Back to the streets for immigrant amnesty

The fight for amnesty for nine million undocumented workers in the United States was put on hold, like many other struggles, by Sept. 11. The AFL-CIO and hundreds of other organizations had joined the call for amnesty. Tens of thousands had marched in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and other cities. Legislation (HR-500) had been introduced to achieve amnesty. All this was stalled by the wave of xenophobia unleashed after Sept. 11.

Now a little bit of movement is being seen, with legislation passing the House this week that would once again extend the 245(i) escape clause in the immigration law, permitting people who are eligible for amnesty anyway to pay a $1,000 fine and remain in the U.S. until their visa numbers come up, instead of forcing them to go back to their country of origin to wait years.

But the issue of a complete amnesty for those who can’t qualify under 245(i) can’t wait. We Marxists should review our reasons for judging that amnesty for all undocumented workers is essential. First, Marxists approach the issue from the angle of the wealth that immigrants produce as workers. Many discussions in the popular media ignore this point, and focus narrowly on whether or not immigrants pay more taxes than they receive public services (answer: Yes). But when we understand that the immigrant workers are producing countless billions in wealth every year, we put things in the correct perspective.

Secondly, Marxists approach questions globally. The current wave of immigration to the United States is itself the product of policies of corporate globalization promoted from corporate headquarters, the IMF and World Bank, and the U.S. government. Government and corporate leadership deliberately promote policies that destabilize and impoverish the economies of developing countries. NAFTA has flooded Mexico with cheap U.S. and Canadian corn, ruining many small farmers and driving them into the cities to compete for scarce jobs. Thus, industrial wages in Mexico have declined since NAFTA. Free trade has ruined many Mexican industries, throwing their employees out of work. All this fuels immigration.

Thirdly, Marxists view issues historically. The history shared by the United States and Mexico includes the violent theft by the United States of more than half of Mexico’s national territory between 1836 and 1848. The reasons why Mexico is poor and the U.S. is rich are more complicated, but this history is not irrelevant either.

Finally, Marxists see such issues from the perspective of the working class as a whole. While some argue that immigrants undercut the wages and working conditions of U.S.-born workers because they will work for less, this is a one-sided view. Immigrants can only be used to undercut other workers when they are super-exploited, and that only happens when they have no rights.

U.S. history has proved that immigrant workers, given full rights, are stalwart in labor and people’s struggles. This exposes as fraudulent all immigrant-bashing carried out in the name of sympathy for native-born workers.

There will be immigration as long as there is corporate globalization, and as long as there are immigrant workers who have no rights, both immigrants and native-born suffer. The answer is to give immigrant workers the same rights, not keep them in serfdom. Undocumented status, and not the “cultural attitudes” of immigrants, is the main obstacle to the mass unionization of millions of immigrant workers. This is why the AFL-CIO is pressing strongly for legalization, as should we all.

Emile Schepers is a reader in Chicago.