The New Challenges Facing the Immigrant Rights Movement

THE U.S. Senate and the Bush administration failed in their effort to revive an immigration proposal, which, among other things, would have separated families, heightened worker exploitation by creating a “guest-worker” program, further militarized the U.S.-Mexico border, and provided no realistic path to residency for the vast majority of undocumented people now living in the U.S.

Like most “comprehensive immigration reform” proposals in the past couple of years, this bill would have led to more suffering and death, and was nothing short of a human rights abomination.

Despite this terrible reality, however, millions of undocumented immigrants supported the bipartisan immigration proposal–because “something seemed better than nothing.” The bill’s defeat was mostly engineered by the most anti-immigrant lawmakers in Congress–another reason why many people saw the outcome as a setback for immigrant rights.

Nationally syndicated and hugely popular morning radio talk show host Eddy “Piolín” Sotelo, who was a major supporter of the 2006 May Day marches, collected 1 million pro-reform postcards and organized a caravan to Washington, D.C., to personally lobby for the bill.

The bill’s failure will surely lead many people to feel betrayed and fear that the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will now unleash a new round of raids designed to terrorize their families.

Even as we clarify why we opposed the bill and why we now believe we have the chance to fight for much better legislation in the coming months and years, we have to keep in mind that many people will be bitterly disappointed by the bill’s failure. Therefore, we have to explain how to move ahead.

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WHY HAS it been so difficult for the immigrant rights struggle to push for a just legalization, or amnesty, law? What must we do to build a powerful and radical movement?

Part of the reason why immigrant rights activists have failed in holding the U.S. government accountable is because we are facing tremendous challenges.

First, the intense level of state-sponsored terror against immigrant communities has made it difficult to organize in those communities. Since early this year, the Department of Homeland Security and ICE have harassed, arrested, detained and deported over 20,000 migrants under “Operation Return to Sender.”

Throughout the country, in cities and small towns, hundreds of workers are rounded up at their worksites and deported, as they were recently at an Oregon Del Monte plant. Uniformed ICE agents use Gestapo-type tactics to force their way into people’s homes without warrants.

Parents in Redwood City, Calif., were picked up as they dropped their children off at school. And people who “looked immigrant” were randomly questioned by ICE on the street in San Francisco.

Immigrants express a high level of terror–so much so that mothers fear taking their children to school, families fear going to local health clinics and everyone is afraid to deal with police. Organizers have had to combat this climate of fear, and believe recent raids and enforcement activities are responsible in part for the decline in participation since last year’s mass marches.

A second challenge involves the way that migration has been characterized as a “criminal” or “illegal” issue, not as a consequence of global economic policies promoted by U.S. corporate interests.

“Illegal immigrants break the law to get here, so they have no right to be here,” say the racist, anti-immigrant forces, as well as moderate and even liberal voices in this country. Criminality and illegality are therefore addressed with punitive policies, including border and inland enforcement, employer sanctions and denial of benefits and services.

Such punitive measures have never deterred people from migrating to the U.S., but they do cause intense suffering, separation of families, job exploitation and deaths. Migrants are so desperate for economic survival that they are willing to endure these hardships.

Migrants to the U.S. are not criminals at all, but rather economic refugees of U.S. policies, including free trade agreements that displace thousands of workers and farmers.

For example, the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements (NAFTA and CAFTA) ended subsidies on agricultural products in Mexico and Central America. This meant that corn grown by indigenous farmers without subsidies had to compete in their own countries’ market with corn from huge U.S. producers, subsidized by the U.S. farm bill.

Between 2000 and 2005, Mexico lost 900,000 jobs in the countryside, and 700,000 in the cities. After the treaty was implemented, 6 million Mexicans came to live in the United States.

Immigrant rights opponents conveniently characterize migration as a criminal issue in order to justify the dehumanization of the immigrant community, and the political mainstream adopted this characterization, which makes immigrant rights organizing much more challenging.

The truth is that immigrants are forced to uproot themselves from their homelands and their loved ones because U.S. economic policies make it extremely difficult for them to feed their families.

