News Analysis

Now that the Democratic majority 110th Congress is seated, the immigrant rights movement has an opportunity to move forward on several fronts.

In the first half of 2006, millions of undocumented immigrants and their allies marched for justice. In many places, these marches broke all historical records, and served notice that immigrant workers will not lie down to oppression.

The results of the Nov. 7 elections have put the immigrant rights movement in a better position legislatively. Although not all Democrats are good on immigration, Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, and the shift of key committee chairmanships to progressive Democrats like John Conyers, will allow for a more rational discussion. It will not be possible for the Republican right to ram through horrors like the Sensenbrenner bill, HR 4437. Furthermore, there is a greatly enhanced opportunity for congressional oversight, including hearings about of the Bush administration’s heavy-handed immigration enforcement actions.

Bush, who supported HR 4437, struck back hard against the protests, starting with a multistate raid on the IFCO pallet company in April. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that from now on, the receipt of multiple “No-Match” letters by employees of the same company would be the basis for investigations and raids. Major firms, like Smithfield Meats and the Cintas industrial laundry corporation, began to fire workers for whom such letters were received. On Dec. 12, more than 1,000 immigration cops swooped down on factories of the Swift meat company, arresting and processing for deportation more than 1,200 people.

In total, 186,600 immigrants were deported in 2006, a 12 percent increase over 2005’s 165,000. This is less than 2 percent of the 12 million undocumented, but it has sent a wave of anxiety through working-class immigrant communities.

The motives are obvious:

• Repression is a “logical” response to the massive marches for immigrant rights.

• A crackdown appeases the most racist right-wing elements like Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) who have been denouncing Bush as being soft on “illegal immigration,” and encourages the ultra-right base.

• Raids serve to pressure business and others into supporting a guest worker program. Threatened with loss of their cheap labor, companies will be eager to get Congress to replace it with guest workers who can be controlled and exploited “legally.” Meanwhile, the terrorization of immigrants by means of repression is part of a long-term trend to prevent them fighting for better wages and thus helps to amass profits through super-exploitation.

So, by means of stepped up repression, Bush thinks to keep the upper hand on the immigration issue, staving off attacks from left and right and controlling the direction of legislation.

This must be contested. We can not allow the 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country, and their millions of citizen and documented spouses and children (potential future voters), to be used as policy hostages by Bush.

The first step is to build a united front of opposition to anti-immigrant repression. The way is shown by workers at Smithfield in Tar Heel, N.C., who walked off the job to demand reinstatement of workers fired for No-Match letters, and won. Key was the fact that immigrant and Latino workers were joined by U.S. citizen workers of all races in this action, in spite of the efforts of the right to demonize immigrants and blame them for poverty and unemployment among U.S.-born workers.

The League of United Latin American Citizens, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials have united in calling for a moratorium on immigration raids and deportations. At Christmas, the American Friends Service Committee, along with the Labor Council on Latin American Affairs, the National Council of Latin American and Caribbean Communities and others, circulated a sign-on letter demanding such a moratorium, and dozens of national and local organizations added their names.

At the local and regional level, Centro Sin Fronteras and others in Chicago and the Midwest organized a 30,000-strong demonstration demanding a moratorium last July 19, and there have been a number of such protests in communities where raids have taken place.

This is a good beginning, but it needs to expand fast. Last year, organized labor was divided over legislative issues, but all people who believe in justice for workers can unite behind the moratorium call. So can all immigrant rights, faith-based, civil rights, African American, Latino, Asian, women’s, youth, GLBT organizations and many others who can build a moratorium coalition as broad as that which backed up the 2003 Immigrant Workers’ Freedom Ride, and broader.

Such a coalition can not only defeat the repression, but set the stage for more worker friendly comprehensive immigration legislation.

Emile Schepers is an immigrant rights activist in Virginia.