The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

United States:
Immigration and the Forging of the American Working Class

Oct 20, 2006

“We will never win the war on terror until we secure our borders.” With these words Texas Congressman John Culberson, a retainer of the Bush family, opened an August newsletter to his constituents. He went on to explain: “Lawlessness breeds lawlessness, and this lack of enforcement [of immigration law] has led to a stampede of illegal aliens across our border, which is overwhelming our health care system and social services, increasing our crime rate, and threatening our national security.”

Elsewhere, he declared that native-born workers were being steamrollered aside in this “stampede.” And he dared – this man who shares his world view with the KKK – to bemoan the worsening condition of “our nation’s minorities”!

Culberson pontificated: “our nation was built by immigrants, and we need legal immigrants who are willing to become Americans, learn English and become productive citizens.... A nation that will not enforce its laws, or protect its borders, its language or its culture is doomed to follow the failure of the Roman Empire.”

What pure, unadulterated crap!

Of course, Culberson is not the only politician these days to play the anti-immigrant card to divert attention from the attacks on the population that he and his party are carrying out. And he’s certainly not the first to rile up xenophobia. It’s a tradition that extends all the way back to the “forefathers.” In 1751, Benjamin Franklin warned against the dangers of German immigration: “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us, instead of our Anglifying them.” It was to be a constant refrain. Woodrow Wilson, almost 170 years later, denounced “the countries of the south of Europe [which] were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population.” Others, more directly, spoke of “Europe’s refuse.”

Whether focused on language, culture or jobs, the propaganda remains much the same: we are supposed to fear the incoming hordes.

The fact remains – as Culberson was forced to recognize – this is a country “built by immigrants.” Some came in chains, some came with hopes, some practically sold themselves as a way to leave where they were, some were provided passage and a new stake by a country trying to get rid of its surplus population. But however they got here, their sweat and blood developed – and still develops – the country. From their labor, and even their persons, the wealth of American capitalism was amassed – and it still is. One other point: the importation of labor brought to birth a new working class. Fearful of it from the start, the bourgeoisie and their politicians have repeatedly tried to set one part of the working class against other parts, with immigration playing a role in this.

But no matter what aims the American bourgeoisie has, the American working class itself matured in these successive waves of immigration. And its different parts found the way to forge themselves into one class, able at times to overcome its divisions and to fight for its own interests in the most combative ways.

The First “Immigrants” – Unfree and Unwilling

In Europe, the nascent bourgeoisie produced its own proletariat – those who had nothing to sell but their labor power. The peasantry were being expelled from the countryside, as landlords took over the small peasant land holdings, and as animal husbandry replaced crops. In the cities, the earliest development of a factory system pushed the handicraft workers out of their own workshops.

But there was no such labor surplus formed in North America. Almost from the day English colonists claimed “Virginia” and “Plymouth Plantation” for the British crown – and with them a large share of North America – they were confronted by the problem of finding labor. Unsuccessful in their attempt to enslave or otherwise set the indigenous peoples to work in the colonialists’ fields, the English settlers soon began a campaign of military removal and outright extermination of the indigenous peoples. The English crown sought other sources of labor.

The first sizeable groups of that labor were un-free. Some were stolen from Africa and sold outright as slaves. Others were hi-jacked here in a temporary form of slavery, indentured servitude – most of them coming from England, Wales, Scotland, Scottish-Ireland or Germany.

Temporary though indenture may have been, it could be as vicious as slavery during the indentured period when legally these “servants” had no more rights over their persons than did the slaves. Often as not, they (more exactly, their indenture contracts) were sold in a market right where the ships unloaded them. In some ways, including the passage from Europe, indenture was worse, because the slave traffickers, like the plantation owners, had more capital tied up in a slave than the merchants did in the indentured. The indentured may eventually have gained their “freedom” – although a sizeable part never did, since they could be condemned to an extension of their indenture contract for any number of reasons. And while some chose indenture as a matter of survival, a majority of the indentured came here by no choice of their own, thrown onto ships straight out of prisons, orphans’ homes, and debtors’ courts or rounded up as vagrants. Of the Europeans who arrived here before the revolution, somewhere between one-half to two-thirds came indentured. They were the basis of production in the Northeast, both in the fields and in workshops. They also worked as household servants.