A third challenge facing the immigrant rights movement is that corporate interests are fighting ferociously for “reform” legislation, including a new and expansive guest-worker program.

In his writings, labor journalist David Bacon describes how companies like Oracle and Microsoft hoped to revive the most recent Senate bill, which contained provisions for a massive guest-worker program.

Such a program, explains Bacon, treats immigrants only as a reserve of cheap labor. It sets up contract labor programs, allowing employers to recruit migrants, who must remain employed or else be deported.

In exchange for the promise of legalization, the Senate bill required undocumented workers to spend more than a decade as contract workers with few rights and an incentive to remain silent about exploitative working conditions. It has been an uphill battle fighting for just legalization in this context.

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SO IN view of these challenges, what do we do to build a viable movement that has the power to push for real changes? The following are a few ideas:

— We need to bring organized labor fully on board. While the AFL-CIO and many unions came out in opposition to Congress’ immigration proposals, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) supported almost all of them, even when they contained guest-worker programs and other anti-immigrant provisions.

Unions like the SEIU must disassociate themselves from the coalition of Washington lobby groups, large employers and conservative think tanks that are promoting new temporary worker programs. They must follow the lead of immigrant rank-and-file members, and support proposals that don’t betray the interests of workers or the workers’ rights movement.

— We must support grassroots immigrant organizing and leadership much more aggressively.

An overwhelming number of grassroots and membership immigrant rights organizations came out against the current immigration proposal. People on the ground are conscious that negotiating away major rights while gaining little is not an option.

We should work with these groups so that their message and their power are brought forward. Otherwise, we’re stuck with the approach of the immigration proposals’ proponents, including a network of lobbyists referred to in the press as “immigration advocates.” These groups, including the National Immigration Forum and National Council of La Raza, have all along supported a legalization/enforcement/guest-worker program tradeoff, and have sold out the majority of the immigrant community.

As organizers, we must focus less on meaningless negotiations, and more on building power and leadership among those impacted–namely undocumented immigrants.

— We must build multiracial unity. Immigrants, people of color, the poor and oppressed people in this country continue to bear the burden of attacks, criminalization and scapegoating.

Latino and Asian immigrants, African Americans, homeless groups, LGBT and others are successfully working together and forging alliances. For example, in the Bay Area, a group of African American organizers formed a group called Black Americans for Just Immigration (BAJI), which works with various immigrant rights organizations to make the connections of oppression more explicit for people.

Immigrant and African American organizers in San Francisco have worked together to make connections between the deportation of Latinos and the displacement of African Americans from their neighborhoods due to gentrification.

–We must define migration as an issue of human rights and workers’ rights. Migration and immigration cannot be adequately discussed or dealt with unless we address it in terms of economic injustice.

Therefore, we must address the underlying causes of people’s desperation, which causes them to migrate to the U.S.: global economic policies and trade agreements. A major demand of our movement should be that the U.S. government repeals NAFTA.

–We need to combat anti-immigrant scapegoating by exposing how the U.S. capitalist system is causing economic and social insecurities in this country, not migrants.

We know that undocumented immigrants do not cause joblessness; corporate downsizing, corporate outsourcing and an economy based more and more on prioritizing the military-industrial complex do. We know that undocumented immigrants do not cause crime and instability in this country; poverty, tax breaks for the rich and the de-prioritization of investing resources in human needs do.

Let us be on the offensive when it comes to putting the current situation in perspective–so that immigrant bashing can no longer be used.

–We must continue to fight for legalization as the solution, not guest-worker programs. Temporary-worker programs are inherently exploitative, and they weaken the labor and workers’ rights movements. They only benefit the bosses who want a constant source of cheap, exploitable labor.

Instead, we should support immigration proposals that strengthen family unification, protect workers’ rights and make residency easy to obtain.

Despite the many challenges currently facing the immigrant rights movement, our community is courageous and creative. We will continue to struggle until we achieve amnesty and justice for all.

RENEE SAUCEDO is an attorney and organizer with La Raza Centro Legal and the San Francisco Day Labor Program.

TODD CHRETIEN is the 2006 Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate from California.