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Resisting Fences

Shortly after the First World War, Frank J. Sensenbrenner developed the Kotex maxi-pad. He took the product to market and soon made a massive fortune through his firm, Kimberly Clark. Like other firms, Kimberly Clark has slowly divested itself of United States-based factories and moved production facilities to places such as Mexico. In March 2005, for instance, Kimberly Clark moved its Fort Worth, Texas, factory (350 jobs) to Mexico. A year later, the firm closed its Neenah, Wisconsin, factory (700 jobs); it is anticipated that this unit will also move to Mexico. Kimberly Clark argues that this haemorrhage of jobs from the U.S. to Mexico is part of reorganisation of its global workforce.

Sensenbrenner’s firm is based in Texas, has deep roots in Wisconsin, but produces in Mexico and China. Tom Melsen, Kimberly Clark’s vice-president, told the Associated Press: “This decision [in Neenah] has nothing to do with the capabilities of our people and the commitment of our people.” On the other hand, in a new book, The New York Times reporter Louis Uchitelle writes: “The laid-off are cut loose from their moorings and rarely achieve in their next jobs a new and satisfactory sense of themselves. Layoffs damage companies by undermining the productivity of those who survive but feel vulnerable, as well as the productivity of those who are laid off and got good jobs again” (The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences, Knopf, 2006).

If Kimberly Clark can only offer platitudes to the jobless of Wisconsin and Texas, Sensenbrenner’s great grandson has tried to do more. James shunned the family business (but not its riches) for law, and eventually for politics. Since 1978, he has been the Representative for Wisconsin’s Fifth District (which includes the city of Milwaukee). Wisconsin has been hard hit by the new doctrine of free trade and of globalisation. As a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (1994), the State has lost 25,403 jobs to Mexico, and between 2001 and 2004 alone it lost one in nine of its manufacturing jobs (this is according to the State’s main trade union federation). Congressman Sensenbrenner had nothing to offer the laid-off workers of his State apart from economic packages that included considerable tax benefits for the upwardly mobile and the fiscal aristocracy. Caught between a commitment to corporation-driven free trade and a populist demand for meaningful jobs, he offered the best distraction: a highly xenophobic campaign against immigrants.
Senseless Bill

Last year, Congressman “Tex” Sensenbrenner (Republican) tendered a Bill before Congress with a forthright name, HR 4437: Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005. Taking advantage of the post-9/11 fear over a lack of security, Sensenbrenner bundled the immigration law with a hard-nosed set of proposals to seal the border. The Bill opens with a long catalogue of improvements towards border security, including money for new technological inputs (such as biometric scans) and for the creation of “physical infrastructure enhancements to prevent entry by aliens into the United States” (code language for the creation of a 700-mile steel fence on the U.S.-Mexican border). President Jimmy Carter (Democrat) first proposed the creation of a “tortilla curtain”, but the suggestion went nowhere. The Clinton administration built fences whose efficacy is anything but clear. The physically able immigrant simply walked longer distances to go around them, or else jumped them.

Senator John Cornyn (Texas) called the wall idea a “19th century solution to a 21st century problem”. Sensenbrenner’s Bill, nonetheless, would spend at least $2.2 billion (if not $9 billion) to build a double-walled steel barrier; the contract will probably be given to Dick Cheney’s old firm, Halliburton. Rowland Nethaway, a columnist for the Waco Tribune-Herald (a border newspaper with no sympathy for immigrants), dismissed the wall plainly: “It’s a dumb idea. It won’t deter illegal immigration, but it will waste $2.2 billion. This isn’t rocket science. You can’t keep water in a bucket with holes in it. You can’t keep cattle in a partially fenced pasture.” In the past four years, border-crossing attempts claimed the life of one migrant a day. Making the trip harder is a death sentence not a deterrent.

The wall apart, the rest of the Bill provides harsh penalties against alleged undocumented immigrants and those who help them. The 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. would be treated as “aggravated felons” (alongside murderers and rapists), while those who help them (mainly clergy, teachers and health care workers) would earn jail time. The Bill seemed out of touch with the national mood. The same week it was passed by the House of Representatives by a vote of 239-182, a Washington Post and ABC News poll asked: “Do you think illegal immigrants who are living and working in the United States now should be offered a chance to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status, or do you think they should be deported back to their native country?” Sixty-one per cent said that the immigrants should be welcomed, while only 39 per cent said they should be deported. Whereas most people recognise that the immigration laws are in disarray, few want to place the onus of the problem on the most vulnerable people in U.S. society: those without legal documents to be here. In a strongly worded editorial, the conservative Wall Street Journal chided President George W. Bush for his silence on the Sensenbrenner approach to immigration: “By voicing no disapproval of these over-the-top provisions, Mr. Bush legitimises the forces that will make it hard to pass useful reform” (December 29, 2005).
La Gran Marcha

