This spring hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers, most of them “illegal aliens,” as the bourgeoisie calls them, predominantly from Latin American countries, took to the streets in major American cities across the country, from Los Angeles, to Dallas, to Chicago, to Washington DC, and New York City, protesting a threatened crackdown proposed in legislation advocated by the rightwing of the Republican party. The movement seemed to erupt overnight, coming from nowhere. What is the meaning of these events and what is the class nature of this movement?
The anti-immigrant legislation that won approval in the House of Representatives and provoked the demonstrations would criminalize illegal immigration, making it a felony for the first time. Currently being an illegal immigrant is a civil violation, not a criminal offense. Illegal immigrants would be arrested, tried, convicted, deported, and would forfeit any possibility to ever legally return to the US in the future. State laws which forbid local agencies, from police to schools to social services from reporting illegal aliens to immigration officials would be nullified, and employers who hired illegal aliens would suffer legal penalties as well. Under this legislation, upwards of 12 million immigrants would face deportation. This extreme legislation does not have the support of the dominant fraction of the bourgeoisie, as it does not correspond to the global interests of American state capitalism, which clearly needs immigrant workers to fill low paid jobs, to serve as a reserve army of unemployed and underemployed workers to depress wages for the entire working class, and considers the idea of mass deportation of 12 million people to be an absurdity. Opposed to this proposed crackdown is the Bush administration, the official Republican leadership in the Senate, the Democrats, big city mayors, state governors, major corporate employers who need to exploit a plentiful supply of immigrant workers (in the retail, restaurant, meat packing, agribusiness, construction and home care industries), and the trade unions who dream of extracting membership dues from these destitute workers. This motley crew of bourgeois “champions” of immigrant workers favors more moderate legislation, which would tighten up the border, slash the numbers of new immigrants, allow illegal immigrants who have been here for a number of years to become legalized, and force those who have been here for less than two years to leave the country, but with the possibility to return legally in the future. Some form of “guest” worker program would be set up to allow foreign workers to find temporary work in the US on a legal basis and maintain the supply of needed cheap labor.
It was in this social and political context that the immigrant worker demonstrations erupted. Coming on the heels of the unemployed immigrant youth riots in France last autumn, the student revolt triggered in France this spring against the government’s attack on job security, and the transit strike in New York in December, the immigrant demonstrations were hailed by leftists of all stripes, and many libertarian, anarchist groups as well. It is certainly true that the immigrants threatened by the legislation are a sector of the working class that confronts a particularly harsh and brutal exploitation, suffers a harrowing existence, denied access to social services and medical treatment, and that their situation demands the solidarity and support of the working class as a whole. This solidarity is all the more necessary because in classical fashion the bourgeoisie uses the debate over legal and illegal status of the immigrants as a means to stir up racism and hatred, to divide the proletariat against itself, all the while that it profits from the exploitation of the immigrant workers. This could indeed have been a struggle on the proletarian terrain, but there is a big difference between what could be and what actually happens in any given movement.
Wishful thinking should not blind us to the actual class nature of the recent demonstrations, which were in large measure a bourgeois manipulation. Yes, there have been workers in the streets, but they are there totally on the terrain of the bourgeoisie, which provoked it, manipulated it, controlled it, and openly led it. It is true that there have been some instances, such as the spontaneous walkouts by Mexican immigrant high school students in California – the sons and daughters of the working class – that implied certain similarities to the situation in France, but this movement was not organized on the proletarian terrain or controlled by immigrant workers themselves. The demonstrations that brought hundreds of thousands into the streets were orchestrated and mobilized by the Spanish-language mass media, that is to say by the Spanish-speaking bourgeoisie, with the support of large corporations and establishment politicians.
Nationalism has poisoned the movement, whether it was Latino nationalism, which was cropped up in the opening moments of the demonstrations, or the sickening rush to affirm Americanism that followed more recently, or the nationalist, racist-based opposition to the immigrants fomented by rightwing talk show broadcasters on the radio and rightwing Republicans. When there were complaints in the mass media that too many immigrant demonstrators carried Mexican flags in California and that this showed they were more loyal to their home country than their adopted home, movement organizers supplied thousands of American flags to be waved in the demonstrations that followed in other cities to affirm the loyalty and Americanism of the protests. By the end of April a Spanish language version of the national anthem recorded by leading Hispanic pop stars was released and broadcast on the radio. Of course the rightwing nationalist opponents of the immigrants jumped on the Spanish-language version of the national anthem as affront to national dignity. The demand for citizenship, which is a totally bourgeois legalism, is another example of the non-proletarian terrain of the struggle. This putrid nationalist ideology is designed to completely short circuit any possibility for immigrants and American-born workers to recognize their essential unity.
Nowhere was the capitalist nature of the movement more evident than the mass demonstration in New York City in April, when 300,000 immigrants rallied outside City Hall, where they had the support of the city’s mayor, Republican Michael Bloomberg, and Democratic Senators Charles Schumer and Hilary Clinton, who spoke to the crowd and praised their struggle as example of Americanism and patriotism.
It’s been 20 years since the last major immigration reform effort undertaken by the Reagan administration, which granted amnesty to illegal immigrants. But that amnesty did nothing to stem the tide of illegal immigration that has continued unabated for two decades, because American capitalism needs a constant supply of cheap labor and because the effects of the social decomposition of capitalism in underdeveloped countries has so degraded living conditions as to impel growing numbers of workers to seek refuge in the relatively more stable and prosperous capitalist metropoles.
For the bourgeoisie the time has come to stabilize the situation once again, as it has become more difficult to absorb an increasing flood of immigrants and more and more difficult to tolerate a situation where millions of workers are not officially integrated into the economy or society, who don’t pay taxes, are not documented, after nearly 20 years of illegal status. On the one hand this has led to Bush administration resort to clumsy efforts to restrict new immigration at the border, for example by militarizing the border with Mexico, literally constructing a Berlin Wall to make it difficult for immigrants to cross into the US. On the other hand it has also led the administration to favor legalization for workers who have been here more than two years. Because the U.S. economy is such that it needs a constant flow of cheap labor in a big sector of the economy, it is highly unlikely that the several million workers who have been in the U.S. under two years and will be legally required to leave the country, will actually do so. Most likely they will remain here illegally, and will become the base of the future illegal workforce that will continue to be necessary for the capitalist economy, both to provide cheap labor and put pressure on wages for the rest of the working class.
The recalcitrance of the rightwing to accept this reality reflects the increasing political irrationality created by social decomposition, which has previously manifested itself in the ruling class’ difficulty in achieving its desired results in the presidential election. It’s hard to believe that the extreme right cannot see the impossibility of mass deportations of 12 million people, and the need to stabilize the situation. It’s only a matter of time before the dominant fraction of the bourgeoisie imposes its solution to the problem and the mass demonstrations recede, as the bourgeoisie moves to integrate the newly legalized population into the mainstream political process.
Internationalism, April 2006