos, mañana votamos” (“Today we march, tomorrow we vote.”) But a layer of immigrant workers already realize that there are big problems with both parties in Congress—and this will become evident to larger numbers in the near future. It is up to revolutionary-minded workers to take the lead in exposing the truth about the current misleaders and their strategy and to put forward an alternative that makes political sense for the working class. It is necessary to build a mass fight against any bills that contain attacks on immigrant workers, whether they are sponsored by Democrats or Republicans or both.
One very basic idea, unity of the working class and oppressed people, is critical. In all capitalist societies, a tiny class of people owns the means of production and profits by exploiting the workers’ labor. United, the overwhelming tendency of the working class would be to fight for a decent life for all, which is incompatible with capitalism. Powerful united struggles of the working class would inevitably demonstrate the need to overthrow capitalism altogether. Since the working class is the only class with the power to overturn capitalism, the capitalists use every possible divide-and-conquer tactic to prevent this development.
Racism has been the major tool of the ruling class in this country. The notion that Black people are inherently inferior is used to divide the working class between generally better-off white workers and Black workers. Historically, American capitalism was built on the superexploitation of Black people, during and after slavery. (See our booklet Marxism, Interracialism, and the Black Struggle [and see also our article posted on this website What Is Proletarian Interracialism? ].) In the twentieth century, the U.S. became the strongest imperialist power in the world. Its divide-and-conquer methods now also included the brutal superexploitation of oppressed nations abroad. Moreover, imperialism’s plundering of the resources of so much of the world forced the migration of masses of immigrant workers to U.S. shores. So imperialism extended its racism to apply also against other people of color within the U.S. The ideologies of racism and national chauvinism became intertwined, both overtly and subtly.
There is another side of this picture, however. Imperialism not only compels resistance among the masses of the oppressed nations; it also strengthens the proletariat in the U.S., since immigrant workers can play a leading role in the class struggle of all workers, who will be driven by the capitalist attacks to fight back. As Karl Marx noted about capitalism in general, imperialism creates its own gravedigger.
But unity is not an automatic process. It depends in large part on the creation of a revolutionary workers’ vanguard party that can convince fellow workers over time that imperialism is the enemy and that workers must unite to defeat racism and national chauvinism. Such a vanguard must fight alongside its fellow workers in all struggles, always championing the greatest class unity and a revolutionary strategy. Convincing our fellow workers means exposing the current misleaderships and capitulatory strategies which hold back the potential for an all out fight against the racism and chauvinism that the system breeds.
Among the key material factors that capitalism needs for its very existence is structural unemployment, creating what Marx called the reserve army of labor, including a vast pool of low-wage labor. (See “Joblessness: Capitalist Crime,” in PR 47.) The masses of low-wage immigrant workers in the U.S., from Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, largely come from the international reserve army. Native-born workers, too, often have to accept low-wage jobs because the immediate alternative is being unemployed altogether.
The ideology that white Americans are more deserving than others is used to justify the workings of the system. Racism and chauvinism are used to attack the whole working class, even though a layer of workers, especially better-off white workers, now buy into it. In the U.S. and other imperialist powers this better off section, the labor aristocracy, materially benefits by the fact that the U.S. is the central imperialist power in the world. Thus it can provide middle-class people and aristocratic workers with a better life than elsewhere—based in good part on the profits it extracts from the oppressed nations of the rest of the world.
Now that a militant fightback by Mexican and other immigrant workers has come to the fore, the campaign to inculcate the ideology of white and American superiority over immigrants from oppressed nations is being ramped up. Right-wing paramilitary operations like the Minutemen have been railing openly against the mass “invasion.” They need to be countered by mass militant defense actions wherever possible. But a whole range of politicians and pundits, not just paramilitaries like the Minutemen, have been railing openly against the mass “invasion” of immigrants. Open or veiled, the right means to stoke reaction against the “browning of America.”
The ruling class can’t depend just on the division between white workers and workers of color. The bosses hope to keep the worst-off sections of workers—Blacks, Latinos and other immigrants—fighting with each other over shrinking pieces of a small pie instead of uniting to fight for a decent life for all. In the recent period, the media has particularly hit on the contention between Black American workers and immigrants over low-wage jobs. Much has been done to stoke apprehensions and hostilities against immigrant workers, including in the Black community—with some success. But Black workers in particular have nothing to gain by falling prey to any type of anti-immigrant scapegoating.
In fact, because Black, Latino and immigrant workers have been the most oppressed in this system, and because of the particular histories of struggle in these communities, their unity is the key to turning the whole situation around. Confronted with racism, workers of color in general are quicker to see the way forward and to see through imperialist hypocrisy. The road to a united fightback will surely be based on Black, Latino and immigrant workers playing a weighty role in the vanguard. In short, we need a united interracial struggle of all workers against the capitalist attacks, based on an uncompromising stance against any racist or anti-immigrant hype. We have to reject all laws that divide the working class into legals and illegals by fighting instead for an immediate blanket amnesty with no strings attached, for equal citizenship rights for all immigrant workers, and for an end to all anti-immigrant restrictions.
The struggle for these policies has to be taken up by workers involved with the various immigrant rights organizations as well as in the unions, the strongest working-class institutions in this country. Populist leaders are always looking to limit the workers’ struggle, and they are inherently capitulatory. Such leaders can be pushed by the ranks to act in our favor in specific circumstances, and it is necessary to place demands on them. But the real need is to use the fight ahead to build a working-class revolutionary party opposition which can eventually replace the current leaderships.
The illusion that the upcoming elections will reap positive results will be dashed soon enough. Mass action of the working class will be on the agenda again soon. Revolutionary-minded workers will not only support the new round of protests ahead but need to band together to raise demands that meet the needs of all workers, above all “Jobs For All!” and “A Massive Program of Industrialization and Public Works” to provide the good jobs and needed services for all our communities.
The need for such genuinely comprehensive demands and a mass struggle for them also means that we must fight to make the unions and other pro-immigrant organizations rally around each and every strike and workers’ struggle today. We call for relaunching the long-delayed fightback by the working class. Within that struggle revolutionaries will campaign for a general strike of all workers against the capitalist attacks. Given how militant the movement already has been, there will be opportunities for revolutionaries to intervene in the next upsurge in favor of strike actions in specific unions, and arguments for a general strike of immigrant workers can be made concrete.
The League for the Revolutionary Party maintains that the demands to benefit the entire working class which we propose cannot be fully or permanently achieved under capitalism. The crucial task of the most politically advanced workers is to build a revolutionary socialist vanguard party to lead our class from its current struggles to the overthrow of the entire system. We will take part in every effort of the working class to defend its interests, regardless of whether our fellow workers agree with our views about capitalism or not. The road ahead will convince more workers and youth of the revolutionary perspective.