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   Vol. 70/No. 18           May 8, 2006  
U.S. immigration rises to new levels,
shifts from Europe to Asia and Latin America
(Third in a series)
In the 1960s immigration to the United States rose substantially and shifted in origin from Europe to Latin America and Asia. These changes were driven by the needs of U.S. capital and by the dispossession of rural toilers in countries oppressed by imperialism throughout the world. In 1965, in response to the needs of U.S. employers, Congress eliminated the system of immigration quotas based on national origin, which had been in place for the previous four decades.

Earlier waves of immigration, in the 1800s and the first decades of the 20th century, were primarily from Europe. Of the 20 million people who have moved to the United States since 1980, 75 percent came from Asia and Latin America. This explosion in immigration in recent decades has resulted in the number of foreign-born in the U.S. population increasing from 6.2 percent in 1980 to 12 percent last year.

During the 1960s, more than 400,000 Asians entered the United States, after having been barred from 1917 to 1943 and then severely restricted by immigration quotas until they were lifted in 1965.

The largest numbers of those entering the United States since the 1970s have come from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, especially Mexico. The U.S. capitalist class has continued to draw on these workers to meet its labor needs in agriculture and industry with a workforce it can subject to second-class status and superexploit.

The number of workers without papers has shot up from about 2 million in the 1980s to as many as 12 million today—nearly 5 percent of the workforce. According to a recent Pew Hispanic Center study, 40 percent of the undocumented have arrived in the past five years.

The U.S. rulers rely on immigrant workers, especially in agriculture, garment manufacturing, meatpacking, restaurants, hotels, and construction. Their use of cops and legislation is designed not to block immigration, but to maintain a section of the working class with less legal protection and thus more vulnerable to superexploitation. The threat of deportation is aimed at intimidating foreign-born workers from organizing into unions and engaging in social and political struggles. This situation helps bosses increase competition for jobs and lower the wages of all working people, while fostering divisions among workers by scapegoating immigrants for the social ills caused by capitalism.

In face of a swelling population of undocumented workers and a burgeoning underground economy, the U.S. rulers have periodically passed legislation to regularize the status of some workers without papers, seeking to gain tighter control over the workforce. The Immigration Reform and Control Act passed by Congress in 1986 and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan was a bipartisan effort to respond to this situation. The law provided amnesty for 2.7 million undocumented workers: about 1.6 million individuals who could prove they had resided in the country since Jan. 1, 1982, and 1.1 million agricultural laborers who had worked in the United States for at least six months.

To help meet the need for seasonal labor in the fields of the Southwest, the legislation created a new seven-year temporary agricultural worker program. It established penalties for employers who hire immigrants without official papers. The purpose was not to halt immigration but to allow bosses to use the threat of deportation to heighten fear among undocumented workers they hired.

Four years later, legislation significantly boosted the annual cap on immigration from the figure of 290,000 set in 1965 to 700,000 for 1992-94, and 675,000 starting in 1995. The actual numbers were much higher. Not included in the annual cap were relatives of U.S. citizens, who were granted an unlimited number of visas, and the 125,000 refugees allowed entry each year.

Further steps to reinforce the second-class status of immigrant workers and weaken the entire labor movement were taken by the Clinton administration, which enacted the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. This measure expanded the powers of the federal immigration authorities to round up and deport those charged with being “illegal,” without the right to judicial review or appeal. Those in the United States longer than six months after their visas had expired could be deported and barred from returning for three years. Those without a visa for more than a year would have to wait 10 years before they could legally return.

The legislation doubled the number of border patrol cops to about 10,000, making the immigration police the largest federal cop agency. It also required states to phase in over six years state-issued ID documents, and made undocumented immigrants ineligible for Social Security benefits.

The same year the Clinton administration put into effect its so-called welfare reform law, which expanded upon these restrictions. In addition to eliminating Aid to Families with Dependent Children, this legislation—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996—barred undocumented immigrants from most federal, state, and local public assistance. Legal immigrants entering the United States after 1996 were now ineligible for five years for various federal social programs like food stamps and Medicaid.

Further measures to beef up the immigration police and restrict the rights of immigrants have been taken by the Bush administration under the banner of the “fight against terrorism,” such as the USA Patriot Act. These measures constitute the framework for the various immigration “reform” bills currently being discussed in Congress. Bipartisan areas of agreement include a further boost in the number of border patrol cops. Among plans under consideration is a proposal to double the migra force over the next five years from its current level of 12,000. By contrast, in the early 1980s there were about 2,500 immigration cops operating along the borders.
Related articles:
Immigration cops raid company, arrest 1,187 workers, deport 275
Bush: ‘No mass deportations’ Clinton: ‘Build wall along border’
Immigrant rights rallies persist in U.S.
Stop immigration raids, deportations
May Day originated in fight for eight-hour day in U.S.  
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