As for the slaves, they amounted to 19% of the whole population in 1790, when the first census was made in the new United States. Almost all of them had been directly imported from or descended from people imported from Africa. As late as 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, four million people whose ancestors came from Africa, 35% of the whole southern population, were enslaved according to the U.S. census. Nearly 200,000 more in the northeastern and north central states were slaves. In the centers of southern cotton production, slaves made up the majority of the population, reaching 75% or more in the rural areas.

The slave trade itself enabled the northeastern merchants to accumulate the first big holdings of capital, pushing development in the western hemisphere along capitalist lines. The subsequent labor of the slaves, first on tobacco fields, then on cotton plantations, created the first important trade surplus enjoyed by American capital. The down-payment for capitalist development was made by the slaves, with their persons and with their labor.

“This peculiar institution,” as slavery has been called, also created, in the black population, a kind of caste inside the laboring population, and this had consequences on the development of the working class for several centuries, with most new waves of immigrants counterposed, often violently, to the slaves (later on, the former slaves and their descendants).

Nonetheless, from the beginning, there was certainly contact between the slaves and the rest of the laboring people. In 1661, Virginia passed a law prescribing extra years of indenture to any servant who tried to “run away in company of any Negroes.” The very existence of such a law makes it obvious that there was some degree of fraternization. Furthermore, the 1600s were rife with slave revolts. The slaves and their descendants may have known a particularly ferocious oppression, which lasted for almost 300 years, but they also established that they could find the way to fight back against it, to defend themselves and sometimes to pull others with them.

The First Big Wave of European Immigration – Contracted to Build Capitalism’s Infrastructure in the East

As late as 1790, the U.S. census counted only four million people in a land area which was more than double the size of modern-day France and Germany combined. (The census ignored those living in the Indian tribes.) Forty years later, with its land area doubled, having absorbed part of France’s and Spain’s former crown holdings, the U.S. still counted less than 13 million. During these years, immigration continued from Europe, sometimes for religious or political reasons, sometimes for economic ones. But it was not until 1830 that American capital began to send labor contractors to Europe to bring over large numbers of people. Pushing to build the canals and then the railroads that would link the Mississippi watershed to the Northeast, and then the two coasts with each other, capital was desperate for labor.

Between 1840 and 1860, over four million people were brought into the East Coast ports, mainly from Germany, Britain and Ireland. The Irish – who were in the worst situation in their own land – accounted for nearly a million and a half all by themselves. Driven off the land, first by enclosures, and then by famine, the Irish peasants had no means to pay for their passage. While they were not formally indentured, they were brought to this country by labor contractors, many of whom at the beginning worked for the railroads or the canal companies. Some men were put to work at the hardest of laboring jobs in Boston and New York. Many others were thrown immediately into work camps, from which they built the infrastructure of the new railroads, dug the canals, and worked in the Eastern coal mines. Attesting to the real desperation in Ireland, women also came in large numbers, many completely alone. In fact, through almost all these years, there were significantly more Irish women immigrants than men. For the most part they were settled in the East Coast cities, often brought under contracts – most commonly, to provide domestic service to the growing wealthy middle class that inhabited those cities. Neither women nor men were considered “indentured,” but at the practical level, both were under contract to pay off the money advanced to them for passage. In many cases, they were indebted under a formal contract to the person or company for whom they worked, with the labor contractors who had engaged them in Europe serving only as the middle men.

They may have escaped famine, but once here, they faced extreme poverty and the violence that lurked behind the sign, “No Irish Need Apply.” Uncounted numbers of children died in New York City of starvation during this period.

New York politicians – the famous Tammany Hall – tried to divert their anger toward the slaves who were beginning to flee from the South into the North. With the Civil War approaching, demagogues of all stripes fanned the fear that a mass of freed slaves would push Northern workers out of their jobs, encouraging a virulent antagonism against blacks, which flamed up in the so-called “draft riots” of 1863 in New York. Those riots started out as demonstrations against the draft boards, which then were forcing poor people into the northern army while allowing the wealthy to avoid serving. Irish gangsters who worked for the police and the big banks (who had money tied up in slave production) soon turned the demonstrators against the black population. White gangs, predominantly Irish, lynched black individuals from light posts in the city; they burned an orphanage for black children to the ground, and they drove most of the black population out of the city. As many as 300 black people were killed, in what was the single worst outburst of ethnic violence in this country.

