The forced migration of millions of people is one horrific result of the crisis of the capitalist system across the globe. Wars and civil wars – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, the Sudan and elsewhere – have created huge numbers of refugees. Major disasters – floods, droughts, tsunamis, and landslides – also drive masses of people from their homes.
But most migration today is forced upon people because of economic misery. Imperialism has bled dry the poorest countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America with “free trade” policies like NAFTA, extortionate debt repayments and “structural readjustment” policies demanded by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the privatization of nationalized industries and utilities. It has left millions of workers unemployed and has bankrupted millions of small farmers, turning them into landless refugees.
Revolutionary-minded workers and youth believe that this whole order can and must be overturned. This means a fight against the imperialist capitalist system. To advance this cause, we believe in building working-class revolutionary political parties dedicated to leading the masses in the overthrow of capitalist states and replacing them with states based on working-class rule. Our overall goal is creating socialist societies of freedom and abundance throughout the world.
As revolutionary socialists, we in the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) support all struggles that help defend the working class and oppressed against the attacks coming from the capitalist class. We particularly emphasize united working-class action, which must also champion the needs of the most oppressed people. This is especially important in the United States, where chauvinist attacks on immigrants, along with racist attacks on Black people and other people of color, are key to the operation of the imperialist system.
Many immigrants have little choice but to try to come to the U.S., even though they face endless toil at miserable jobs and low wages. It is bitterly ironic that as “free-market” capital becomes freer to move wherever it wishes in search of cheaper labor for new factories, the restrictions on the movement of actual human beings have become far more harsh, especially in the imperialist centers. In the U.S., the attempt to build a new life, even the search for the most basic means of survival, can mark people as “illegal” or “criminal.” The criminalization of undocumented immigrants has become a glaring injustice.
This whole setup reeks of hypocrisy. It is well known that many capitalists seek to hire vulnerable immigrant workers, figuring that they can maximize exploitation and oppression of them with little consequence. Targeting and scapegoating immigrants is one way the bosses try to keep different groups fighting each other instead of fighting against the system itself. Workers are set up to compete for dwindling jobs and falling wages. In the U.S. the system encourages racism and national chauvinism among white workers, many of whom are at least temporarily duped into believing their problems come from workers of color and foreign-born workers. But it hardly stops there: oppressed workers of different races, ethnicities, and nations of origin are all encouraged to compete against each other instead of uniting against the capitalist class that is their common enemy.
But capitalism also drives workers to unite in struggle. Especially since the financial crisis of 2008, the conditions for all workers have been going downhill, even though immigrants and workers of color have it the worst. Our class has a common interest in defending itself against the raging capitalist attacks against our jobs, wages and living standards. And many workers are already brought together into workplaces by capitalism, whether they are working together in a factory, a big Wal-Mart or Amazon warehouse, a public hospital, a school, or elsewhere.
The vast majority of workers and youth are fed up with the establishment political parties and angry about the deteriorating social and economic conditions of their life. If our fellow workers are able to unite against the poisons of racism and national chauvinism – and can join together to fight for jobs, social services, etc. – a powerful struggle against the capitalist ruling class could develop. Such a struggle could demand that society meet people’s needs, including jobs for all at decent wages and social benefits – instead of fighting among ourselves for scraps and crumbs. Revolutionary-minded workers and youth who promote internationalist socialism as the real answer to the evils of capitalism will have an important role to play in leading such struggles in the future.
Right now these ideas can sound like dreams. But in other parts of the world there are already many examples of working people rising up and actively searching for a way forward. There are major militant strikes in China, South Africa, Argentina and Egypt, just to name a few examples. Here in the U.S. it is rather quiet, but it won’t stay that way for much longer. It is only a matter of time before workers and youth begin to rebel in large numbers. A prime example took place just eight years ago. In 2006, there was in fact a mass movement of millions of immigrant workers on U.S. soil. And it seemed to arise out of nowhere.
Not only did that movement win its immediate goal of defeating the racist anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner bill. The huge rallies, marches and strikes dared to raise the bold proposition that all immigrant workers deserved amnesty and equal rights with other workers in this country. Indeed such ideas, which are now hardly even talked about in immigrant activist circles, were popular not that long ago. But the movement was betrayed and misled into depending on the promises of the imperialist Democratic Party and on leaders of the trade unions and other mainstream organizations who are totally tied to the Democrats.
