Migrants: the Case for Amnesty

Photograph Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture – CC BY 2.0

For those horrified by U.S. belligerence toward independent nations, particularly economically independent ones, like China with its hybrid socialism/state capitalism, it doesn’t help to know that exactly this has happened before. It happened south of the border. Mexico, too, had state capitalism, with lots of nationalized industries and something of a social safety net and, in the 1970s and ‘80s, the U.S. government, hand in glove with American corporations, destroyed it. Of course state capitalism ain’t perfect, but it’s a whole lot better than the oligarchic financial capitalism that manipulates the state like a puppet and that Washington’s so intent on forcing down the throats of, well, everyone.

The role of NAFTA in this story was highlighted last week in CounterPunch by Ron Jacobs, reviewing Justin Akers Chacon’s new book, The Border Crossed Us: The Case for Opening the U.S.-Mexico Border. So here, let’s look at the destruction of Mexico’s state capitalism, the ensuing impoverishment of millions of its people and the case for an amnesty for immigrants in the U.S., referencing Chacon’s book. Amnesty first.

The 1986 amnesty for migrants in the U.S. taught capitalists a lesson they never forgot: newly minted Mexican and Central American citizens joined unions in droves. The owning classes lost their leverage over workers, namely keeping them immobilized and super-exploited by criminalizing them, as the formerly undocumented left for better jobs with higher pay. This ate into profits. After all, having an enormous pool of labor terrorized into accepting miserable compensation, dangerous and squalid working conditions, endless unpaid overtime, wage theft, abuse, humiliation and sexual assault, all due to the looming threat of arrest and deportation – such a sweet deal for capitalists was worth billions of dollars. After they lost it in 1986, they decided, never again.

“The future of organized labor is dependent on expanding rights for migrants, while the future of capitalism is dependent on curtailing them,” writes Chacon. Labor, he argues, learned this lesson the hard way. “By 1986 [the AFL-CIO] maintained enthusiastic support for employer sanctions and border enforcement…Its disastrous support for migrant labor criminalization and border closure positioned it directly against the fastest growing segment and most inherently prounion sector of the working class.”

Ironically, the new, increasingly neofascist law enforcement squadrons arrayed against migrants deliberately fail at keeping workers out of the U.S.; after all, corporations want those employees. What the militarized anti-migrant police do succeed at is trapping these workers into accepting super-exploitation. And lots of companies angle for that. “The largest, richest and most powerful sectors of capitalism are now invested…in the illegalization of labor…Auto production, agriculture, meat packing, construction, hospitality and other forms of service and manufacturing…have restructured…to access and exploit undocumented labor.” These industries prefer that their employees be undocumented. Even citizen workers in the South, though hardly assertive, could still conceivably cast a vote for a union, a risk corporations see no need to take.

There exists a huge army of surplus, undocumented labor. That’s because five decades of neoliberal plunder by U.S. corporations and local oligarchs, backed up by the lurking menace of U.S.-trained death squads and paramilitaries and, more recently, accelerated by free trade agreements like NAFTA, pauperized millions of Mexicans and Central Americans. They can stay home and starve or head to the border. International financial capitalism crushed these people and their countries.

To focus on Mexico: Its state capitalism, which developed after the 1910 revolution, entailed official unions in the government, many nationalized industries and a fairly resilient social safety net. Mexican capitalists did well, the urban proletariat got by, and state-run ejidos distributed lands to peasants, with the benefit, from the government’s perspective, of containing agrarian radicals. In the ejido system, the state retained land ownership but allowed collective farming and production for national markets. Unluckily for all of these arrangements, U.S. capital looked at Mexico and licked its chops.

Then Washington went about smashing the Mexican system, using the IMF, the World Bank and its chief tool, the free trade agreement. This culminated in “the dismantling of the nationalist capitalist project that emerged victorious from the Mexican Revolution. The birth of state-managed capitalism in Mexico was the result of a radical and impulsively nationalist uprising,” after which “an ascendant middle-class coterie was able to divide, defeat and co-opt mass popular movements.”

By 1990, U.S. neoliberalism utterly demolished this state capitalism. The idea was “capital has a right to cross borders to exploit Mexican labor, but Mexican workers do not have the right to migrate.” It is “free trade without free people.” Not surprisingly these changes engendered a new, modernized colonialism. Chacon argues that the breadth, totality and speed of Mexican state capitalism’s collapse matched that of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, which crashed around the same time.

In short, the ‘80s and early ‘90s were a lousy time for workers, planet-wide. And now North American financial capitalism wants to do the same to China: “open it up,” or, more accurately, loot it (think, also, Russia under Yeltsin in the ‘90s; U.S. financial marauders made out like bandits there). After all, the Mexican caper was so dazzlingly lucrative, U.S. plutocrats attempted to mimic it all over the world.

Fast forward to 2021, and 30 years of “free trade” have emaciated the Mexican peasantry and dispossessed the urban proletariat. They flee to Texas and other points in the American Southwest, where, without rights, criminalized, hunted by ICE, they form a reservoir of easy, cheap, precarious labor for numerous predatory American corporations. This has gone on in attenuated form for over a century, but accelerated vastly in the decades since NAFTA starved Mexican farmers off their land by underselling them, flooding their country with cheap corn and other food products.

Fascistic, racist, rightwing hysteria over Mexican immigration serves a purpose, unbeknownst to the blockhead nativists. It is useful for the owning classes, useful as a means of oppressing and controlling an army of destitute workers, which they have no intention of ever preventing from coming here and toiling. Business lures and wants undocumented labor; the less documented, the better, because without any rights, these workers are easy victims, while the threat of deportation scares them into avoiding unions.

Thus the need of a general amnesty for the 11 million undocumented Latino workers living in the U.S. First, because this is the right thing to do. Second, because the rest of the American working class will suffer until that happens. American wages will remain depressed, until people who can be exploited with pitifully low pay become no longer “illegal,” but recognized for what they are – workers who belong in unions and who will only get that right once they cease inhabiting the shadows of a criminalized, exploited underclass. They need to become citizens. And though the capitalists will scream even louder than the nativists, this nation and American working people acutely need an amnesty.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Birdbrain. She can be reached at her website.