While the Irish were the most desperate of immigrants, they were hardly the only ones to come. With the defeat of succeeding revolutionary waves in European countries, for example, a somewhat sizeable political emigration from Europe developed. Some of this immigration ended up in Texas, which was then not part of the U.S., but a territory Spain had ceded to Mexico. The earliest took part in struggles there against the regime of Santa Ana; the later ones, against slavery.

There was also an important migration of German peasants, whose passage was paid by the German state which then settled them in farming areas further inland. During this same time period, the American state paid the passage for numbers of Germans, who agreed to enter the American army as repayment. Many more Germans were contracted into the militias of states throughout the country, but especially in the Middle West. A great many ended up in the Civil War. (The cynical offer by which today’s army offers legalization to those without papers if they volunteer for a combat zone has its precedents!)

Developing capitalism may have been able to find its labor from all those sources being expelled from other areas of the world; it may have used labor contractors to squeeze the maximum surplus out of their labor; it may have in many cases set these different groups in the new working class against each other, but labor found the way to respond with militant struggles. The Irish, who could be led into the 1863 anti-black riot, were at the basis of efforts to form a miners’ union in Pennsylvania, finally culminating in the six-month-long “long strike” in 1875. The biggest opposition to slavery inside the working class came in those areas where German Socialists had immigrated. And the Irish along with the Germans were among those who led the great railroad strike of 1877, setting off near-general strikes in cities ranging from Baltimore to Pittsburgh to Cincinnati to Chicago to St. Louis. In some of those cities, the strikes engaged a significant proportion of black laborers.

Southern Agriculture, Jim Crow and the Creation of a Permanent Reserve Army

The requirements of both armies in the Civil War for materiel had given an enormous push to wide-sweeping industrialization. The Northern victory in the Civil War, together with the 1863 emancipation of the slaves, raised, for the first time, whether that need for industrial labor would be filled by the ex-slaves. In the first days before and after the Civil War, there was a strong movement of slaves into the cities of the South, as well as up into the North. But capital was not about to allow masses of ex-slaves to leave Southern fields at will. It would have meant an end to cotton production as it was carried out, leading to a collapse not only of Southern agriculture, but also of Northern capital, which depended on the South’s cotton for its textile industry, and on the export earnings that cotton provided to Northern merchants. Similarly, the federal government had no intention to provide the promised “40 acres and a mule” to every ex-slave; this would have put an end to plantation agriculture, which was more productive than small holdings – in any case more profitable for big capital.

Some of the ex-slaves did go to Birmingham, Alabama, which was becoming an industrial center. Some got to the North, but most discovered that Northern industry had established a virtual bar on hiring them.

With no place else to go, most of the ex-slaves were forced back to the plantations. A de facto slavery was maintained in the South for another century, first regulated by the “black codes” passed by Southern legislatures, then by Jim Crow laws North and South, backed up by the constant threat of violence. It was a real terrorism, aimed at maintaining the ex-slaves and their descendants in a state of debt peonage and sharecropping. During the next five generations, most were unable to escape from Southern agriculture. So the ex-slaves and their descendants watched, as it were, from the sidelines as new waves of immigrants were brought into the factories. To the extent that black laborers could be hired during the next 100 years, it was mostly during strikes when companies hired them as scabs or when wartime conditions cut off immigration and at the same time required more labor. As late as World War I, 90% of all black people still lived in the South, with at least three quarters of them in rural areas.

The desperate situation of the black population was often used by capital to threaten recent immigrants that if they didn’t accept their awful conditions, there was someone else who would – a fear that could be fanned into racist behavior and antagonism by demagogues whom capital often used for these purposes. The hundreds of race riots in this country, particularly in those years when large numbers of black workers did enter the industrial work force, were the bitter fruit of such demagoguery – as were the lynchings, which were not just a Southern phenomenon.

All of this helped to create a bitterness, which resonates to this day, in the black population.

