Over the last several years the Clinton administration has spearheaded a bipartisan drive to clamp down on the rights of workers who were born outside the U.S. borders. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996 tripled to 15,000 the number of agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) — the hated migra — and increased their leeway to deport people. Today the INS is the largest federal police agency in the United States, with a war chest of $1 billion. It maintains its own prisons, the abysmal conditions of which sparked protests among detainees in New York and New Jersey last year.
The 1996 law cut some 1 million immigrants who have legal papers from food stamps and limited their eligibility for welfare. In a typically vicious measure, so-called legal immigrants infected with the AIDS virus will be denied publicly financed health care. Those who are undocumented have an even harder time, and new laws make it more difficult to attain legal status.
The INS has stepped up its raids in workplaces throughout the country. In the eight months to June of this year, for example, immigration officials seized more than 1,200 people in 86 factories in New York's garment industry. The bosses work hand-in-glove with the cops, seizing the opportunity to include union militants among the lists they hand over. In total, a record 300,000 people have been deported in the last two years, more than twice the number expelled in the previous two.
"American jobs belong to America's legal workers" declared Clinton in 1996 as he signed an order prohibiting companies that hire undocumented workers from receiving federal contracts. With such rhetorical justification and with their anti-working class, anti-immigrant policies, Clinton and his ilk lay the basis for the more consistent and systematic anti-immigrant demagogy of Patrick Buchanan and other ultrarightists. Buchanan scapegoats immigrants and other sectors of the oppressed for the unemployment and social dislocation caused by the crisis of the capitalist system. He transforms the divide-and-rule tactics of the rulers into a tool for inspiring and mobilizing confused and demoralized social forces to his incipient fascist banner.
This same question confronts the labor movement in every imperialist country. Anti-immigrant demagogy was one of the main campaign points of Jorge Haider, whose ultranationalist and rightist Freedom Party took second place in recent elections in Austria.
The ruling class in the United States profits mightily from the exploitation of the resources and labor of the Third World. One statistic — the fact that a person in Africa has a life expectancy an average 26 years less than a person in North America — speaks volumes about the consequences for such countries. Such disparities, and the high rates of unemployment in many semicolonial countries, lie behind the decision of many working people to emigrate.
The bosses cannot stop the mass immigration that is changing the face of the United States and other imperialist countries. Nor are they trying to choke off this source of cheap labor. Their brutal policies are aimed at keeping this layer of the working class less secure and, they hope, less insistent on its rights. The employers try use this as a weapon to drive down the value of our labor power. That way, they pay us all less.
But immigration brings new forces with a wealth of experiences into the labor movement. It internationalizes our class, links us more to the world, and lays the basis for a labor movement that will increasingly be not "America first," but internationalist in its composition and its program.
There is a growing confidence among immigrant workers today that is reflected not only in protests against la migra's raids but in union struggles. From the textile mills in Kannapolis, North Carolina, to the port of Seattle, workers born in Latin America, Asia, and Africa have been in the thick of fights to unionize.
It is becoming easier — and increasingly necessary — for workers who were born in the United States to view fellow workers who are immigrants not as competitors or as victims but as fellow fighters in the struggle against the employers.
Clinton and the class he represents are beefing up the defense of their borders. But his rhetoric notwithstanding, these are not "our" borders, and working people should have no part in such efforts. That is why participating in actions such as the October 16 march on Washington is important.
We should demand:
Equal rights for immigrants!
No to deportations and factory raids — no human being is illegal!
Jobs for all—shorten the workweek, with no cut in pay!
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home