Immigration has always been an issue for the American working class. Since human beings didn’t evolve in this hemisphere just about everybody in the United States either came here from some other land, or are descended from those coming from elsewhere. Most immigrants came to these shores voluntarily but many in the early days were forcibly transported as slaves or indentured servants.
From 1830 to 1920 immigration was usually relatively easy for those with “white” skins from Europe, who could afford and survive the journey. A substantial part of the population of Quebec, who became known as French-Canadians, also relocated in the U.S. There were generally no quotas, no green cards, not even any push to learn English. They were needed for an unprecedented agricultural and industrial expansion that ultimately turned a disparate collection of British colonies along the Atlantic coast into a superpower spanning “sea to shining sea.” (Along with immigration some were absorbed through purchase or conquest of territory once governed by others—but that’s another story.)
Of course, there were some rejections for racist reasons, such as the Chinese Exclusion Acts, beginning in 1882. There were frictions, especially during economic downturns, as successive waves of native born children of immigrants produced some who thought immigration had gone far enough. Before the great white “Melting Pot” of assimilation could stabilize at a simmer various ethnic groups from Europe experienced some degree of bigotry and discrimination—an affliction still not completely cured.
While most during this period were what would now be called “economic” immigrants many had been active in trade union and socialist struggles in their countries of origin and were fleeing repression. Among them, such as my grandfather, were “draft dodgers”—grandpa was not anxious to kill or be killed for the Kaiser. Many brought valuable lessons with them for the American workers’ movements. The authorities kept a wary eye on such trouble makers and from time to time there were mass roundups and deportations—such as the infamous Palmer Raids.
Most of the European immigrants were at least nominal Christians but about two million Jews also arrived in the U.S. before 1920. But later, when German Jews desperately needed refuge after the rise of Hitler, they found the American door slammed shut and bolted. Perhaps the most notable example of this hypocrisy was the S.S. St Louis incident in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the war in Europe.
Hitler allowed this luxury liner to sail from Hamburg with nearly a thousand Jews on board. They were to be taken to Cuba as a staging area for eventual relocation in the United States. But the Cuban government, probably at the suggestion of the U.S. State Department, reneged and refused them entry. The captain tried to take them to Florida but orders came from the White House not to accept them and a Coast Guard cutter actually fired a warning shot across their bow. Canada also rejected their plea and the ship eventually had to return with its passengers to Germany. At least 250 aboard are known to have later perished in the Holocaust.
This incident illustrates how even the most liberal administration in American history was affected by views on race and nationality not far different from those expressed by the Nazis. Not only the openly racist Dixie-Crats but such idols of the day as Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh showed sympathy for the Hitler regime. Many were none too subtle in expressing anti-Semitism and some also contempt for the Catholics of Italian and east European descent.
Much of the political Establishment from the beginning of the Twentieth Century was influenced by such home grown pseudo-scientific racial superiority views as those initially popularized by Madison Grant in his book, The Passing of the Great Race. Grant believed in the superiority of the “Nordic” race and advocated policies of eugenics to keep down the inferior races. Hitler once wrote him to say “the book is my Bible.” It also became a guide for early immigration “reform” in this country—and there’s no doubt race and politics still plays a major role in the immigration debate.
The first comprehensive restrictions on immigration were enacted after the First World War. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 limited the annual number of immigrants from any country to 3 percent of the number of persons from that country living in the United States in 1910.Of that number just over half was allocated for “nordic” northern and western Europeans, and the remainder for eastern and southern Europeans—a 75 percent reduction from prior years. The Johnson-Reed Act in 1924 further tweaked these figures to two percent of the 1890 population. Indians, both from the subcontinent and East Indians, were prohibited entirely but there were no restrictions at that time on the number of Latin Americans.
These quotas remained basically in place until 1965. Then the Hart-Celler Act replaced national origin quotas with annual limits for the east and west hemispheres. As a result, for the first time quotas limited Latin American, including Mexican immigration.
Hart-Celler didn’t stop a steady stream of Mexican immigration; it mainly had the effect of creating a new large number of “illegal” immigrants—undocumented workers living under precarious conditions. Congress tried to fix this patently failed legal situation with the Simpson-Mazzoli Act in 1986. Passed with strong bipartisan support and signed by President Reagan, this bill: mandated employers to verify legal status of their workers; offered an 18-month “amnesty” to those undocumented workers otherwise eligible for citizenship who had continuously resided in the U.S. since 1982— leading to 2.7 million being “legalized; ”toughened border controls; and spurred quicker deportations of those not qualifying for amnesty.
But Simpson-Mazzoli didn’t fix “illegal” immigration once and for all. Quite the contrary, after the 1994 implementation of NAFTA started devastating the Mexican economy, and similar Globalization measures spread disruption throughout much of Latin America, great new waves of immigrants came from or through Mexico.
Congress decided to get tougher with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, this time signed by a Democrat President. Among its provisions: a one-year filing deadline for political asylum applications; a permanent bar to permanent residence for those who falsely claimed to be U.S. citizens; expansion of the categories of criminal activity for which both documented and undocumented immigrants can be deported, such as shoplifting. Those facing a deportation order can be held for up to two years without a hearing and must pay for their own legal counsel.
Since the establishment of Homeland Security, enforcement of this current law of the land has been even more draconian. For example, last year an 83-year-old Frenchman—guilty of a long-forgotten minor offence—was put on a plane back to Paris after living in the U.S. for 52 years. He had been held for seven months and was deported even though he had nowhere in France to go. As a result of the deportation, he lost all his US Social Security benefits.
But while this mean spirited law has created many more victims it has failed to keep pace with unauthorized immigration. It’s estimated that there are twelve million undocumented workers in the U.S. today and many more potential migrants where they came from. Advocates of even tougher measures now being debated by congress—and promoted by reactionaries appealing to fear and prejudice—fail to grasp why past efforts fell far short of their goal.
