Jim Crow Goes Fishing
Speaking in Cleveland, President Bush called on Congress to end "catch and release" practices on the border with Mexico. He wasn’t referring to recreational fishing enthusiasts who catch large mouth bass, snap a picture and then release them back into the water. He was talking about INS (now Homeland Security) agents who round up undocumented workers trying to cross the border, harass and threaten them, and then issue them summons to appear in American court. President Bush and Congress are preparing legislation that makes it clear that they have as much (or little) respect for immigrant workers as they have for freshwater fish.
In typical fashion, the House Republicans have passed bill HR 4437 (the Sensenbrenner bill) that only a Klansman could love. It makes simply being an undocumented worker in the United States a felony, and it makes it illegal for anyone (teachers, social workers, firefighters, anyone) to help that person in any way. HR 4437 dismantles forty years of civil rights legislation and officially reintroduces Jim Crow into American law.
Now that the Congressional brutes have staked out the Fascist Right, President Bush and Republican Senate "moderate" Alan Specter are sanding off a few of the rough edges and presenting their ideas as "mainstream." Not to be outdone, the "me too" Senate Democrats are putting their own lipstick on the Sensenbrenner pig and asking immigrants rights activists to take it to the dance. Sen. Edward Kennedy has teamed up with that champion of civil rights Sen. John McCain to push his own version of a "guest worker" program. Here the word "guest" is used the sense of: "The United States is keeping over 500 guests in Guantanamo Bay." Kennedy’s bill will bring back the Bracero Program, which was used during World War II. Then, hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers were shipped into the US to fill labor shortages as indentured servants, legally bound to the will of the US government and private employers. When the war ended, they were rounded up and herded back to Mexico, having been cheated out of a good portion of their poverty level wages.
Not wanting to be left too far behind, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has waded into the debate. Of course, she won’t put forward any clear proposal of her own other than to endlessly repeat the nonsense that Mexican immigrants pose a "security threat" to American citizens.
Unfortunately, Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern has signed on, along with the American Chamber of Commerce, to a version of the new "guest worker" program as well. Given that SEUI has pioneered organizing undocumented workers and leading the fight for immigrants rights within the labor movement, this is a big step backwards and another tragic example of excepting the logic of subordinating the interests of workers to what Democratic Party leaders deem "acceptable."
The one thing we can be sure of is that ALL of the proposals that are on the table now are bad news for immigrant workers and their families. That’s why 300,000 immigrants and their supporters marched in Chicago a couple weeks ago. That’s why tens of thousands will march in Los Angeles this weekend. That’s why hunger strikers are camped out in front of the Federal Building in San Francisco and plan to take their protest to Sen. Feinstein’s office on Monday, the day the Judiciary Committee is set to make its recommendations to the full Senate.
The protesters have simple solutions to simple problems.
First problem: there are 12,000,000 undocumented workers in the United States today. The American economy cannot function without them. They do some of the hardest jobs for the lowest pay. They pay some of the highest taxes as a percentage of their income and they get almost nothing back from the government. They are treated like criminals and face racist abuse at the hands of police, federal agents and employers.
First Solution: just like in 1986, a general amnesty should be declared so that these workers and their families can come up out of the underground and join American society as citizens or legal residents, whichever they choose.
Second Problem: 4,000 people have died crossing the Mexican-American border in the past half-decade, more than died in the 911 attacks.
Second Solution: demilitarize the border. If American corporations can run all over the world, why can’t hard-working people from Mexico come here to do jobs that American citizens don’t want so that they can feed their families?
Third Problem: All workers wages and benefits, be they immigrant or native born, are on a race to the bottom. Often, corporations pit one group against another.
Third Solution: As the old saying goes, we need one big union, on both sides of the border. It’s time to put the "international" in the union’s names back into practice. Important and determined efforts have already been made in this direction, especially by SEIU and the United Electrical Workers union. However, as long as the union leadership puts coalition (meaning handing over tens of million of dollars in members’ dues money) with the Democratic Party leadership over and above coalition with Mexican workers, those efforts will continue to be only a symbol of the potential power of cross-border organizing.
Of course, none of these solutions are "realistic" in today’s political climate, which is precisely why we need a new movement to change it. In the meantime, Congress should be told in no uncertain terms to stop arguing over what color hat Jim Crow should wear. Instead, they should shut their mouths and listen to the marchers and hunger strikers.
For more information and a comparison of the current legislation, go to the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights: http://www.nnirr.org.
TODD CHRETIEN is running for US Senate as a Green Party member against Sen. Dianne Feinstein. See www.Todd4Senate.org for more info.