In fact, because a fighting strategy based on working-class independence, unity and organization was not forged, the capitalist politicians were able to take charge and mislead the movement – even though they had not created it in the first place. The movement was diverted onto the passive and futile track of voting for Democratic Party politicians under the promise that this would lead to the passage of so-called “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” (CIR).
This kind of scenario however is not unique to immigrants. A similar trap was laid in the past for militant Black struggles, union struggles and other efforts by working-class people to fight for their interests. Any struggle that threatens the fundamental ways in which the capitalists run their profit-making system is going to face major attempts at co-optation by reformist leaders.
CIR was promoted by the leaders of immigrant rights organizations over a number of years, despite the fact that every version of CIR put forward featured substantial repressive measures targeting immigrants. Each CIR proposal contained provisions that would signify an attack on many immigrants – even if some would be offered a “pathway to citizenship.” The most recent proposals would provide massive funding for more militarization and enforcement at the border, while mandating that benchmarks and quotas in these areas be met before any “pathway to citizenship” could be considered. And that long maze of a “pathway” would be so full of potential penalties and hurdles that it would harshly limit how many people would be able to get through it.
In addition, the CIR proposals all contain super-exploitative temporary “guest-worker” schemes that ensure that second-class workers with few rights would be available in specific job categories for the benefit of particular employers and industries.
That is why all of the CIR bills should have been opposed. If the working class, whether immigrant or native-born, is to fight the ruling class’s divide-and-conquer strategy, supporting the interests of all immigrant workers is a good place to start. But the leaders of the unions, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the NAACP and other organizations that claim to advance democratic rights have accepted the proposition that it acceptable to support more repression against many immigrants in exchange for a promise of citizenship for a few.
At this moment CIR has extremely low prospects for passage, certainly in this Congressional term and most likely in the longer run as well. The “moderate” wing of the Republican Party led by House Speaker John Boehner was willing to accept a very limited "pathway to citizenship" within a repressive, enforcement-heavy framework. They view CIR as a necessary concession to appeal to Latino voters for support, as well as to please agricultural and other business interests that favor a bill that would set up a more stable supply of super-low-wage immigrant labor. That is also why much of the Democratic Party supports CIR and feels comfortable searching for common ground with Republicans in a “bipartisan” approach. However, the racist Tea Party faction of the Republicans forced their party to abandon the bill because they oppose any concessions to immigrants, real or imagined; and many reactionaries will simply not back anything that they see as handing President Obama a victory.
As for Obama, he has escalated detentions and deportations of immigrants throughout his presidency. There have always been heroic local efforts to defend immigrants against the effects of these and other reactionary policies, and tough battles are being fought all the time in a number of places. But especially on the national level, the leaders of immigrant rights organizations and unions pressured activists to downplay those issues and avoid harsh criticisms of Obama and the Democrats – in favor of lobbying them for immigration reform.
Now immigrant rights groups and a number of unions are feeling outrage from their members and supporters over Obama's record number of deportations. Obama's war against the undocumented is under more of a spotlight than before. This pressure has led some mainstream groups like the NCLR to award Obama the title of “Deporter-in-Chief,” a label that was until recently used only by more militant activists. NCLR President Janet Murgia made the following comments in a recent radio interview:
And the fact is, is that ... we're about a few days away from hitting the 2 million mark when it comes to the number of deportations that have occurred in this administration. It's more than any other president in the history of the U.S., and it's faster than any other administration has hit that high a mark. And the majority of those folks who have been deported are individuals without a criminal record. So for us, this is a real crisis, a humanitarian crisis in our community, and it is a fact. He has deported more individuals in his administration than any previous president.
Likewise, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka felt obliged to publicly address participants in hunger strike staged in front of the White House, railing against deportations in similar terms.
What’s happening right now is unacceptable. Thank you to those participating in the hunger strike for calling attention to this untenable, unacceptable situation. ... Just remember, no matter how many people oppose us, just remember that we will last one day longer, and we will because we are right.
