The current immigration crisis that has captured so much attention in the capitalist media is not solely limited to the U.S. but is increasingly experienced by all capitalist metropoles in Europe and North America. The rioting in France last autumn by immigrant youth and the children of immigrants, primarily from North Africa, the recent flood of illegal immigrants and refugees to Spain’s Canary Islands, and the massive immigrant demonstrations in the U.S. this spring, predominantly by Latinos, but also including Asian and European immigrants stand as a clear reminder that this issue is a problem of global capitalism that exposes the bankruptcy of the capitalist economy and the inexorable decomposition of its outmoded social system.
For some years now in the U.S. as in France, Great Britain, Italy, Germany and other countries in Western Europe, the capitalist media and politicians have fueled an anti-immigrant ideological campaign. The central message of this campaign is that the recent immigrant, particularly the illegal immigrant, is responsible for the worsening economic and social conditions faced by the “native” working class, by taking jobs, depressing wages, overcrowding schools with their children, draining social welfare programs, increasing crime, and just about any other social woe you can think of.
This scapegoat propaganda is a classic example of capitalism’s strategy of divide and conquer, to divide workers against themselves, to blame each other for their problems, to fight over the crumbs, rather than to understand that it is the capitalist system that is responsible for their suffering. Blaming these problems on the immigrant workers is particularly cynical, since it is American state capitalism, which 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.
Under cover of this campaign the bourgeoisie implements increasingly repressive policies ostensibly aimed at immigrants, but which augment the state’s repressive apparatus and increase social tolerance for such repression that will ultimately be available for use against the working class as a whole in moments of decisive class confrontations.
At the same time that it ruthlessly fans anti-immigrant hatred, the U.S. bourgeois cynically boasts that it is “a nation of immigrants,” providing opportunity for a better life for millions of people. And it certainly is true that because of the particular historic conditions under which American capitalism developed – an enormous territory with an extremely small native population – it was built on the backs of immigrants, whether imported against their will as slaves and indentured servants or as voluntary immigrants. Put in other words, the “American” working class was historically recruited from all around the world.
During the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, wave after wave of workers and ruined peasants from Europe, and to a lesser extent from Asia, supplied the labor force needed for the expansion of American capitalism. However, the time when American capital used any and all imaginable means to entice a desperately needed labor force to the U.S., that time of “generous” and essentially unrestricted immigration, is long gone.
It is no accident of history that the period of unrestricted immigration corresponded with the period of capitalist ascendency, when capitalism was still an historically progressive mode of production, dramatically expanding the forces of production, and that repressive, restrictive immigration policies characterized the period of capitalist decadence when the relations of capitalism became a fetter on the further development of the productive forces around the time of the First World War. Thus for instance, the Immigration Act of 1917 barred all Asian immigrants and created for the first time the concept of the non-immigrant foreign worker – who would come to America to work but was barred from staying. The National Origins Act enacted in 1924 limited the number of immigrants from Europe to 150,000 persons per year, and allocated the quota for each country on the basis of the ethnic makeup of the U.S. population in 1890 – before the massive waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. This was a blatantly racist measure to slow the growth of “undesirable” elements like Italians, Greeks, Eastern Europeans and Jews. In 1950, the McCarran-Walter Act was promulgated. Heavily influenced by McCarthyism and the anti-communist hysteria of the Cold War, this law imposed new limits on immigration under cover of the struggle against Russian imperialism and the “world communist threat.”
In 1986, America’s anti-immigrant policy was updated with enactment of the Simpson-Rodino Immigration and Naturalization Control Reform Act, which dealt with the influx of illegal immigrants from Latin America, by imposing for the first time in American history sanctions (fines and even prison) against employers who knowingly employed undocumented workers. The influx of illegal immigrants had been heightened by the economic collapse of Third World countries during the 1970s, which triggered a wave of impoverished masses fleeing destitution in Mexico, Haiti, and war ravaged El Salvador. The quantitative proportions of this out of control upsurge resulted in the arrest of a record 1.6 million illegal immigrants in 1986 by immigration police.
However, this repressive “reform” law had only short-lived success in blocking immigration, as the devastating effects of capitalist decomposition in the underdeveloped countries throughout the period since the 1980s – poverty, civil war, disease, untold suffering – has impelled millions of workers in the Third World to seek refuge in Europe and America. By 1992, arrests of illegal immigrants in the U.S. were back up to 1.1 million for the year. At that time the U.S. government responded by increasing the number of airport immigration officers, introducing counterfeit-resistant green cards, increasing the number of agents patrolling the Mexico-US boarder, introducing the use of “surplus” military vehicles for patrol use, and constructing an American-made “Berlin Wall” – a 10-foot high solid steel barricade which ran inland from the ocean for about 10 miles in the Tijuana-San Diego area. Fourteen years later, the Bush administration plans to extend this wall for 700 to 2,000 miles depending upon the final version of the immigration bill that will be worked out by the House-Senate conference committee.
While immigrants come to the U.S. fleeing deplorable conditions in their countries of origins, the social and economic situation they find themselves in once they get here is far from a paradise. They are as a rule condemned to the most hazardous and lowest paying jobs. Hispanic industrial workers, who comprise the majority of illegal immigrants in recent decades, are suffering work-related injuries more often and more seriously than other workers in similar jobs. Nor do they receive comparable medical care or workmen’s compensation for their injuries. In addition, immigrants are forced into the ghettoes of the big cities where they face crowded housing, miserable hygienic conditions, reminiscent of the 19th century conditions faced by Italian and Irish immigrants more than a hundred years ago.
There are two essential differences between the flight of today’s illegal immigrants and their class brothers of the past. First the working class and peasant immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries, after a period of extreme exploitation at the hands of the bosses were either integrated as part of the working class into the normal relations of production in an expanding bourgeois society, or to some extent became part of the petty bourgeois element in the cities and countryside. In this way the immigrants’ standard of living rose to the average economic and social norm for the rest of the working class. The situation has largely been different for today’s immigrants, who have been subjected to social marginalization, hazardous and low-paying jobs, and over-exploitation in an ever-growing cash/off-the-books economy.
The second difference between the immigrants of the ascendant period of capitalism and today is that contemporary immigrants confront a different historical situation: capitalist decomposition. Pushed to emigrate from the periphery of capitalism to its center regions due to economic collapse and political chaos, rejected, socially marginalized, victimized by racism and other bourgeois prejudices in the so-called “land of opportunity,” this “immigrant” sector of the working class is particularly trapped in the turmoil of capitalism.
Historically the working class has always been a class of immigrants, migrating in the first place from the countryside to the cities in search of work and the chance to be exploited at the dawn of capitalist development, or later migrating from city to city following opportunities for work as new industries and centers of production sprang up. In this sense the tension between “native” workers and immigrants is alien to the class interests of the proletariat, and has always represented the intrusion of bourgeois ideology into working class life. In the last analysis what matters for the world working class is to understand that both the wave of impoverished immigrant masses and the anti-immigrant campaigns we are witnessing today are expressions of the dead-end to which decadent capitalism has condemned humanity. The global economic crisis has put the working class standard of living under attack everywhere. The social decomposition of capitalism has created chaos and despair in the underdeveloped countries forcing millions to seek the opportunity to sell their labor power in the more stable capitalist metropoles. Only the working class movement, with its revolutionary communist perspective can deliver society from its current impasse. It is essential for proletarian revolutionaries and class conscious militants to point out the fundamental unity of the working class against all our enemy class’s attempt to poison us with hatred and disunity.
ES/JG, July '06.