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Building a True People's Movement

May Day and the Failure of the Immigrant Rights Movement

by AJAMU BARAKA

How did a movement that put millions on the streets in 2006 allow the development of something called the “comprehensive immigration reform act,” now being debated in U.S. Congress, which expands the guest worker program, devotes millions to border and immigration enforcement, denies migrants access to public services and in general does not recognize the rights of migrants and immigrants as full human beings with human rights? This legislation does not in any way reflect the power and success of the immigrant rights movement—instead, it demonstrates its loss of autonomy and vision. What is being touted as immigration reform is no more than an unprincipled capitulation to the forces of nativism, white supremacy and liberal opportunism.

How did this happen? Unfortunately, the failure of the immigrant rights movement in the U.S. is a story that is not unique. Like a recurring nightmare that haunts progressive/radical activists and movements in the U.S. over the last forty years, the story of the immigrant rights movement is one in which the final chapter was predetermined as soon as it allowed itself to be influenced by the paternalism and conservative politics of the liberal non-profit industrial complex and the interests of the Democratic Party. Movement fragmentation and the marginalization of its radical elements, unprincipled pragmatism, demoralization and demobilization of its popular base, and eventual dissolution have proven to be the inevitable outcome of many popular movements, from the civil rights and women rights movements though to the environmental and now immigrant rights movements, after they allowed themselves to be hijacked by the liberal establishment and drained of all radical possibilities.

While there have been many missed opportunities and strange developments within the immigrant rights movement, one of the most politically backward developments was the movement’s embracing of the colonialist narrative related to the origins and character of the U.S. By pushing the “we are all immigrants” line, a position encouraged by the non-profit hustlers and political hacks from the Democratic Party that hijacked the movement, the movement collaborated with the white supremacist narrative that erased the presence of indigenous people in the territory that became the U.S. and the reality of the U.S. as a colonialist, white settler-State.

This communications strategy of winning “acceptance” from mainstream white supporters is always the objective of the media hustlers brought in to advise emerging movements and campaigns. However, the result of this communications strategy was that instead of winning over the white public, it unwittingly reinforced the narrative of nativists and white supremacists who see themselves as the first and only legitimate “immigrants” to a territory given to them by God as a “white nation,” making border enforcement and continued repression “legitimate” and necessary components of any agreement on immigration reform.

Settlers are not immigrants—they are occupiers. But of course this inconvenient fact is not part of the colonial fantasy that passes as U.S. history nor is it considered by the proponents of the “path to citizenship.”

Along with the brutal colonial conquest and attempted genocide of the indigenous people of this land, the racist foundations that justified genocidal policies and the institution of slavery and racist totalitarian terror for a hundred years after the official ending of slavery are subjects that many immigrant rights spokespeople assiduously avoid. The exception to the movement’s general silence on the issue of race and racism—even in light of the racist pogrom directed at undocumented migrants from Latin America since 2006—was references to Dr. King—but only as long as those references were the distorted, deradicalized version of Dr. King and the movement that produced him.

Not everyone in the immigrant rights movement embraced this petit-bourgeois silliness. A number of organizations have been involved in principled work around the human rights of migrant workers victimized by the contradictions of globalization, which has resulted in migration as an only option for survival for many workers and displaced farmers. But for individuals and organizations that did not toe the liberal, Democratic Party “pro-citizenship” line, as opposed to legalization, there was a price to pay. Those organizations were either under-funded or de-funded and relegated to the hinterlands of the movement.

Immigration legislation will probably pass in some form in the near future, but millions of people will still find themselves denied their full range of human rights, and we must continue the struggle for those rights. Our common humanity and commitment to social justice can serve a basis for building an independent, multi-national, anti-oppression, people’s movement that emphasizes people-centered human rights, self-determination, authentic decolonization, and a politicized global perspective that understands the contradiction of global capitalism and imperialism, which push and pull people across national borders. There is a basis in the U.S. for a new progressive social bloc, if only we can see its potential form and have the courage to struggle with our differences and contradictions to snatch victory back from our defeat. This is the key lesson that we can take from the efforts for comprehensive immigration reform.

Ajamu Baraka is a long-time human rights activist and veteran of the Black Liberation, anti-war, anti-apartheid and Central American solidarity Movements in the United States. He is currently a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Baraka is currently living in Cali, Colombia.