This kind of talk does not mean that Murgia, Trumka or any of the other mainstream leaders actually plan to abandon their support for the Democratic Party. But the rhetoric shows that the leaders of mass organizations are subject to pressure. This is an important consideration in strategizing about how to build an effective defense of immigrants, given the resources and influence over working-class people that the unions and civil rights organizations have at their command.
Some anti-immigrant reactionaries say that the official statistics are misleading and that, in fact, Obama has been soft on immigrants. That is a lie. However, there have been shifts in how undocumented people are handled by the system that are important to understand.
Deportations can occur in two ways. One is through “returns,” when people who are caught near the border are returned quickly to the other side without going through any processing. Since 2000, the number of these returns has decreased significantly. What has increased, though is far worse – the amount of “removals.” That refers to immigrants who are formally detained, often imprisoned in detention centers and then processed though the immigration system and its courts. That figure has risen dramatically, with many at the border now being detained for “removal” instead of just being quickly “returned.”
This shift in repressive enforcement was happening under Bush, but it has continued and escalated under Obama. It has meant severe consequences for the lives of immigrants. First, border deaths have spiked, as it becomes more difficult and dangerous to cross: deaths went up 27% between 2011 and 2012. Second, jail sentences for “illegal entry,” which is defined as a “felony” and is invoked when a person tries to re-enter the U.S. after having been caught before, are up 76% since Obama took office. Likewise, the focus on anti-immigrant enforcement goes hand-in-hand with a rise in nationalist hatred and vigilantism. It is no accident, for example, that hate crimes against Latinos, including beatings and murders, more than tripled from 2011 to 2012.
The trend towards the more formal “removal” process has also led to a build-up of the detention population. These centers are often built and run by private contractors who make big profits by forcing detainees to live in deplorable conditions. Often detainees are forced to work for as little as $1 a day and to pay “company shop” prices at the commissary. A quota passed by Congress mandates that 34,000 existing detention beds must be filled at all times – a boon to the private prison industry, which owns about half of the immigrant detention beds in the country.
Currently resistance to the anti-immigrant attacks is on a small scale. But rising anger and impatience with Obama's record number of deportations has grown and there will surely be more opportunities for struggle in the near future. The National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) has made efforts on a national scale in organizing the "Not One More" campaign, which has demanded the halt of all deportations. This campaign has included sit-ins right outside deportations centers and a national day of action that was held in April.
Sit-ins outside deportation centers inspired the detainees themselves at a facility in Tacoma, Washington, to begin a hunger strike. At its peak in March about 750 detainees participated, and that strike also sparked another hunger strike in Conroe, Texas. GEO Group, the company that runs so many of these for-profit facilities, retaliated against the hunger strikers, putting people in solitary confinement and eventually deporting many, obviously in collusion with the government. Nevertheless it is likely that such tactics will continue; what will be decisive will be how much support can be rallied outside in conjunction with the struggles of the prisoners themselves.
Undocumented workers make up a significant proportion of the low-wage workers in the U.S., and this points to another vital arena of struggle. In the last few years, workers at Wal-Mart distribution centers and various fast-food restaurants have gone on strike for better wages and working conditions, in some cases winning significant victories. Car-wash workers in New York and Los Angeles fought and won unionization struggles which included higher wages, sick and personal days and a grievance procedure. As well, the fight to unionize the South has now been taken to the Mountaire chicken processing plant in North Carolina. What’s significant here is that the United Food and Commercial Workers’ (UFCW) organizing plan is based on the notable success of organizing workers at Smithfield Foods in Tar Heel, North Carolina in 2008. The long and hard fought battle depended on forging unity over time between Black, white and Latino workers, including immigrants, against a series of nasty attempts by the bosses to instigate divisions. The seeds of success in organizing point to what really needs to happen on a large scale.
Despite their extremely vulnerable status, immigrant workers often bring with them radical political consciousness and knowledge derived from a history of struggle in their homelands. These immigrant workers are not just victims; they can in fact also provide leadership to other workers. There is much to be gained by striking common cause. The labor struggles of low-wage workers and the political struggle for equal rights for immigrants are deeply connected. Moves to unite these struggles with native-born and undocumented workers fighting together would be an important step forward. The now popular “fight for $15” movement that aims to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour is another arena in which this type of unity can be built.
