The Fight for Immigrants' Rights is a Fight for Democracy


The surprise generated by the statement by G.O.P. presidential candidate Newt Gingrich to the effect that he favors a mechanism whereby some undocumented immigrants might gain legal status, and the ongoing uproar caused by harsh anti-immigrant laws in Alabama, South Carolina and Arizona, have brought the issue of immigrants and immigration back into the political debate. The question of immigration is usually discussed in terms of economics, but needs to be seen in terms of democracy also. 

Briefly: To have 10.2 million working class people functioning as an especially exploited part of our economy and working class, but deprived of basic rights in the workplace and in the community, is antidemocratic and undermines the rights of the whole working class. And immigration policy is most definitely a matter of class struggle.

Gingrich proposed that a special “red card” visa for undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for 25 years or more, who have not acquired criminal records and who have established ties to their communities. They could live and work in the United States, but would be barred from acquiring U.S. citizenship, and could not vote in federal and most other elections.

Meanwhile in Alabama, Latino families are either keeping a low profile or making plans to leave the state, since a recent state law criminalizes not only undocumented immigrants but just about anybody who deals with them. Protests and demonstrations against this and similar laws have been going on around the country.

The authorization to immigrate legally to the United States is doled out on the basis of class, wealth and politics. Rich “entrepreneurs” get a welcome mat; poor workers and farmers, desperate to come here because our own foreign trade policies have destroyed their livelihoods in poor countries get arrested, jailed and deported.

Wealthy foreign businessmen get a special access to permanent resident visas if they promise that within two years of coming to the United States, they will have set up businesses which “create jobs”.  This program, called the “Immigrant Investor” or EB 5 visa program, has not been proved to have a significant impact on the job market or the economy.

Also, people from certain countries are given privileged access to legal residence and citizenship because they are seen as probably conservative and pro-capitalist. The most obvious example is the treatment of Cuban exiles. The notorious “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy allows any Cuban rafter who actually reaches U.S. shores to stay here and be treated as a privileged political exile, with access to government aid and eventual citizenship. People perceived to be communists or other radical leftists are still often prohibited from even visiting the United States, let alone settling here.

However, poor farmers and workers who wish to come here legally from countries like Mexico, El Salvador and Haiti, where their livelihoods have been severely undermined by neo-liberal “free trade” policies promoted by the United States have a Hell of a time getting permanent resident visas. 

Depending on their country of origin, they may have to wait decades. U.S. visa policy favors people in certain economic categories, as well as people with close relatives already in the United States, but also favors nations who have relatively few natives already living here. So there is a huge backlog for legal immigration from Mexico. This year, the government is just getting to the backlog of adult sons and daughters in Mexico of U.S. citizens, who filed their applications in 1993, 18 years ago. There is also an annual lottery of visas, but very few of the people who enter it actually qualify. And even if your number comes up, people who are without economic resources, such as secure job offers in the United States or relatives here well enough off to support them, do not get permanent resident visas. If people are desperate enough, they come as part of the undocumented stream.

Opponents of legalization of the undocumented often seem to think that people come here without papers because they are too lazy to fill out the paperwork to come legally. In fact, for a great many people who have a desperate economic need to come, the obstacles to legal immigration are such that the only way they can really do it is undocumented.

Other obstacles face those who manage to get permanent resident status, and want to become citizens and voters. Although most applicants don't consider the usual 5 year wait to be very onerous, the fees for citizenship application processing keep going up. And a couple of years ago, the naturalization test which prospective citizens have to take to prove they know English and understand the history and form of government was “revised” to make it more difficult. Most U.S. born people would have trouble answering many of the questions on this test. For immigrants with only a few years of formal education, it is a high hurdle indeed.

So if you are a poor farmer from Michoacán, Mexico, where grain farmers have been particularly hard hit by massive imports of taxpayer-subsidized U.S. wheat, maize and other agricultural products under the terms of NAFTA,and if you have no prosperous relatives in the United States, the chances of getting a visa to come here permanently are slim to nil. So you come anyway, without documents.

