Sunday, April 30, 2006

Immigration Blues

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Usually the speeches that follow a major protest march are pretty boring. Not on April 9, when 100,000 people took to the streets in San Diego to demand a humane immigration policy. Many of the speakers at this event were themselves immigrants and/or the children of immigrants, and the tales they told were inspiring narratives of hard work, sacrifice, perseverance and ultimate success. They were the kinds of stories that in any other context, conservatives would be hailing as the true fulfillment of the American dream and proof positive that the capitalist system works for anyone willing to dedicate themselves sufficiently to making it work for them.

Not in this case, however. To hear the Right talk about the kinds of people who spoke on April 9 — repeatedly demonized as “illegal” because they crossed into the U.S. from Mexico, the Philippines, Nigeria or wherever without permission slips from the U.S. government — undocumented immigrants, especially ones who are also people of color, threaten the very existence of the U.S. as a nation. Never mind that just about everyone reading this is the descendant of an immigrant — aside from descendants of the few indigenous so-called “Indians” who survived the successive genocides of Spanish and Anglo-American rulers — or that much of the U.S.’s economic success and cultural richness has come from several generations of immigrants.

Immigration is a fact of life. As immigrant rights activist Enrique Morones noted in his April 10 talk at Activist San Diego, as long as you have vast disparities in wealth and income between countries, you will have people seeking to move from the poorer countries to the richer ones — and nowhere in the world do two countries more dramatically different in their economic levels bump up against each other as the U.S. and Mexico. The Right-wing fruitcakes who think the flow of people across the border can be stanched by more of the same methods that haven’t worked before — more personnel for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), nèe the Border Patrol; more double and triple fences across la linea, with roads the width of football fields between them so ICE vehicles can turn around in the middle of giving chase; more lights, high-tech anti-personnel sensors and people with guns (official agents and private “Minutemen” vigilantes) on a border that’s already more militarized than any in the world between two countries that aren’t at war with each other — need a hard dose of reality.

But the immigration crisis is more than just a tale of rich and poor people in rich and poor countries. It’s also the product of an increasingly aggressive strategy of economic exploitation on the part of the giant corporations that really run the world’s economy and their relentless pursuit of the cheapest workers possible. Karl Marx wrote that the capitalists would always try to drive down the wages of their workers to subsistence levels because the less their workers made, the more “surplus value” — profit — the capitalists could extract from them. That hasn’t always happened, but the only times it hasn’t has been when governments have imposed regulations to keep it from happening: antitrust rules to keep corporations from growing and dominating entire industries, laws protecting the rights of workers to organize and form unions, minimum-wage laws and regulations on working hours, health and safety rules to keep workers from being injured on the job, and laws to protect the physical environment from destruction by untrammeled industrial and economic growth. And these reforms have happened only when there was a strong anti-capitalist movement — populism, socialism, communism, anarchism — that had enough popular support that capitalists began to fear they would lose the system altogether if they didn’t offer the workers some concessions.

In the absence of any anti-capitalist movement with the kind of power needed to scare them into accepting reforms, today’s capitalists are running roughshod over the world. Not only are they playing race against race and country against country to divide working people and grab the lowest-paid workforce they can, they are using their control of the modern mass media to convince many working people that deregulation and lassiez-faire economic policies are actually good for them. Through so-called “free trade” agreements that give them the right to take nation-states to court and demand the elimination of any law that stands in the way of actual or potential profits, the capitalists have undermined the ability of any government to regulate them at all — and in a wired world in which money literally moves at the speed of light, the capitalist ruling class can overnight impoverish almost any country that dares to try to stand in their way.

The key to the immigration problem is that, while capital — money — can move at the speed of light, labor — people — are pretty much stuck where they are. It’s not easy to raise the money to travel, especially if the reason you want to move in the first place is because you’re broke and you think you could do better someplace else. As more and more countries institute restrictions on entry, it becomes harder for would-be immigrants to gain a foothold in their destination country — and even if they enter successfully, they live in constant fear of being apprehended and sent back from whence they came. The capitalist rulers and the politicians they control have shown their hypocrisy time and time again by raising more and more restrictions on the ability of labor to move while greasing the already speedy tracks on which money can move, often devastating entire countries’ economies as it does so.

Americans are used to there being “two sides” to every issue, but for immigration there are at least three. There’s the ardent Right-wing populism of the antis, who claim to be protecting the jobs of (white) working people while really pursuing a racist agenda. There’s the well-meaning naïveté of much of the Left, which calls (rightly) for humane treatment of immigrants but ignores their utility to the capitalist class as a way to drive down the price of all labor. And there’s the position of the Bush administration and many U.S. Senators of both major parties, which welcomes immigrants but only as “guest workers” — given legal status but essentially indentured to their employers and still faced with the threat of deportation if they dare to demand higher wages or try to join (or start) unions and bargain collectively.

The hysteria over immigration has been a Godsend for the demagogues of talk radio, who until recently had reason to fear their credibility — and their ratings — would start falling with President Bush’s poll numbers. Immigration has given the Right-wing talk-show hosts an issue with which they can attack Bush from the Right, thereby honing their credentials as looking out for “the folks” (as Bill O’Reilly rather patronizingly calls his listeners) — while Bush, the dream president of the radical Right on so many other issues (his worldwide crusade against Islam under the guise of a “war on terrorism,” his blanket disregard of civil liberties and human rights at home and abroad, and his religiously-driven opposition to abortion, Queer rights, stem-cell research, euthanasia and environmental protection), is very much his father’s son on this one, a classic Main Street Republican more interested in exploiting immigrants as a cheap workforce for his big-business buddies than in scoring racist points by attacking them.

Immigration is a problem with no easy solution. Trying to slam the border shut isn’t going to work; though the people who dug it apparently wanted to move drugs rather than people, the elaborate tunnel recently discovered under the U.S.-Mexico border cruelly mocks the hopes of those who think a high-tech fence is going to solve anything. Opening it isn’t going to help either; it will just increase the flood of low-priced workers and drive down wages for unskilled and less-skilled labor generally — which will hurt mostly the African-American and Latino citizens competing with undocumented workers for the worst, dirtiest and least-paying jobs. A guest-worker program will be the worst of both worlds: it will have much the same anti-labor effect as an open border while legitimizing the super-exploitation of low-paid workers by their bosses. Anyone who seriously thinks a guest-worker program is part of a humane solution to the immigration problem needs to listen to the horror stories of the surviving braceros, Mexicans who were legally imported into the U.S. to do farm labor between 1942 and 1964. Not only were they paid trash wages and worked to death (sometimes literally), they were so systematically short-changed on the pay they were supposed to get that some of them are still owed money to this day.

Ultimately, there is only one solution to immigration: to equalize the standard of living throughout the world so every human being can make a decent living in his or her own country and have access to the basic needs: food, clothing, shelter and health. Alas, the world today seems to be moving in exactly the opposite direction, towards greater gaps between rich and poor between as well as within nations. Until then, all we can do is to guarantee the rights of the estimated 12 million undocumented persons already within our borders — many of whom have been model workers and have raised children, whether born here or in their home countries, who are totally American and would be totally lost if they tried to establish themselves anew in the lands their parents came from — and fight for strict enforcement of minimum-wage laws and real protection of all workers’ right to organize so there will be little or no incentive for capitalists to flout our immigration laws by hiring undocumented workers and paying them sub-minimum wages or none at all.