Achieving a powerful united struggle will require that militant workers demand that the unions genuinely mobilize their resources and launch serious campaigns to fight for immigrant rights and the defense of undocumented workers in particular. Labor unions in the U.S. are currently the main organizations of the working class; they can and must be forced into mass action. But that will only happen when immigrant workers and their allies among other workers make public demands for a fightback and don’t accept less.
The struggles that have occurred lately – from the battles that young undocumented students have waged in various states to get local Dream Acts, to the hunger strikes waged by detainees in for-profit detention center hell-holes – have required a lot of courage and deserve respect and solidarity from the whole working class. But as far as the fat cats that run the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win Federations are concerned, an occasional speech at a tiny rally is good enough.
The AFL-CIO on the national level endorsed the Not One More Deportation campaign run by NDLON, but they have actually done very little to build it. In New York, the Central Labor Council’s call for a May Day rally mentions immigrant rights – but that is the extent of it. Everyone knows these union leaders spend no time or energy to really get the ranks of workers out on the streets fighting for immigrant rights and connecting that fight to the fight for all workers’ rights. Instead, they put time, money and energy into phone banks and massive flyering activities around elections for the benefit of the Democratic Party – and that’s about all most workers can see the unions doing.
It is inevitable that the class struggle, so long dammed up, will break through with a fury and depth that will stun people who don’t understand what our class is capable of. The brave rebellion of immigrant workers in 2006 is just an indication. Such an upheaval will make it possible to go beyond simply making demands on the present union bureaucrats and like-minded leaders of other establishment outfits like NCLR and NAACP. In the course of struggle, more workers will learn the need to build a new political leadership, which we say must be a party dedicated to socialist revolution.
The only way to really beat back the bosses and provide a secure future for all of our families is by fighting for the rights of immigrants, Blacks, Latinos, women, the unemployed and all oppressed and exploited people. The misery of capitalism and imperialism will never be truly resolved under capitalism: the only solution is workers’ socialist revolution to do away with capitalism internationally.
1. For more discussion of the 2006 movement and the Sensenbrenner bill see “Oppose All the Anti-Immigration Bills! Millions March for Immigrant Rights,” Proletarian Revolution No. 77 (Spring 2006).
2. See for example our pamphlet, The Democratic Party: Graveyard of Black Struggles, by Sy Landy
3. On the CIR proposals, see Democrats and Republicans, Enemies of Immigrant Workers; Laws, Raids and Deportations: Immigrant Workers Face Crackdown; May Day 2008 Statement by the League for the Revolutionary Party: Stop the War on Immigrants!; Stop the Capitalist War on Immigrants! Unconditional Amnesty for All!”; Stop the Deportations! No to the Repressive “Reform” Bill! Amnesty and Equal Rights for All Immigrants!.
4. Dead on Arrival, February 7, 2014;
5. National Council Of La Raza Dubs Obama “Deporter-In-Chief” by Eyder Peralta, March 4, 2014
6. Is Obama Still “Deporter In Chief”? March 17, 2014;
7. AFL-CIO’s Trumka meets with immigrants, calls deportations “unacceptable” by David Nakamura, Washington Post, April 23, 2014;
8. The Obama Administration’s 2 Million Deportations, Explained, Mother Jones, April 4, 2014;
9. Border Deaths Spike 27 Percent, Even As Immigration From Mexico Drops, Report Says Huffington Post, March 20, 2013;
10. Obama, deporter-in-chief: the shame of immigration policy, one family at a time by Sadhbh Walshe, April 9, 2014;
11. Hate Crime Victimization Statistics Show Rise in Anti-Hispanic Crime
12. 500 people rally outside detention center hunger strike continues with ongoing use of solitary confinements
13. The Seven Sitting Down to Stop Deportations At Broadview Detention Center
14. From Tacoma to Texas, Hunger Strikers Challenge Private Immigration Detention Centers; Hey, what ever happened with that hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center? by Lal Henterly - Apr 21, 2014, The Seattle Globalist;
15. Car Wash Workers Unionize In Los Angeles
16. The fight to unionize the South brews at an N.C. slaughterhouse by Aaron Lake Smith, April 16, 2014