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Don’t Pity the Poor Immigrants, Fight Alongside Them

David Bacon, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 261 pages, $25.95, hardcover.

Michael D. Yates is associate editor of Monthly Review. His many publications include Cheap Motels and a Hotplate: An Economist’s Travelogue (2007), Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy (2003), and Why Unions Matter (2009), all published by Monthly Review Press. Read his blog at http://blog.

In this compelling and useful book, David Bacon lays to rest the anti-immigration arguments of the xenophobes and racists who bombard us every day in the press, on television, and on radio talk shows with the vicious assertion that immigrants, mainly those from Latin America, are the cause of all our economic and social problems.

I will get to Bacon’s arguments shortly, but what makes the book especially good is its interweaving of analysis and individual immigrant biographies. When CNN’s premier immigrant basher, Lou Dobbs, refers every evening to “illegal aliens,” he intentionally depersonalizes them and makes it easier for his audience to accept his demonization of what are, as Bacon indelibly shows us, ordinary and often heroic human beings. Consider these immigrants whose stories Bacon reveals:

Luz Dominguez is a Mexican woman. She came to the United States because she couldn’t support her family in Mexico City. She does backbreaking work cleaning rooms in a California hotel. Her father, after a lifetime of construction labor in Mexico, has come to live with her. She sends money back home so her daughter can attend college. She is undocumented, not through choice but because it is not possible for a person such as herself, an unskilled Mexican woman, to obtain the necessary documents. The United States imposes strict and extremely meager quotas on such potential immigrants. She has been a good citizen in the United States. She works hard, pays her bills, pays taxes, even puts money in a social security account from which she will never be able to withdraw money. The fact that she has a Social Security number but is an undocumented immigrant constitutes, according to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), “identity fraud.” She could be deported or sent to prison for this. But as Bacon tells us, “There is no evidence to suggest that the genuine holder of a Social Security number is harmed when someone else uses that number on the job. After all, an employer will be depositing extra money into the true cardholder’s account, and the worker using the incorrect number will never be able to collect the benefits those earnings accrue.” If the number does not belong to anyone, the money deposited in this new account will just go into the Social Security fund. So, ironically, undocumented immigrants are subsidizing the social security system, to the benefit of all of us, including Lou Dobbs.

Juan Gonzalez was a copper miner in Cananea, just seventy miles south of Arizona. Copper mining has a long history in Mexico. The first mines were owned by U.S. companies, but the Mexican government took majority control in the early 1970s. Like all mining, copper production is dangerous work, and the miners struggled long and hard to form unions to protect themselves and secure higher wages. They faced extreme repression, but often in concert with miners in the United States (many of whom are Mexican), they managed to secure some victories. As one miner put it, “When we have problems, there are no borders. We all have to work to survive.”

However, when neoliberalism raised its ugly head in the late 1980s, Mexico’s national industries were placed on the chopping block, sold to wealthy private interests at bargain basement prices. The new owners were Mexican, but they had deep connections with large U.S. corporations, and it was the U.S. government, in league with these same businesses, that had pressured Mexico and scores of other poor countries to introduce the “free market” reforms that are the hallmarks of neoliberalism: cut government social spending, slash employment, privatize national enterprises and public services, attract foreign capital with tax and other concessions, make unionization difficult, and so forth.

When these “reforms” led to the closing of a miners’ hospital, a large reduction in the workforce, gross violations of the collective bargaining agreement, and the company’s refusal to continue to maintain a dam and operate the town’s water works, the miners struck. When the strike ended (the miners had occupied the mine but were convinced to leave when union leaders feared that they would be killed by the Mexican soldiers who had taken over the town), Juan Gonzalez was blacklisted. After a year of unemployment, he walked across the desert into Arizona. As Bacon says, “The line of applicants for visas, which would have allowed him to work in the United States legally, is many years long, and he’d already exhausted his family’s resources.” Juan risked his life in the desert to come to a place that was once—before it was stolen by U.S. military might—part of Mexico. Now he is a criminal.

Edilberto Morales is from a small town in Guatemala, a few miles from the Mexican border. When coffee prices fell in the late 1990s, he tried to migrate north. Twice the Mexican police sent him back. He was left more than $2,000 in debt, since he had to borrow money to make the journeys. He then contacted a man who was in the business of arranging for men to go to the United States to work under the H-2B visa program that allows private companies to hire temporary foreign workers for a fixed period of time. The contact man was a former paramilitary member, a right-wing killer who had helped the government and employers fight a revolutionary movement of peasants and workers. After the United States orchestrated a coup against reformist president Arbenz in 1954, Guatemala’s ruling class had waged relentless war against the poor, killing more than 100,000 and forcing hundreds of thousands more to flee the country. Ironically, the paramilitary man had received political asylum in the United States. He worked for Evergreen Forestry Services, a large labor contractor; his job was to recruit H-2B workers to plant trees that would be used to make paper.

