The Immigrant Rights Movement

The demonstrations, walk-outs, boycotts, marches, work-stoppages, and protests of the past few weeks are more than just an inspiring example of resistance to reactionary government legislation; they may signal the birth of a new left. In response to the ominous portend of an immigration bill so extreme that it alienated the Catholic church, millions of people have participated in recent weeks in the beginnings of a mass movement for immigrant rights. Far from just a flash in the pan, this movement will have long-reaching effects on the balance of class and political forces in the US, so as leftists we have to wrap our heads around it.
Causing a Backlash?

Sensenbrenner’s bill is only the sharpest edge of a brazen and arrogant Republican party, who (thanks to the good will of the Democrats) have gotten away with the invasion and occupation of Iraq, exposure of an international archipelago of torture camps, multiple high-level corruption scandals, criminal negligence of Hurricane Katrina’s victims, vast expansion of powers for the surveillance-industrial complex, two fresh far-right “judges” for the supreme court, and on and on.

If the Democrats’ response to all of this has been predominantly collaborative, the response of the broader left hasn’t been much better. The antiwar movement has been anemic for months, with no national demonstration on the 3rd anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and continued marginalization of Arabs, Muslims, and Palestine in the politics of the movement. South Dakota’s abortion ban has been met with stultifying silence and demobilization from liberal feminist organizations. Widespread outrage at Hurricane Katrina’s exposure of the depth of poverty and racism in America found no expression in a national movement around justice for Katrina survivors. And on and on.

Unfortunate as these failings of the left may be, they’re rooted in our historical circumstances. The American elite have been on the offensive for the last 30 years in an effort to roll back the social and political gains of the social movements of the 60s and 70s and to repair the relative economic damage to the US economy wrought by the Vietnam war. Attacks on wages and living standards, rollbacks of civil rights, diminished access to health care, chipping away at abortion rights, and the era of NAFTA-style “free trade” programs for US-based transnational corporations have all come at the expense of one or another sector of the working population in this country.

No surprise then that at some point people would push back; especially with the mass revolts against the effects of neoliberalism taking root in so many other parts the world, North and South from Bolivia to France. The beginnings of that revolt have now come home, in part because the radical labor experiences that immigrant communities often bring with them. Although we couldn’t have predicted our revolt would come from immigrant workers, it makes sense. Which is why the liberal argument that cautions a “backlash” is so ridiculous: the mass movement for immigrant rights IS the backlash. And hopefully only the beginnings of it.
Historical Turning Point?

The fault lines in US politics are shifting. On May Day, up to 700,000 people marched in Chicago. Over a million marched in Los Angeles, 75,000 people in Denver–about one-sixth of the city’s population–all participated in a march on the state capitol. In New York City, over 100,000 (following 300,000 two days earlier for a march against the war in Iraq). 72,000 students (around one in four) walked out of classes in the LA school district alone. Untold millions participated in a boycott of buying and selling anything. Across the country, businesses that rely on immigrant labor were forced to scale back or close down completely, including major food production and processing corporations like Cargill. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, truckers stayed away from the country’s largest shipping port, and an estimated one-third of the city’s small businesses were shuttered.

May Day 2006 was the biggest and most inspiring resurgence of labor (and civil rights) militancy that this country has seen in a generation. More generally, the immigrant rights movement holds the possibility of reviving a vibrant left in the US of the kind that we haven’t had since the 1960s.
The New Civil Rights Movement

The civil rights movement of the 1960s was a turning point in US history. Starting more or less in the mid 1950s with Brown v. Board, Emmett Till, and Rosa Parks, and continuing for nearly the next two decades, the civil rights movement inspired the beginnings of a resurgence in political activism on a massive scale in the US. It ripped open the straight jacket of McCarthyism, creating political space and inspiration for the student movement and the movement against the Vietnam war, which in turn inspired the feminist movement and the gay liberation movement, which then gave rise to later environmental and anti-nuclear movements. In short, it marked the birth of a new left.

Like the last civil rights movement, the immigrant rights movement can revive the US left of today-it can initiate a period of wider and wider resistance to Jim Crow-level segregation and racism (against migrant workers), rejection of imperialist war half way around the world, reversing the attacks on women’s rights, and so on. But there is one key difference: the struggle this time includes massive working-class and labor-based action, which was basically the main ingredient missing from “the fire last time.”

Because the immigrant rights movement is so predominantly working-class, it can provide an even wider basis for struggle around key political questions. For example, it can be linked to the struggle against the war in Iraq, whose victims (Iraqi and American alike) are predominantly working-class, and thrust into combat because of the economic and military consequences of the US-dominated world order. It can also be linked to the struggle for reproductive rights, whose beneficiaries are predominantly poor and working-class women, particularly Latinas (among other minorities). It can be linked to the African-American struggle for justice on the basis of unity against racism and resistance to prison-industrial-complex-style militarization, which attempts to control both populations.

If the immigrant rights movement is also indeed a revolt against the effects of “free trade” NAFTA-style policies, then it could conceivably develop into a struggle against corporate globalization and neoliberalism itself-in the primary offending country, for that matter.

Significantly, these ideas are not lost on the migrant workers in the streets. In LA, for example, despite the media’s focus on flag-wavers to the exclusion of political messages, there were home-made signs saying “Are our troops in Iraq illegal too?” and “Your Foreign Policy Brought Me Here.” If those workers don’t represent the inspiring potential for a radical challenge to neoliberalism and imperialism inside the movement, we’d have to be politically impotent. Or Democratic Party enthusiasts.

The masses of undocumented workers in the streets can lead the revival of a new left, and one that is even broader and more labor-radical than what came out of this country in the 1960s. For the first time in decades, millions of people celebrated May Day in the US, for heaven’s sake! Of course the political, economic, and social conditions today are very different from 40 years ago. For example, global warming now threatens life as we know it, so the stakes are far higher. But the immigrant workers movement taking to the streets has shown that the once-in-a-long-time opportunity for transformative change is returning. We need to throw ourselves into it with all the energy we can muster.

BRIAN KWOBA lives in Ithaca, NY. He can be reached at