Industry Built on the Backs of “Europe’s Refuse”

With growing industrialization, labor contractors went back to their traditional hiring areas in northern and western Europe, but, not finding enough labor, they turned to southern and eastern Europe. Parts of Italy were suffering through a series of agricultural crises, driving peasants off the land; in eastern Europe, something similar was happening, but in addition anti-Semitic pogroms were driving the Jewish population to flee. All of these things created an enormous labor surplus in Europe – which developing U.S. capitalism jumped in to grab. From 1880, when nearly half a million people entered the U.S., until 1914, when World War I drastically reduced immigration, nearly 25 million people came into the U.S., mostly from Europe. By contrast to the earlier immigration, this massive wave was comprised of many more ethnic groups, speaking many different languages, with different habits, religions, etc.

Were there illusions? Perhaps, but a letter written by an Italian immigrant back to his family shows how quickly they were dispelled: “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things: first, the streets were not paved with gold; second, they weren’t paved at all; third, I was expected to pave them.

By 1910, half the work force in the biggest industrial cities – New York, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chicago – were immigrants, as were more than half the workers in mining, steel and meat-packing. For the most part, the organization of work proceeded along ethnic lines. Whole labor gangs had been hired in Europe, provided passage, the debt for which tied the new laborers to the labor contractor, who often served as their boss once in the U.S. The consequence of this kind of hiring can be seen in the varying ethnic make-ups not only of different cities, industries and companies, but even of different work-shops within single companies. The steel industry most clearly shows its consequences in the long-lasting divisions thus created in the workforce, divisions based not just on ethnic suspicions, but more importantly on the inability for most workers, who knew little English, even just to speak with each other. A report on the 1919 steel strike, after it was crushed, identified more than 40 different nationalities working in steel. The mills were divided internally into workshops set up along ethnic lines. Add to this, that in the midst of the strike, management imported black scabs from the South.

Nonetheless, this polyglot working class did fight. Witness the whole period sandwiched between 1883, the beginning of the movement for the eight hour day, and 1919, the most enormous strike wave the country had ever seen, running from the general strike in Seattle Washington, to the strike of black and white lumber workers in the Southeast, and almost everywhere else in between.

Furthermore, many of these immigrants brought with them political traditions, which is why many found their way into the Socialist Party and then contributed to the founding of the Communist Party in 1919.

The West: Peopled by Conquest, Internal Migrants and Immigration from Asia

The development and peopling of the country west of the Mississippi/Missouri watershed lagged far behind the eastern half of the country. There was some migration toward the West Coast from the eastern half of the country, but up until 1848, a big chunk of this territory was not part of the United States, but of Mexico.

In the later 1830s, a growing revolt against the Mexican government of Santa Ana spread across 10 Mexican states and territories, including Tejas and California. The rebellion was violently put down in Mexico’s southern territories, but Tejas/Texas gained its independence in this struggle, and the Mexican government’s hold over California and other northern territories was weakened – a situation the growing U.S. would soon take advantage of.

In 1848, after a second war, Mexico ceded nearly half its territory to the U.S., comprising what would become the states of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Texas and Colorado. None of this territory was very populated. Most of Mexico’s population was far to the South of these territories; and the internal means of transportation in the U.S. were barely developed – the first continent-wide spanning by the railroads was not completed until 1869.

Capital went abroad looking for labor, just as it had on the East Coast a few decades earlier, but in this case, it went to Asia. Starting at the end of the 1840s, Chinese were brought in under “coolie contracts” – little different than the indentured contracts of colonial times on the East Coast. Most of them were farmers, artisans, craftsmen or political exiles from Kwangtung province. With their passage arranged by labor contractors, most of them were also moved directly into labor camps, working first on the railroad, as it was being built across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, then into the mining camps of the mountain West. Eventually, the Chinese began to occupy land in California, developing agriculture, as well as setting up small workshops in some cities. In 1860, the Chinese made up 10% of California’s population, but they constituted almost 25% of its labor force. Chinese immigration was then followed by some from Japan and other Asian areas. All told, over a quarter of a million people from different Asian countries made their way to the American West in the half century running up to about 1900.

At the end of the Civil War, the federal government encouraged army veterans from both North and South to “go West.” They were joined by former slaves. Arriving in California, they discovered there was no gold and few offers of work. Some of these migrants fell prey to the propaganda of demagogues who organized attacks on the Chinese. Among the worst attacks, was one in 1871, in Los Angles, when 21 Chinese were killed by a mob of ex-soldiers and Californians of different backgrounds. Whoever directly organized the attacks, those who benefitted from driving the Chinese out were the large landowners, Anglo and Hispanic, who took over the agricultural holdings the Chinese had been able to develop in the arid conditions of the Western part of the continent.