Likewise, if you are a poor rice farmer in Haiti, who have been driven clean off your land because of the dumping of taxpayer subsidized U.S. rice in your country at prices with which you can not possibly compete, have been therefore forced into the slums of Port au Prince, and then have seen everything you owned destroyed in the January 2010 earthquake, your chances of solving your problems by migrating legally to the United States are close to zero. 

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that there are 10.2 million people in the United States who are here without authorization. Probably between 7.5 million and 8 million are in the labor force. They are workers, and an integral part of our economy. Capitalist enterprises, especially in agriculture, hospitality and construction, realize surplus value from their labor. As they have no enforceable rights on the job or in the community, this surplus value is enhanced by the ability of employers to underpay them and make them labor in unsafe working conditions.

To have 10.2 million members of our working class living in the United States bereft of all political rights, without possibilities of gaining citizenship and the right to vote, is undemocratic. To have 7.5 to 8 million workers as part of the economy, but without labor rights, is also undemocratic. And the undemocratic nature of this situation has a very strong class dimension: It is overwhelmingly working class people who are deprived of rights, while wealthy businessmen and women get a very different treatment. 

The immigrants' rights movement, which with its labor allies put millions of people on the street in 2006 and 2007 behind a demand for legal status for the undocumented, is fighting for democracy, not for special privileges for a few, The unions, which have wholeheartedly supported the demand for legalization and “a path to citizenship” understand that if the current group of undocumented immigrants could acquire rights in workplace and community, they would be a mighty force for the democratization of both our workplaces and our electoral political system, because of their class composition as a group. Undocumented immigrants, and their relatives, neighbors, friends and co-workers, know more than anybody what the reactionary policies of the Republican Party portend in terms of the people's rights. They are a mighty working class force waiting to be unleashed; that's why people like Governor Bentley of Alabama and Governor Brewer of Arizona don't want them to get legal status. 

Gingrich's plan to allow undocumented immigrants to work (and be exploited) but not become citizens and voters is of a piece with the many and frequent demands from business that undocumented workers be replaced with temporary guest workers. These, too, have minimal rights in the workplace, and absolutely none in the political realm. 

In spite of candidate Obama's campaign promises on immigration reform, there was really not a push by the administration and the Democrats in the first years of the administration. A plan proposed in June of 2009 by the AFL-CIO, the Change to Win unions and the great majority of the immigrants' rights groups, got support from the Hispanic, Black, Asia-Pacific and Progressive caucuses in Congress, but not from the executive branch or the Democratic leadership in House and Senate. The DREAM Act, which would grant legal status to undocumented immigrant youth interested in serving in the Armed Forces or going to college, was pushed toward the end of 2010 but was “too little and too late”, and the Republican gains in the 2010 elections, together with the renewed attacks on immigrants by the right, have killed of all chances for major immigration reform legislation for the time being. Frustration with the administration has also arisen from the news that deportations are at a record high. 

However, the immigration reform movement and its allies did manage to get the Obama administration to announce, earlier this year, a change in the focus of deportations, away from ordinary workers and their families and toward people convicted of serious crimes, based on “prosecutorial discretion”. This, if carried out thoroughly, could be a lifeline to large numbers of ordinary working class immigrants. The struggle now is to make sure that the bureaucracy of the Homeland Security Department actually carries out the new policy. The American Immigration Council has carried out a study which shows that in many cases, DHS employees have taken a contemptuous attitude toward the new policy, and are flatly refusing to implement it

So part of the struggle now is to make sure that, limited though the Obama “prosecutorial discretion” policy is not effectively destroyed by either bureaucratic obstructionism in DHS or a Republican victory in the 2012 elections. 

Other things have to be fought for also: For the reversal of the reactionary state anti-immigrant laws, for an end to the “Secure Communities” and “287 g” federal programs that allow local police to be deputized as immigration agents, and for an end to federal use of the E-Verify system to drive undocumented workers out of relatively well paid jobs into a complete underground existence. 

All this is integrally part of the class struggle and of the struggle for democracy for all.

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