As the Sensenbrenner Bill moved from the House of Representatives to the Senate, pro-immigrant organisations went on the rampage. Groups such as Los Angeles’ Central American Resource Centre and the National Hispanic Association of Evangelicals reached out to their members. They called for protests in March to coincide with the Senate’s consideration of the Bill. The response surprised them. On March 10, more than 150,000 people, spearheaded by the Mexican Homeland Federation, took to the streets of Chicago. Joshua Hoyt of the Illinois Coalition for Immigration and Refugee Rights told Los Angeles Times: “There has never been this kind of mobilisation in the immigrant community ever. [Congress has] kicked the sleeping giant. It’s the beginning of a massive immigrant civil rights struggle.” Two weeks later, on March 25, immigrants and their allies came out in force. Denver, Colorado, matched the numbers from Chicago, but every city was dwarfed by the action in Los Angeles where between 500,000 and a million people flooded the centre of town. The Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, spoke for many when he said: “We are here as one family. We are not illegal. We are workers.”

Dressed in white, with U.S. and Mexican flags, the marchers argued for their inclusion in the U.S. imagination. Entire families came out, three or four generations marching in step, stoically. They made a considerable impact on the national debate. Senator John McCain (Republican) admitted to their power in a radio interview on March 29: “A lot of those people that we saw demonstrating in Los Angeles were children and grandchildren of people who came here illegally and are still here illegally. And they don’t want, understandably, their grandmother sent back to Guadalajara.” In early April, the middle school pupils in Oakland, California, went out on strike as part of an action by schoolchildren across the State. Juan Elias, Class 7, who led the action, said: “The new laws would make immigrants into criminals. If you help an immigrant it will be a crime. We must stop this law. The U.S. would not be without us. We made America.”

The Spanish language media and the Roman Catholic clergy played an enormous role in galvanising people to march. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Maloney called on his priests to defy the provisions of the Sensenbrenner Act, and he and others asked their flock to join the mobilisation. The Los Angeles Catholic Church has a long history of this sort of action, having taken a considerable part in the struggle to protect Central American refugees in the 1980s. The “sanctuary” movement is now revived, and it is being joined by elected city councils (such as in the town of Maywood, California) that have ordered their police departments to ignore the anti-immigrant laws. This political and religious support propelled the people to come out on the streets.

Juan Santos, Editor of Los Angeles’ Mexica Tlahtolli, notes that the protests have “deeply shaken” the anti-immigrant forces, but “they still might win. As Senators debate their take on migrants, they will continue to put their fingers to the wind, to see just how far they can go without profoundly alienating their middle class allies and without provoking rebellion from below”.

The U.S. state has limited options on the immigration front. The two major political parties are in favour of corporate free trade, and yet they are under pressure from their populations to create jobs for those who are survivors of plant closings and other detritus of globalisation. Rather than deal with these issues head on, the two parties are easily swayed by xenophobia: they blame the job crisis on a lazy domestic workforce (and on unions) as well as on immigrants who only come here because globalisation policies have wrecked their home economies.

Monami Maulik of New York’s Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) puts it: “The U.S. government uses a double-edged sword of coercing free trade agreements onto Third World countries and criminalising the people displaced by them and forced to come here.”

Alternatives to the Sensenbrenner Bill in the Senate have tried to ameliorate its xenophobia while maintaining its main public policies. Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain have offered a Bill that provides an unspecified pathway to citizenship, and that includes a guest-worker programme.

Indeed, the government has taken the issue of a global guest-worker programme to the World Trade Organisation. The Mode 4 proposal designates these people bureaucratically as “individual service suppliers” rather than as human beings who have lives that are far more complex than their labour power.

One group that shepherded the protests, Immigrant Communities in Action, proposes a more just pathway: legalise the migrants, instead of introducing a guest worker programme; reduce enforcement and deportations; enforce worker rights for all; help reunification of broken families. This programme has broad support among the public, but only limited interest in Congress.

The movement has escalated. The various groups have called for a boycott of those corporations (such as the Miller Brewing Company) that support the anti-immigration politicians, and they have called upon the population to reject these politicians in the 2006 Congressional elections. They have also called for Latino workers to conduct a general strike on May 1. On March 23, a rally in Milwaukee was dubbed “A Day Without Latinos” in homage to a 2004 Hollywood movie “A Day Without a Mexican” in which California wakes up to find its entire Mexican population gone. What would happen, the organisers asked, if Latino labour vanishes? The theory will be tested during the May 1 strike.

Eric Mann of Los Angeles’ Labor/Community Strategy Center says: “If the May 1 General Strike comes off, it will be the most important political action in the U.S. since the great uprisings and marches on Washington by the black movement in the 1960s.”

As they say in Spanish, la luta continua, the struggle continues …

VIJAY PRASHAD teaches at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. His latest book is Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses: Debt, Prison, Workfare (Boston: South End Press). His essay, “Capitalism’s Warehouses”, appears in CounterPunch’s new book, Dime’s Worth of Difference. His most recent article is a review of Kathy Kelly’s book in the December issue of Monthly Review. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu

This essay originally appeared in Frontline, India’s national magazine,

 

 

More articles by:

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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