These attacks were the beginning of a campaign that came to fruition in 1882, when big California landowners cut a deal with Southern plantation owners. The Californians in Congress supported the Jim Crow laws being imposed on the Southern black population, while the Southern plantation owners supported a law barring immigration from China.

Western Development: From the Importation of Labor to Its Deportation

The big landowners may have been able to steal land that the Chinese had developed, but barring further immigration only aggravated the need for labor. And – as Western agriculture began to develop, as the network of the railroads was being expanded, and as more copper, gold and silver deposits were discovered – the shortage of labor became more acute. Labor contractors began actively to recruit workers in Mexico. Just as the Irish and the Chinese before them, the first Mexican immigrants were holed up in labor camps near where they worked building the railroads or in the mines or agriculture. The Mexican or Mexican-American labor contractors not only brought them there, but continued to act as their supervisors. Called “coyotes” then, the term has come down since to mean the smugglers, although some of them still function as labor contractors.

There was one significant difference between this Mexican immigration and either the Irish or Chinese immigration: the workers coming from Mexico had more possibilities to leave. Certainly, they were often held in a kind of armed camp, especially in the mining and agricultural regions. But the near proximity to Mexico and near total absence of border controls meant that immigration from Mexico was more often than not a circular movement, with people coming a while to accumulate some money, only to return home. While wages were exceedingly low, they were three times as high for agricultural laborers in the Southwestern U.S. in 1900, as they were in Mexico. By 1928, agricultural wages were six times higher in the U.S. The labor contractors may have opened the doors to this immigration, but the common border and the information circulating back to Mexico began to pull others in.

The amount of this immigration is hard to measure. There were no records like those kept of immigration at East Coast ports. And most of it wasn’t permanent. In any case, it wasn’t nearly as large as that from Europe. But judging by the people who were recorded as returning to Mexico during this period – over a million exits were recorded officially between 1910 and 1928 – several million must have come and gone during the first three decades of the 20th century, with the biggest pull for labor during World War I itself.

The end of the war, however, was followed almost immediately by a severe cutback in the Western economy. Californian agriculture was mired in a depression by the mid-1920s, at the very moment that farmers from Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma were pushing in to California, even before the dust storms of the 1930s. The Eastern financial collapse, when it came, simply cemented the situation.

Not only didn’t capital need new inflows of labor; the growing layer of unemployed was costing it. The California legislature published a study that concluded that for what it cost the state relief agencies to keep one person on relief for one week, a whole family could be put on a bus specially organized for this purpose and shipped back to Mexico.

Thus, Western capital announced its intention to deport human beings. People who had been working and living in the fields of California or the mining regions of the Southwest, some born in the U.S., were uprooted and tossed back to Mexico. The magnitude of these mass deportations can be seen in census records: in 1930 – several years after the deportations began – 600,000 Mexicans were living in the United States; by 1940, there were only 400,000.

The Mexicans were not the only ones attacked. Armed gangs of vigilantes were set up in the mountain passes coming over into California – driving away other people fleeing from the dustbowl.

In any case, Western capital had discovered, in the Mexican population, a shock absorber for its economy. When in need of more labor, capital could open the doors to Mexico; when it had too big a supply, not only could it close them, it could expel large numbers of people. This was not the last time that Mexican immigrants – as well as Mexican-Americans born in the U.S. – were to be tossed out of the country.

Legal Walls Go Up

On the East Coast, there was a different evolution in the post-World-War-I years. The massive post-war strike wave, the push to form a union in steel, the support shown by the working class for the Russian revolution, the development of political organizations in the working class – all these things stood as warnings to the bourgeoisie that labor might organize despite all the obstacles put in its way and that it was filled with political militants, many of whom had come from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe.

Furthermore, the experience of the war itself showed that there were other sources of labor than Europe – the rural poor were was coming into the cities due to the growing mechanization of Northern farms, and to the expulsion of both black and white sharecroppers from Southern agriculture.

The federal government moved to expel communists, socialists, anarchists and trade unionists who were immigrants. And when it couldn’t lay its hands on these organizers, the government expelled their parents who were immigrants. A series of repressive political measures were also passed aimed at political tendencies, as well as “criminal syndicalism” – meaning the attempt to organize a union.