Morales ended up in Caribou, Maine, where he lived in three rooms above a gun shop with five other men. He worked ten or eleven hours a day in the damp chilly woods of northern Maine, and was paid $25 to plant 1,000 seedlings. No lunch break, no pay for overtime, nothing left after food and lodging deductions. One morning, a tire blew out on the truck that transported him to work. The truck hurtled into a river, and Morales was the only survivor. Fourteen men died.

One of the businesses that contracts with firms like Evergreen is the paper company, Kimberley-Clark. This storied company was founded in 1906; the next year Frank Sensenbrenner became president. Frank’s grandson and an heir to the family business is Wisconsin congressman, James Sensenbrenner. This wealthy politician is on the far right, and in 2005 he sponsored and pushed through the House of Representatives one of the most draconian immigration bills in the nation’s history. Bacon describes its provisions:

His bill, HR 4437, would have made federal felons of all 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, criminalizing teachers, nurses, or priests who helped them, and built a seven-hundred-mile wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to keep people from crossing. The bill never passed the Senate, but its wide margin of approval in the House was a vivid demonstration of how deep congressional anti-immigrant hysteria had become.

It is unimaginable that Mr. Sensenbrenner is unaware of Kimberley-Clark’s use of immigrant labor and of how the low wages of this labor have helped to make him rich. He must also know that his family’s business connections include powerful Mexican companies, including copper enterprises, whose policies help force workers across the border. Yet, he traveled across the United States promoting his anti-immigrant agenda. Sad to say, his hypocrisy went unmentioned in the media.

Bacon draws a number of conclusions from these stories. First, these workers’ circumstances were determined not by their desires and actions but by a complex panoply of forces, all intimately tied to the essence of the capitalist world economy, namely the accumulation of capital: the incessant and malevolent drive by businesses large and small to make as much money as possible and to expand capital here, there, and everywhere. Capitalists in the United States use their political power to shape an imperial government that enforces, through its diplomatic and military might, the actions of the large and therefore most influential corporations. When Latin American nations gained political independence from Spain, the United States quickly asserted its power and soon dominated the new governments and economies. It found all too willing allies among the traditional landed elites and then among nascent local industrialists. The United States turned a blind eye to military dictatorships, standing ready to support them with guns and troops whenever an insurgency threatened stability. Local elites were happy to go along for a piece of the cash pie.

Whether Luz, Juan, and Edilberto were happy mattered not a bit. Their job was to work and obey. If their small plots were taken by the coffee growers, they had to move. If the factory in the city shut its doors, they had to move. If these things happened because their government had signed a trade agreement with the United States, they still had to move. They could organize and fight back, and they did, but the odds were heavily against them. If they weren’t killed, they’d probably have to move. People have to eat; if they can’t get food at home, they have to move. If the food is in the United States, they will move there. The choice isn’t really theirs. The decisions were made for them, by forces beyond their control. As Bacon says, “globalization [meaning capitalism] creates migration.”

Second, the large influx of immigrants to the United States has been good for business, and corporate leaders know it. From its inception several hundred years ago, capitalism and displaced labor have gone hand-in-hand. One of capitalism’s hallmarks—wage labor—would not have been possible without the forcible eviction of peasants from their land. The industrial development of the United States was built upon the theft of peasant land and the bodies of peasants. Without slaves and poorly paid workers dispossessed in Europe, along with land taken by force from Native Americans, U.S. capitalism would have been impossible. The system relies upon pools of utilizable labor—a reserve army—to keep wages low enough to guarantee profits. The fact that workers leave Mexico helps Mexican capitalists by removing an unneeded surplus population that might cause and has caused trouble (the same is true for the money immigrants send back home). These same workers provide cheap labor in the United States, especially in occupations that native workers have abandoned as they have moved up the job ladder. In the absence of these poor (often undocumented) immigrants, who would clean motel and hotel rooms, cook and wash dishes in restaurants, build houses, care for children, perform gardening and other yard work, drive cabs and limousines, deliver groceries, clean vegetables and flowers in greengrocery basements, remove asbestos from buildings, process our meat and poultry, and harvest our crops?

Besides these types of labor, immigrants also work, usually through special visa programs, as computer programmers, engineers, nurses, and school teachers. Here there are often native workers available but, alas, they want too much money. Employers go after the cheaper and, in effect, indentured (if they make waves for the employer, the boss can have them deported simply by firing them) foreign workers. U.S. employers have no intention of pressuring the government to stop the flow of immigrants, legal or otherwise.

Bacon makes crystal clear, through several case studies, that employers only want their workers deported when they have the temerity to organize. It is surely not coincidental that the infamous ICE raids on Midwestern beef and Carolina pork processing plants occurred in the middle of union organizing campaigns. And how do employers propose to solve the immigrant “problem?” They want “guest workers,” through a legislated arrangement similar to the old Bracero program that brought Mexican laborers to the United States from 1942 to 1964. “Bracero” is Spanish for “arm,” an apt phrase given that the employers who contracted for the workers were interested in their “arms,” that is, their capacity to work hard. Bacon devotes a section of the book to a thorough skewering of this program, its modern but more modest equivalent in the H-2A and H-2B visa systems, and all guest worker schemes. Each one is based upon the short-term and intense exploitation of workers, who have no rights under such programs and find that whatever a guest worker law promises in terms of wages and work conditions will be honored only in the breach. Such programs prohibit workers from bringing their families with them. This saves employers and communities any monies that might have to be paid to the workers so that they could support their spouses and children, together with funds that localities might have to spend for schooling, health care, and the like. What this all amounts to is the treatment of labor as a “just-in-time” inventory, available just when needed and sent back home when not.

