'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, May 03, 2010

Stop the Racist Attack on Immigrants 

Crossposted from The Spanish Prisoner:

Recently I was asked to give a talk on immigration. It’s been a long time since I’ve been asked to give a talk on any topic, and the first time I’ve been asked to talk about immigration. Below is the talk I gave at the University of Oregon campus on April 29th:

During the past decade, more than 3,000 people have died crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. These are people coming to look for work. They come here because the economies of Mexico and Central America have been devastated by NAFTA and other “free trade” agreements. These agreements are meant to under-develop these nations so they can serve as sources of raw materials and cheap labor. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has called these immigrants “criminal aliens”.

The state of Arizona recently passed a law making it a state crime for immigrants to not carry authorization papers. The bill also requires the police to ask anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant for papers, a sure-fire invitation to racial profiling. The bill makes it possible for people to sue police who refuse to do racial profiling. Meanwhile, in Maricopa County Arizona, Sheriff Arpaio keeps arrested undocumented immigrants in tents 110-degree heat. In 20009, thousands of workers at American Apparel, American Building Maintenance and Overhill Farms lost their jobs because they purportedly lacked proof that they were legally eligible to work in the U.S. When Obama was running for president, he promised to reform the country’s immigration system and offer undocumented workers a path to citizenship. (67 percent of Latino voters voted for Obama.) Instead, the Obama Administration has expanded the 287(g) program. This is part of the 1986 Immigration and Control Act (IRCA) that was passed under the Reagan Administration. This bill enabled three million undocumented immigrants to acquire legal residency. However, it also contained a clause, 287(g), which enabled the U.S. government to deputize local and state law enforcement officials to enforce immigration laws (something that previously only the federal government could do). As a result of this expansion, police have been able throw immigrants into jail after traffic stops. In 2009, immigration prosecutions were up 20 percent over the previous years.(1) A third of all filings in U.S. district courts are immigration cases.(2) Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON), has said:

We’ve seen racial profiling practices that we haven’t seen in a generation, perhaps since Jim Crow. Obama ran on an agenda of inclusion… He wants equality. He said that we have to promote understanding. Well, guess what – the 287(g) program is not promoting that kind of understanding. It’s promoting division. It’s giving ammunition to all those anti-immigrant organizations, to all those groups with strong white supremacist ties. Day laborers all over the country have experienced it… the men and women who every day defy the odds to find a day of work – they’ve seen what hatred looks like.(3)

The Obama Administration has also announced that it will only award federal contracts to companies that use E-Verify to check employee work authorization. E-Verify is a program started by the Bush administration. It is on-line system by the government that allows companies to verify whether employees have work authorization. Journalist David Bacon has described the effect of this policy:

Workplace immigration enforcement is filled with examples of employers who use audits and discrepancies as pretexts to discharge union militants or discourage worker organization… Overhill Farms has a union. American Apparel pays better than most garment factories. In Minneapolis, the 1,200 fired janitors at ABM get a higher wage than non-union workers–and they had to strike to win it… If anything, ICE seems intent on punishing undocumented workers who earn too much, or who become too visible by demanding higher wages and organizing unions.

And despite Obama’s notion that sanctions enforcement will punish those employers who exploit immigrants, at American Apparel and ABM the employers were rewarded for cooperation by being immunized from prosecution… No one in the Obama or Bush administrations, or the Clinton administration before them, wants to stop migration to the U.S. or imagines that this could be done without catastrophic consequences…Instead [e]nforcement is a means for managing the flow of migrants, and making their labor available to employers at a price they want to pay. (4)

Bacon touches upon a point that is often misunderstood by both the Right and the Left. The government does not want to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants into the U.S., rather it wants to manage it. This is because the exploitation of undocumented workers is an essential element of how the U.S. economy works. Undocumented workers can be paid lower wages and forced to work longer hours than other workers, and forced to work in dangerous conditions, and they don’t have recourse to any labor laws in the U.S. What’s more, it’s difficult for undocumented workers to form unions, because organizers can be easily targeted and fired by companies. Let me use the case of Overhill Farms as an example. Overhill makes processed foods that are served on airlines and in other places. The workers at Overhill are unionized. Overhill has used the firing of workers as a way to weaken the union. Last year, the company fired 254 unionized workers, claiming there were discrepancies in the Social Security numbers. They then replaced the workers with “part-time” workers who receive no benefits, even though they sometimes work up to thirteen hours a day.(5)

Currently the Democrats in Congress are considering legislation that would create a guest worker program here in the U.S. This is not a solution to the immigration problem. Such a program would merely allow employers to do legally what they have so far been doing illegally, that is, exploiting immigrant workers. Workers who complain or try to organize can be fired, and they would have to leave the country under the terms of the guest worker program. The real purpose of this legislation is to provide U.S. companies with cheap labor. It has nothing to do with helping immigrant or native-born workers. The best way to protect the rights of both of these groups is give legal status to undocumented workers. According to Phil Gasper:

A UCLA study conducted a few years ago concluded that if undocumented workers were given legal status, wages for all workers would immediately increase by approximately 5 percent in agriculture, 2.75 percent in services, and 2.5 percent in manufacturing.(6)

The legislation being considered by the Democrats would also call for stricter law enforcement along the border including the erecting of a fence. This would merely make things more dangerous for immigrants, forcing them to cross in more isolated areas in the desert and mountains, resulting in more deaths and suffering. The only real solution to the immigration problem is an open border policy that would allow the free flow of people across borders. The outrageous anti-immigrant bill passed in Arizona has provoked an angry backlash among Latinos and other groups. In the days following the bill’s passage, thousands marched through the streets of the state capitol angrily calling for repeal of this bill. Some protestors plastered swastikas made of refried beans on the windows of the state capitol building. Since the politicians are intent on only serving the interests of the capitalist class, only a movement of the people can bring any real change. Last month, 200,000 people marched through the streets of Washington, D.C. to demand an end to raids and deportations and a better immigration system. This Saturday, May Day, people will be marching in Portland and in Salem. We should stand with those people.

1. Orlando Sepulveda, “Is the Gutierrez Bill Good for Immigrants?” Socialist Worker, http://socialistworker.org/2010/01/21/gutierrez-bill-and- immigrants, p. 3.

2. Ibid.

3. Quoted by Brian Tierney, “Standing Up to Immgration Police”, Socialist Worker, September 20, 2009, Issue 706.

4. David Bacon, “The Brutal Dark Side of Obama’s “Softer” Immigration Enforcement”, Znet, http://www.zcommunications.org/the-brutal-dark-side-of-obamas-softer-immigrationenforcement- by-david-bacon.

5. “Standing Up to Overhill Farms”, Socialist Worker, http://socialistworker.org/2009/07/27/standing-up-to-overhill.

6. Phil Gasper, “Scapegoating immigrants”, International Socialist Review, Issue 50, November– December 2006, http://www.isreview.org/issues/50/gasper2.shtml.

NOTE 1: Overhill Farms disputes the assertion that it replaced full time, undocumented workers with part-time ones with lesser benefits, stating that it promoted the initially part-time replacement workers to full-time status. Left unmentioned is whether Overhill Farms did this after the organizing campaign described in Socialist Worker last July.

NOTE 2: For further elaboration on this subject, please see the statement of Alexander Auerbach, a spokespeson for Overhill Farms and a member of its Board of Directors, in the comments section. According to Auerbach, Overhill Farms hired replacement workers and compensated them pursuant to the terms of its collective bargaining agreement, and is proud to be a union shop. Long time labor activist and author David Bacon provides an overview of the situation at Overhill Farms within the context of immigration law enforcement in this article published last spring.

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