The Congressional battle over immigration

immigraion photo

The struggle for new immigration reform legislation is now going full blast, in Congress, in the media, and on the streets. This has been made possible by the strong impact that Latino voters had in defeating the Republicans in the November 2012 elections. Republicans and Democrats drew the conclusion that they had to "do something" on the immigration front if they were going to get, or keep, Latino votes in the future.

This can be counted as a major victory for the immigrants' rights movement and labor, who have been mobilizing at the grassroots for a new legalization program since the late 1990s, with a key moment being the Immigrant Workers' Freedom Ride in 2003.

That campaign solidified unity among the immigrants' rights movement and organized labor, which is still going strong.

What will be accomplished legislatively and at what price in concessions and trade-offs depends, however, on an intricate inside-outside battle between contending class-based forces which have different stakes in the game. The determining factor will be the balance of power, in Congress and in the country. This balance is not static but depends on the organizing abilities of all involved.


The key players in the immigration struggle include:

*The grassroots immigrants' rights movement and its labor and civil rights allies sees the big prize as the legalization of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, with the initial goal being to bring them into some legal status that will at least prevent them from being vulnerable to arrest and deportation threats that keep them from standing up for their rights and interests as workers and human beings. However, to keep the legalized immigrants in a perpetual "guest worker" status, in which their presence in the country depends on the job market and they never have access to green cards, let alone citizenship, is opposed. Equality in the workplace and the community is the aim. The working class stake in this is class unity and the empowerment of 11 million working class people who, under present circumstances, are oppressed both in the workplace and the community. This can be seen as the main working class position, though it is also supported by some other sectors.

*Various industries that use low-wage labor want to be able to operate legally (avoiding fines and other punishments), but without having to respect the rights of their employees to fair wages and the benefits or unionization, and they also do not want to be responsible for the well being of the families of their workers. A major objective of this sector, which includes agribusiness, hotels and restaurants, construction and remodeling, and home health care, is to facilitate access to low-wage guest workers who would replace the current undocumented immigrant work force. They want to see an expansion of guest worker programs. That is the priority of this section of the capitalist class.

*A second group of industries in more high-tech fields want to be able to bring in more guest workers with advanced skills and training, in order to be able to pay them less than they would have to pay U.S. workers. This is opposed by organized labor. It is also seen as very problematic by the governments of poorer countries who perceive a "brain drain" of highly trained personnel whose education has been paid for out of scarce national funds.

*Governments, civic organizations and political leaders in countries from which the largest number of undocumented workers originate want to avoid mass deportations of the current undocumented immigrants in the United States, which would stress their social welfare systems to the breaking point, as well as severely curtail crucially important remittances from the immigrants to their families and home communities from the United States. In 2012 alone, Mexican immigrants in the United States sent $23 billion home to their families and communities in Mexico, and the amounts sent to other countries are proportionally even higher. Moreover, these countries would like to see a regularization and increase of legal labor immigration to the United States, in order to put a stop to the non-stop bloodbath being carried out by criminal gangs against immigrants passing through Mexico to the U.S. border. They are under pressure from their own citizens to accomplish these things.

*Extremist right-wing politicians and their financial backers, who have staked their future on blaming this country's problems on immigrants and foreigners, have an interest in using the immigration issue to demagogically pose as the patriotic defenders of the United States against "invasions by foreign hordes." Though open to guest worker schemes, these elements try to sabotage the campaign to give legal status to the undocumented, and champion various repressive elements in the legislation. They are the main source of "poison pill" amendments to S 744, the principal immigration reform bill in the Senate. This is the position of the section of the ruling class that is moving in a quasi-fascist direction.

All of these are powerful forces and their influence will be seen in all the congressional debates and actions on the subject of immigration. Indeed, the influence of disparate groups is already visible in the main Senate immigration bill, S 744, now being debated in the Senate after being voted out of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and after the full Senate voted to go to debate on the floor. There is a long and complicated process, with many possible pitfalls, involved in achieving legalization, including provisions for new guest worker programs for both high and low skilled workers, and a lot of new harmful and unnecessary repressive "control measures."

In the Senate, the Democrats have a 52-seat majority. On the issue of immigration, the two independent senators (Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine) will probably align with the Democrats. The Republicans hold 46 Senate seats. This does not allow smooth sailing for S 744. In the first place, although the Senate voted to go ahead with debate, it is not guaranteed that at some point the bill will not be filibustered and that 60 votes can be found to stop the filibuster without the bill's sponsors making even more concessions to the right.