A third conclusion that flows from Bacon’s book is that anti-immigration politics have little basis in fact. If we look just at undocumented immigrants, we find that they pay their own way. They add more to the national income than they take from it. They pay taxes, all sorts of taxes, including sales and excise taxes, payroll taxes, property taxes, and yes, income taxes. They get little in return for these taxes; they are much less likely than similarly situated natives to receive health care, education, public assistance, police protection, and all other publicly provided services. As noted above, they do not often compete directly with native workers for jobs. By any reasonable standard, they face harsher work regimens and enjoy fewer protections on the job than do native laborers. They commit fewer crimes than natives. What all of this means is that the crusades being waged against “illegal aliens” have ulterior motives. Lou Dobbs and Tom Tancredo know that employers will never be harshly prosecuted for hiring undocumented workers, and they do not want them to be. Rhetorical attacks on employers play well with the masses, and this is why they do it. What the hysteria they foster does accomplish is to divide working people by making part of the working class the “other,” a quasi-criminal element that can be used to hide the true horrors of this economic system—one that the immigrant bashers love and profit from. Whatever divides workers makes it hard for them to form the one thing that employers and their xenophobic allies really hate—unions.

Some of the most informative parts of Illegal People examine the many struggles immigrants have waged to improve their circumstances. Often in alliance with, or a part of, labor unions (in the United States and in their home countries), worker centers, and community groups, they have engaged in mass demonstrations, organized boycotts, rode in cross-country caravans to publicize their conditions, and formed labor unions. Immigrants have drawn on their experiences in their home countries, as well as the history of militant labor action in the United States, to forge creative responses to the daily oppression they face. Workers in hotels and meatpacking plants, day laborers, janitors, agricultural workers, limousine drivers, greengrocery workers, cab drivers, and many others have shown that the immigrants of the United States are a force for progressive change. They have been the backbone of the labor movement, and any hope of union revitalization will have to be built upon their actions. Bacon describes the often hostile relationship between the main labor federations and immigrants. The AFL-CIO finally decided to champion the immigrant cause in 2000, no doubt in part because immigrants are so often stalwart unionists. There is still a long way to go before there is a full embrace, but at least a start has been made.

One crucial issue is the relationship between black workers and immigrants. Bacon says, in a chapter titled “Blacks Plus Immigrants Plus Unions Equals Power,” “In big U.S. cities, African Americans and immigrants, especially Latinos, often seem divided by a political calculation in which each community fears that any gain in jobs or political clout can only come at the expense of the other.” He then goes on to recount the remarkable achievements of united black and Hispanic workers in the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance. The two groups have worked together in the alliance to organize immigrant workers, enforce union contracts, force casinos to stop using labor contractors and hire directly, get people aid after Hurricane Katrina, protect immigrant workers from firing and deportation, and fight for immigration reform in the state legislature. If a coalition of black and immigrant laborers can cooperate and win victories in Mississippi, think of what could happen on a national level.

It is heartening to Bacon that significant sections of organized labor have allied themselves with immigrants. But he argues that more needs to be done. The movement of people across borders is going to continue. It may ebb and flow as economic conditions change. Not as many migrants are coming to the United States from Mexico now because jobs are much more scarce here than before the Great Recession struck. However, there will be no long-term trend of falling migration. A statement of principles is therefore in order. I think David Bacon would agree (and he discusses most of the items below in the book) that we must insist that:

  • All government harassment of immigrants must stop.
  • An immediate amnesty must be declared by the federal government for all undocumented workers and a direct and speedy path to permanent residence or citizenship made available.
  • The border fence on the U.S.-Mexican border must be demolished.
  • All guest worker programs must be rejected.
  • Workers must be free to move across borders in search of work or for any other noncriminal purpose.
  • Immigrants have as much right to be in the United States as anyone else, especially considering that actions taken by U.S. businesses and the U.S. government drove them across the borders in the first place.
  • The country’s labor laws must be vigorously enforced and more worker-friendly laws be enacted.
  • The government must guarantee good health care, decent education, and an adequate minimum wage for all people.
  • The federal government must stop all military aid and weapons sales.
  • Trade agreements must be negotiated by teams that include worker representatives and include labor and environmental standards that are on a par with all other parts of the agreements.

Neither Bacon nor I have any illusions about the achievement of these objectives, short of widespread labor rebellion in the United States and in the rest of the world. However, just putting them forward as first principles, educating working people around about them, and publicizing them at every opportunity will put us where we need to be: foursquare for the working class—all of it.

2009, Volume 61, Issue 02 (June)
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