Rethinking immigration reform

Liberal compromises on immigration reform conflict with the goals of organized labor

By Greg Gabrellas

When it comes to immigration policy, the Republican Party is schizophrenic. Vehement racists and xenophobes, who yap about the incontrovertible browning of the American population, dominate one section of the GOP. Most liberal-minded people rightly disdain these demagogues, who transparently spurn civil liberties in favor of the dubious rhetoric of national security. But this is not the only face of conservatism. Libertarians and the businessmen who support them are willing to concede that we need to reduce illegal immigration while also increasing the flow of legal immigrants who come for work. Such politicians seem reasonable enough, and liberals are more than willing to endorse bipartisan measures to grant legality in the form of expanding so-called “guest worker” programs.

But this isn’t reform—it’s just good business. The libertarian perspective narrowly considers the free flow of workers across borders to fill gaps in the labor market left vacant by Americans who are assumed to be either too skilled for or not interested in the jobs being created. This perspective overlooks, however, the degradation of work under an expanded “guest worker” regime and its consequences for the erosion of effective civil liberties, including the right to organize. A guest worker program would create working conditions that only the most desperate workers would consider, giving fuel to the quaint myth that Americans prefer immigrants to do their dirty work for them. Such reform will lead to the slashing of overall wages while union organizing efforts are busted.

The class structure of immigrant labor is undeniable. However, the immigrant rights movement has been unable to make the problem explicit. Part of the problem is the emphasis on “immigrant rights” as a single issue. For example, since 2006, May Day marches nationwide have explicitly focused on immigration policy for the as-of-yet unachieved goal of comprehensive reform. The March 10th Movement of Chicago, a coalition of students, workers, and immigrant rights activists, organized the 2006 march that brought out about 500,000 people to the streets. But the turnout for these demonstrations has dropped precipitously; this May Day, only about 10,000 people marched despite the convenience a Saturday afternoon affords to many Chicagoland residents.

Something isn’t working in the movement for immigrant reform, and the problem isn’t that people don’t care enough. Students from the University of Chicago joined the May Day march in record numbers. They represented two long-standing activist organizations—Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) and Students Organized United with Labor (SOUL)—and one new one, University of Chicago Coalition for Immigrant Rights (UCCIR). Altogether, over 50 students participated in the demonstration.

The UCCIR chose to bring the issue home by emphasizing the precarious situation of children of undocumented workers that are the students’ own age. Cindy Agustin, one of the group’s leaders, emphasized how many of the children of the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants cannot receive financial aid for higher education. “Our students and organizations are trying to bring awareness to this specific issue,” explained Agustin, “because they are our peers, and we don’t think it’s fair that students who are more than capable of going to college and getting a college degree have to face such difficulties— especially when they had no choice or say in where they would be living in the future.”

Agustin also noted that many students were outraged by Arizona Senate Bill (S.B.) 1070 and marched in protest.

However salutary this reaction may be, it falls into the liberals’ blackmail of any real reform. We can’t neglect attacking the vicious nativism expressed by the Arizona bill, but that doesn’t do much more than throw the movement on the defensive. The exclusive focus on immigrant rights—and in the case of S.B. 1070, civil rights—risks displacing some of the key economic issues that intimately affect all workers’ lives, and inadvertently channeling movement efforts into pushing for legislation that might grant some of the activists’ demands but is socially regressive. This is how the Democratic Party maintains its grip among reform-minded liberals: By posing as the opponent of Republican xenophobia, Democrats broker compromises to seem like they are making change. But they destroy any reform’s progressive character, under the banner of “change we can believe in.”

Such illiberal reform could introduce dangerous measures to legalize unfree labor, undermining a unified working class movement for years to come—and with it, immigrants’ dreams of dignified employment. Some undocumented immigrants might participate in “guest worker” programs because they see it as a way out, much as the rural masses fled England to become indentured servants in colonial America. But unlike their colonial predecessors, “guest workers” have only a nominal chance of remaining in their new home. Chances are they will be tossed back after a short period of work. Moreover, since these indentured workers would be nearly impossible to organize, they would effectively lose their civil rights, in particular their freedom to bargain for the price of their labor. Easily intimidated by their employers, such workers would displace full citizens, because large firms would prefer to hire people who they can toss around.

We already have documented evidence that “guest worker” programs lead to unfair labor practices and facilitate the degradation of work conditions. An LA Times article in 2007, for example, reported the case of Indian and Mexican workers brought to the Gulf Coast region on H-2B visas. The interviewee, who had come from South Asia, related not only the miserable quality of life, but also the blatant wage exploitation and employee intimidation that was common practice. He compared the treatment of the workers to pigs in a sty.

All of this is unnecessary: Immigrants could be granted full civil rights and permission to reside in the United States. Far from hurting America, they would help revitalize it, but only if they are granted the full rights to place them on equal footing with Americans. Otherwise, guest workers would be a despised second-class category of residents who are used to undermine the playing field between free buyers and sellers.

For this to be realized, students and working-class leaders must go beyond immigrant rights to recognize the class character of their demands. Rather than co-opt the tradition of May Day, they should embrace it. Also known as International Workers’ Day, the holiday commemorates Chicago martyrs, workers who struck in 1886 for an eight-hour day and were murdered by the police of the McCormick Harvester factory. May Day reminds us that workers must fight tooth and nail for every gain, often at great costs, and that our vast achievements are a result not only of their labor, but of their political power, as well.

—Greg Gabrellas is pursuing a Master of Arts degree in the social sciences.