The Two Faces Of the Ruling
Nearly all sides in immigration debates agree that immigrants come here for jobs. There’s not much of a welfare state left for citizens much less for those targeted for deportation. Only employers can offer jobs and important sectors of the employer class have found immigrants to be hard working producers of profits.
Many sympathetic to the plight of immigrants say they are only taking jobs Americans won’t do. Up through the 1970s that was largely true. Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, were at one time concentrated almost solely in farm labor and other low wage, unpleasant, usually casual menial jobs that most citizens didn’t have to consider as career paths. That’s no longer the case. Here’s one example cited in a letter to the editor in the UAW magazine, Solidarity,
“The janitors in our facility used to be UAW members. Since our latest local agreement was approved, the janitors are supplied by an outside contractor. Most of them are nice Hispanic women who don’t speak English.
“Whether they’re in the United States legally is irrelevant. There were plenty of Americans (many of them unemployed autoworkers) who would have taken those positions when they were UAW.
“When a good-paying job is farmed out to the lowest bidder who cuts the pay and benefits, it becomes ‘a job Americans won’t do.’
“Before we blame illegal immigrants for filling the demand for low-wage jobs, let’s fight to preserve UAW jobs in our own locals.
UAW Local 1284
The brother in Chelsea is quite perceptive. Outsourcing, along with offshoring, have been much bigger factors in the decline of UAW membership than either “foreign” competition or automation. Most of the labor formerly performed by UAW workers is now done in Big Three plants in Mexico, or by spin offs and subcontractors in the USA employing large numbers of low paid immigrant workers.
When meat packing was largely concentrated in big urban areas such as Chicago, Kansas City, St Louis, and South St Paul, this unpleasant, but well paid work was eagerly sought by native born whites and African-Americans. Since the 1970s industry restructuring, mainly to get away from established union bastions, scattered this work in much smaller plants in small towns and rural areas. Immigrants have become a substantial and growing component of this workforce.
Decisive forces in the ruling class favor present immigration levels for several related reasons:
●The immigrant workers themselves are a productive source of cheap labor.
●This big component of cheap labor tends to hold down all labor costs.
●Resentment and prejudice toward immigrants are used to deflect discontent among the larger working class away from the bosses, into self-destructive divisions among workers.
●Immigration is an important safety valve for Mexico where Globalization policies of multinational corporations—above all those based in the USA—have displaced many millions of workers and peasants. Instead of continuing to swell the slums of Mexico City—now the world’s biggest urban area—it’s much better from their goal of stabilization of Mexican society to have millions of Mexicans working north of the border and sending substantial amounts of money back home.
However, while most bosses like immigration pretty much the way it is they are not willing to grant the same rights of movement across borders for workers that they claim for the free movement of capital. They favor restrictions, even harsher ones—to be enforced selectively. They like the threat of deportation to be available if immigrant workers start to organize themselves through unions, worker centers, and community action. And, they are determined to reserve the right to cut off immigration completely if their labor market needs should change.
Our Class Interests
Just because the bosses favor immigration doesn’t mean that the rest of the working class should line up behind the Minutemen and other reactionary forces advocating mass deportations and a militarized border. Leaving aside for the moment principles of justice and solidarity, such an approach will be no more effective than the futile efforts of nineteenth century workers to protect their manual labor jobs by smashing machines.
Solidarity became a principle not because it was some abstract timeless value, not handed down on some stone tablet from on high, but rather because history has taught us that class unity in action is the only effective way to defend both our day to day and long term interests in struggle with our employers.
Instead of a source of division we should be proud of being the most diverse working class in world history. In a country built on immigration it is essential that we recognize our common identity and heritage as workers. In a global economy we have to extend that recognition beyond borders. We have much more in common with working people in Mexico, China, South Africa, and every other nation than we will ever have with the bosses waving the star spangled banner.
We Can Learn From the
Like our grandparents before us, American workers can benefit from the varied experiences brought to the table by immigrant workers—whether they be from Mexico and Central America, or from China, Korea, south Asia, Palestine, Ireland, or any of the many other countries of origin. Not only do they have some fresh strategy and tactics for us to consider—just as important they don’t have to “unlearn” as much as those of us fed a lifetime of malarkey by the bosses, mass media and class collaborationist union bureaucrats.
This different perspective was dramatically exhibited last spring when these most vulnerable workers in our society marched in the biggest political demonstrations in U.S. history. More than that, many also participated in work stoppages on May Day—the traditional Labor Day in many of their homelands. While precise statistics are not available it is clear that more shifts of work were denied bosses on this single day than all of the official union strikes of the previous year.
Immigrant workers have been less intimidated by American labor law. Instead of concentrating on NLRB elections they have developed alternative forms of collective bargaining through innovations such as community worker centers and hiring halls for day labor.
A Critical Juncture
Far from fearing and resenting immigrant workers the rest of us would do well to try to emulate their spirit and readiness to take bold actions. Instead of competing with them for cheaper wages we should unite with them to improve the conditions of our whole class.
Both the immigrant rights and trade union movements have historic challenges on their agendas. Can the immigrant workers, building on the inspiring examples of last spring, craft an ongoing, democratic, structured movement that can both represent their independent issues and start building unity in action with the citizen component of the working class? Can the trade union movement break with the disastrous strategy of partnership with the bosses and servile support of the bosses’ parties and reach out to immigrant workers as part of an overall return to the principles of class solidarity, class struggle?
If these questions are resolved in the affirmative there is no power on earth that can hold us down. The cost of failure in these efforts is unacceptable.
For more resources on the web see the Immigrant Worker Rights page on the KC Labor site.
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