The importance of the immigrant rights’ movement
“¡Aquí estamos, y no nos vamos!” “Here we are, and we’re not leaving!” has been the chant of millions of immigrant workers and youth across the country in recent weeks. These massive demonstrations have highlighted the growing role of immigrants in U.S. society and what an enormous political force they could become.
Over the past 20 years, there has been a massive influx of immigrants into the U.S. from poor countries, especially from Latin America and the Caribbean. This is a direct outgrowth of the neo-liberal agenda imposed on the neo-colonial world over the past 25 years.
This capitalist offensive has led to an enormous growth in the gap between rich and poor and fueled poverty, unemployment, and social breakdown. At the same time, there has been growing demand for cheap, highly-exploitable labor by Corporate America as part of its drive to lower wages and raise profits at home.
But, today, we are seeing the other, unintended side of this process in the explosive emergence of an immigrant rights movement that has shaken U.S. politics and threatens to detonate wider social struggles in the coming period.
HR 4437 has lit a match in the Latino community, sparking a colossal upheaval. The mass of the Latino community has been politicized. Political questions are no longer an issue for a minority of activists, but are being debated across dinner tables and in schools, workplaces, and churches. We are seeing a groundswell of the most oppressed and downtrodden rising to their feet and saying “enough is enough!”
The movement is still in its early stages, which is reflected in its very mixed and confused consciousness. After a period of inactivity, it will take time for the millions of workers and youth entering the struggle to stretch their muscles and acquire experience.
However, the massive mobilizations have allowed the Latino community to begin to feel its collective power. After this, it will not be easy to push Latino and immigrant workers back into the shadows. As the movement develops and gains confidence, the fight for equality will increasingly be linked to the underlying issues of language rights, the racist criminal justice system, poverty wages, and the lack of healthcare.
The possibility that the current movement could set off wider social struggles – particularly workplace struggles for better wages, working conditions, and unionization – is a nightmare for big business. In the 1950s and 60s, the civil rights movement played such a role by radicalizing a whole layer of young people and workers and helping spark the left-wing anti-war, student, feminist, and labor movements that followed.
The Debate in Washington, D.C.
The political establishment is worried about this movement and is seeking to find a way to defuse it. But the sharp divide on this issue will make this difficult. The debate over immigration has split the Republican Party, reflecting a divide between those representing corporate interests and a more populist wing that rests on a socially conservative, nationalistic base. The Republican Right calculates it can win votes by whipping up racist and ‘nativist’ sentiments among sections of the white electorate by pushing a brutal anti-immigrant ‘law and order’ agenda.
However, Corporate America wants to insure a continuous supply of cheap immigrant labor. It has no objection to maintaining a regime of terror over immigrants to keep them from unionizing and fighting for decent wages, but it felt HR 4437 went too far.
Further, given the scale of undocumented immigration, the current system is becoming unworkable and creates a problem of having unreliable workers who could disappear at any time if they get detained or deported. Instead, more far-sighted sections of the ruling class want a more stable, regularized system of cheap immigrant labor.
Another factor is that both parties are competing for Latinos’ votes, recognizing that their votes will be increasingly important in the years to come. The Democrats, the second party of Corporate America, hope to channel the movement into their party and build another base of loyal voters, as they were able to do with the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the black community.
But that experience should serve as a warning. The Democrats have helped a small minority of middle class African Americans, while the vast majority continues to suffer from poverty, unemployment, and imprisonment.
Unfortunately, however, within the current immigrant rights movement, there are significant sections of the leadership who want to subordinate the movement to the needs of the Democratic Party establishment. While the demonstrators have been overwhelmingly working class, the leadership of the movement is more mixed and includes more middle and upper-class Latinos in addition to unions and community organizations.
The more establishment-oriented elements include Latino business organizations, the Spanish-language corporate media, and the leadership of the Catholic Church. These groups support the movement because anti-immigrant legislation threatens their economic and political base. The middle-class, liberal leadership of many immigrant organizations also looks to work within the system and is unwilling to rely on the power of the mobilized Latino working class.
The Latino community, like all communities today, is divided by irreconcilable class interests. The wealth of the Latino capitalists is based on the low-wage labor of mainly Latino workers. In building this movement, Latino workers cannot rely on the Latino ruling class, who will inevitably vacillate and recoil from a determined struggle for immigrant rights, much less a struggle for living-wage jobs, healthcare, and unions. We have already seen this with the major resistance put up by the more conservative and bourgeois sections of the movement to the idea of the May 1 immigrant workers’ strike.
The fact that the immigrant rights movement so far has been a mostly Latino movement, with a strong element of Latino nationalism, is an understandable response to the suffocating racism experienced by Latinos on a daily basis, as well as the anger at U.S. imperialism’s domination over the peoples of Latin America.
But to build the strongest movement for immigrant rights, it is essential to reach out to other oppressed immigrant communities – Asians, Africans, Arabs, Haitians, East Europeans – as well as native born workers, which will be hindered by a Latino nationalist approach. The reason is that in order to seriously take on and defeat Corporate America, it is necessary to build a united movement of the working class.
It is therefore vital that the movement consciously and systematically appeals to black and white workers in the U.S. by explaining that the fight for immigrant rights is in the interests of all working people. That is why the movement needs to openly stand for living wage jobs and healthcare for all workers – immigrant and native born. We need to constantly point out our enemy is big business, and not fall for their trap of pitting immigrants against blacks and blacks against white workers. Our slogan must be: “An injury to one is an injury to all!”
The Growth of the Latino Working Class
In 2000, there were 8.4 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census. This number has increased rapidly over the last several years. The Pew Hispanic Center puts the current figure at around 12 million. They also estimate that 56% of those without papers are Mexican and 78% are Latin American.
Latinos recently became the largest minority group in the U.S., and are the fastest growing ethnic group in the country. They now make up 14% of the population, and are projected by the U.S. Census to reach almost 25% by 2050. Moreover, the Latino community is concentrated in a number of key areas, including the Southwest, California, and cities like Chicago and New York, giving it a disproportionate weight in the working class.
Immigrant workers now play a crucial role in many sectors of the economy. They have become a major part of the workforce in the hotel, custodial, meatpacking, construction, and restaurant industries. Mexican immigrants continue to make up the vast majority of agricultural workers, where many still work for less than minimum wage in conditions little better than slavery. This weight in the economy gives immigrant workers tremendous potential power.
Already in recent years, Latinos and immigrants have been at the forefront of the labor movement. Some of the most important labor struggles over the last decade, including the Justice for Janitors campaign and the California grocery workers’ strike, have been led by immigrants. This year, tens of thousands of immigrant workers are mobilizing as part of the Hotel Workers Rising campaign, a struggle for decent wages and benefits against the mega-corporations that dominate the hotel industry.
This is an expression of the fact that Latino immigrants, in general, are among the most class-conscious and combative in the U.S. working class. This reflects the powerful working-class and socialist traditions of Latin America, which many immigrants bring with them to the U.S. The enormous wave of mass struggle and popular revolts that has swept through Latin America in the past few years has further raised the consciousness of Latino immigrants.