But the state also moved legally to reduce immigration – and then, finally, to practically bar it – from those areas that had produced most of the militancy: Eastern and Southern Europe.

Until 1921, there had been only a few legal barriers to either immigration or citizenship. The law passed in 1921, and then toughened in 1924, reversed all that. This law was one of those convoluted legal gems that have marked immigration regulation ever since. Behind all the complicated formulas, three things stood out. First, legal immigration was to be limited to a very tiny proportion of those who had been coming in – only 150,000 in 1921 – contrasted to the million a year or more coming in just before the war. Second, legal immigration was to be essentially limited to countries from Northern and Western Europe – countries that by that time weren’t sending many immigrants anyway. The rest of Europe and all of Asia and Africa were practically excluded. Third, since no limitations were set on the number of people who could be admitted from countries in North, Central or South America or the Caribbean, the bourgeoisie was signaling its intention to draw immigrants when it needed them from these areas – immigrants it could more easily expel, as it was soon to demonstrate.

The passage of the bill was also used as a kind of campaign toward the working class, aimed at getting workers to blame each other for the increasingly difficult times they were finding themselves in. On the one hand, there was a constant drumbeat, aimed more at the middle class, about “Europe’s refuse” being “dumped on our shores.” Toward the working class, the propaganda was more direct – “they” are taking “your” jobs. Before the bill was passed, there had been real agitation inside the already existing communities from Southern and Eastern Europe against more immigrants. In 1905, a union of Jewish immigrant garment workers proposed limits on further immigration from the areas they had come from, explaining: “the unprecedented movement of the very poor into America from Europe in the last three years has resulted in wholly changing the previous social, political and economic aspects of the immigration question.”

During most of these years, dominated by the Great Depression and its aftermath, the bourgeoisie felt little need for immigration. When it did have a real labor shortage – as in World War II – it resorted again to internal migration, from Northern farms and from Southern sharecropping. When that wasn’t enough, it again encouraged temporary Mexican immigration, through the bracero program, which originally was set up in agriculture, but then was extended to other industries. Finally, during the war, capital encouraged women to go to work – their patriotic duty. The ending of the war was accompanied by an equally strident patriotic call for women to return to the home to raise their children. It also soon led to new deportations of Mexicans. This time, the number expelled amounted to almost one million people. And – as the saying goes – blacks, always the last hired, were the first fired, acting as the permanent reserve army of the unemployed.

The reduction in the number of foreign-born in this “country of immigrants” was dramatic. The percent of foreign-born in the whole population went from 13.2% in 1920, to 11.6% in 1930, to 8.8% in 1940, to 6.9% in 1950, to 5.4% in 1960.

Legal Walls Come Down ... Perhaps

In 1965, a new law made its way through Congress. Again marked by complicated formulas, with many exceptions based on family relations and “needed skills,” the 1965 law marked the intention of capital once again to open up immigration. Each country in the world, including for the first time in the Americas, was to be allotted the same number of immigrants. While this opened immigration for most countries in the world, particularly in Asia, for Mexico, it was a sizeable reduction.

Furthermore, this law, under the pretext of “humanitarian” concerns, eliminated the bracero program. As further developments were to show, capital didn’t intend to do away with temporary immigration from Mexico. De facto, it would bring in even much larger numbers from Mexico – but they would be forced to come “illegally,” meaning they would be in the most precarious of circumstances, vulnerable to the whims of politicians and the desires of capital.

Since the 1965 changes, immigration has increased again, especially over the past 15 to 20 years. That’s not all due to the law, of course. In fact, the bourgeoisie has paid little attention to the niceties of the law – no matter whether they wanted to increase immigration, or to expel people.

In any case, immigration did increase, with the number of foreign-born going from a low of 4.7% of the population in 1970, to 6.2% in 1980, to 7.9% in 1990, to 11.1% in 2000. According to Census estimates, the total number of foreign-born was nearly 36 million people in 2005, 12.4% of the total population. Somewhere between 11.5 and 12 million of those people, according to Census estimates, are without legal papers.

Today’s figure does not match the high point of immigration, which was hit in 1890 and again in 1910, when the number of immigrants constituted about 14.7% of the population, and perhaps 24% of the work force.