In the House, the Republicans have a 234 to 201 majority. Moreover, support by neither House nor Senate Democrats is 100 per cent. This is why it is not possible in this session of Congress to pass immigration legislation that is one-hundred-percent satisfactory for the immigrants, the immigrants' rights movement, and labor. The numbers are not there in Congress, so the balance of forces does not favor an optimal outcome.

The result of all this balancing of interests is a bill which holds out the possibility of legalization and an eventual path to citizenship to the majority of undocumented immigrants, but imposes procedures that are so lengthy and difficult that it is likely that many will not make it. Particularly worrisome are requirements that people undergoing legalization under this bill would have to maintain an income level of 125 percent of the poverty rate and not be unemployed for more than sixty days, over a 10-year period. This is a huge burden for poor immigrants, who face deportation if they fall through the cracks at any point, and it is also a big gift to employers.

On the other hand, there are some very positive elements. At least some people who have already been deported might be allowed to return on the basis of "family unity" considerations, and there is a fix for the outrageous "Hoffman Plastic Products" court decision.

Traded off against these are mostly negative features in the bill: New guest worker programs which will lend themselves to exploitation and abuse, and new enforcement mechanisms that are not going to stop undocumented immigration, but are rather, as well as being harsh and repressive, expensive boondoggles.

And the bill nowhere addresses any of the real causes of undocumented immigration, which lie in the extreme inequalities between rich and poor countries, and within poor countries, which are sharply exacerbated by the dynamics of corporate-controlled globalization. Since all Republicans in Congress and many or most Democrats support corporate globalization, they cannot deal with the real causes of undocumented immigration, but must fudge. So according to the language of the bill, undocumented immigration is going to be "stopped" not by working for equality and social justice worldwide, but by fences on the border, drones hovering over the desert, electronic detection mechanisms, workplace enforcement through check-ups on the authenticity of workers' Social Security Numbers (called e-verify) and cooperation in rooting out undocumented immigrants with local police forces that are sometimes racist, corrupt or incompetent (the badly named "Secure Communities" program).

Because of these negative features of the bill, some left-wing elements of the immigrants' rights movement appear to be getting ready to call for its defeat. But we must remember that not passing legislation this year also has consequences. The repressive elements in S 744, and the problematic guest worker clauses, are likely to be imposed one way or another through other legislation or executive action at the federal or state level even if this specific bill doesn't pass. Then the undocumented immigrants and their families will be facing increased repression without the element of even a flawed legalization program. The increase in arrests and deportations by the Obama administration is also a factor to be taken into consideration. The movement is correctly denouncing these things and demanding the suspension of most deportations, but there is no guarantee that these demands will be achieved. In such a case, without any legislation to permit even a difficult path to legalization, the situation of the undocumented will be radically worsened.

Those who wish to wash their hands of the legislation call for a return to mass demonstrations. But the mass demonstrations have never stopped. They have lost numbers because the participants have not seen forward motion at the institutional level, including in the legislative process. But every week sees picketing or civil disobedience in numerous areas of the country. This will continue as the Congressional debates go on. This is why even strong supporters of progressive, worker-friendly immigration reform are gritting their teeth and getting ready to support the current Senate legislation. For the moment, their attention will be focused on slapping down noxious amendments that have already been introduced, or that will be introduced shortly. Most of these will be designed to sabotage the bill entirely, or to make the legalization process even harder by delaying its initial steps until an impossible level of "security" is achieved on the border, or adding requirements such as fluency in English before legalization can proceed.

In the near future, one or more House bills will be introduced. Then the same debates that are going on in the Senate will continue there. The same forces will be competing over the architecture of the House bill as in the Senate. It will have a legalization mechanism for the undocumented, new guest worker programs, and new repressive control mechanisms.

How all thus turns out depends on the balance of class forces. So the emphasis must be for us to organize, organize, organize!



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  • Non-US residents shouldn't complain, I reckon. They get the job and are paid more than in their native countries. Employees get cheap workers. Everyone's happy. These are the rules of immigration. If I live in the USA and want to get a job in France, for example, I'm sure I will have a less paid job, 'cause I'm not local. It's fair!

    Posted by William Miller, 08/06/2013 4:34am (5 years ago)

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