But today’s figure nonetheless marks the highest rate of immigration since 1920, just before immigration began to be severely limited. About half of the foreign born come from Latin America, most from Mexico, and another quarter come from various Asian countries. Most of the rest have come in the last few years from Eastern Europe.

The increase in the percentage of foreign-born in the country over the last 15 years has been more rapid than at any other time in U.S. history. And while there still is a much higher rate of labor force participation in traditional areas where immigrants clustered in the 1980s – California, Texas, New York City, Florida and Chicago – the recent increase has spread much more widely into areas which only 15 years ago had almost no immigrant labor, including not only in the mountain West, but in Southeastern cities like Charlotte North Carolina or Atlanta Georgia, and in Midwestern cities like Des Moines Iowa.

Not all of this immigration goes into the working class. In fact, a sizeable amount is composed of people who either have the education or the capital when they come to start out in the professions or as shopkeepers.

What Does this Mean for the Working Class?

Today, there is a steady propaganda aimed at the whole working class that the current immigration is taking jobs away from us, that there aren’t enough jobs as it is, and that immigration just adds to the “labor surplus.”

And if there is a “labor surplus,” so what? The working class can fight to enjoy the fruits of that surplus. If it did, the whole working class, native-born and immigrant, could be working fewer hours, for the same or more money. The enormous increases in productivity in recent decades show that we could all be living easier lives. The issue here is not the lack of jobs, it’s the lack of a fight by the working class – native-born and immigrant – during those same decades to take the benefits of increasing productivity for themselves.

During the Great Depression, there was an enormous “surplus” of labor. This did not prevent the working class from fighting to gain the benefit of it. It was out of those fights that unions were formed, wages were raised, benefits were instituted, etc. And those fights were made despite the divisions in the working class, between black and white, different ethnic groups, etc.

But, say the xenophobes, this immigration is different – they don’t have our culture, they don’t speak our language.

They don’t speak our language? The most recent immigrants never have, and, yes, that can create a barrier. That’s why the most conscious parts of the working class, including of the immigrants themselves, have always pushed for every worker to learn English. But the fact that people come from so many traditions has also helped to create a working class that does not have to be ingrown, that can have a wider perspective on the world. Many of today’s immigrants come from countries where there is still a working class political tradition. Ironically, they continue to celebrate May Day – the working class holiday born in the United States – while native born American workers know nothing about it, nor its history. Immigrants should learn English, but why shouldn’t native-born workers try to learn another language? Who wants to be stuck in their own little corner of the world forever? Look at the vast amount we could learn from each other.

Yes, there is violence associated with divisions in the working class. There always has been. Germans were attacked by Hungarians in some cities during World War I, and blacks were attacked by whites in a range of Northern cities during those same years. Irish and Poles fought each other in Chicago during the Depression – and they both attacked black people on the streets. Serbs and Albanians were set against each other in the plants of Detroit during World War II, while almost every immigrant group attacked black people in the streets; Mexican and black individuals were hunted down on the streets of Los Angeles during that same war. But the Irish, Polish and black workers found the way to build unions together. Mexican and black laborers were part of the unionizing in Los Angeles, etc.

And what about today? Those who uprooted themselves to come here had to have courage. The working class can base itself on that courage in future fights.

Are there divisions? Yes, and divisions can mean that different parts of the working class face their own particular problems and may fight to have the same rights as others – as the immigrants without papers want to do today. Witness the three-decades-long fight of the black population, which not only ended Jim Crow for itself, but for other parts of the working class, to whom it also applied. But those struggles didn’t prevent the rest of the working class from fighting as a class, nor black workers from taking part alongside other workers in those fights. It was precisely during the years when the black mobilization was the strongest, leading to the ghetto uprisings, that the whole working class was engaged in widespread strikes. And black workers who had gained access to the plants through their movement became some of the main leaders of those strikes. The high point of strike activity in this country came in 1974, in the wake of the urban rebellions.

Why should it be any different today? Yes, the immigrants come from different countries than before. They have always come from different countries. We have different backgrounds and cultures. That was and is the American working class – and one of the marks of its strength.

Immigration may lead to some divisions. Capital has ever attempted to divide us – by skill, by company, by region of the country, if nothing else. But workers are not passive participants in this process. Whether or not the working class remains divided finally depends on the working class itself.