The Spark

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

Comprehensive Immigration Reform:
For the Capitalists

Oct 21, 2013

At the end of June, the U.S. Senate passed a so-called “comprehensive immigration reform” bill with what was advertised as a “pathway to citizenship” for the eleven million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. When the bill (the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act) stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the corporate heads at the heart of the U.S. economy made a big, visible push to get it passed.

Usually, corporations stay in the background and let their political flunkies do the work for them. But not this time. Hundreds of top companies got behind the push for immigration reform in a public, concerted campaign. One letter, signed by 400 of the biggest companies from across the spectrum of the U.S. economy, warned the top leaders of the House of Representatives that “failure to act is not an option.” That letter was signed by top companies in high tech and information, like ATT, Verizon, Apple, Intel, Microsoft and Motorola; in drug and consumer goods, like Eli Lilly, Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola and Proctor & Gamble; in basic industry, like General Electric, Caterpillar and John Deere; as well as in finance and insurance, such as American Express and Allstate. Even Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox signed on, as did the Walt Disney Company, whose radio network carries right-wing talk radio, including Rush Limbaugh.

Top Republican luminaries, including Jeb Bush, former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Dan Quayle, former Mississippi Governor Hayley Barbour and Karl Rove, lined up behind the corporate push to twist the arms of Republicans who were looking over their shoulders at Tea Party voters.

It couldn’t be more clear. The bourgeoisie at its summit wants this immigration “reform.”

But no one should believe the capitalists are doing this out of concern for the living conditions of millions of undocumented immigrants, their lack of rights and low wages. No, not this capitalist class, for which one thing matters above all else: to increase their own profits. Always.

We can assume that the capitalist class is openly pushing this “reform” because they expect to get something that will help their bottom line. What? And what does this “reform” mean for the undocumented immigrant workers who are here today, for the millions more to come, and for the entire working class?

Profiting from Workers with No Rights

Today, there are over eleven million immigrants in this country “illegally.” To one degree or another, their labor contributes to the running of entire sectors of the economy: agriculture, construction, building maintenance, food services, manufacturing. Usually they work for small companies, but not always. They work for big hotel chains. They work for subcontractors, who work for contractors, who get work farmed out by big manufacturers and city governments. Others toil as day laborers for small businesses and households.

The undocumented live in the shadows. The U.S. government has built up a special repressive apparatus aimed at them: the Border Patrol, ICE, workplace enforcement, a system of detention and removal. The possibility of being detained by the immigration authorities and expelled from the country serves as a constant reminder of just how few rights the undocumented immigrants have, how precarious their existence is.

The capitalist class takes advantage of this vulnerability at every turn. Employers pay undocumented workers much less and impose much worse working conditions. The government deprives them of vital services and benefits (Social Security, disability, Medicaid, etc.) that the undocumented pay taxes for. Big profits are made off the labor of all immigrant workers.

That’s why the capitalist class wants them here, despite the constant drumbeat decrying “illegal” immigration from the politicians, the news media and the employers themselves. If the capitalists didn’t want undocumented workers here, there wouldn’t be eleven million undocumented immigrants living and working in this country.

But up until now, most big companies have stayed away from directly employing undocumented workers in big numbers, possibly because they don’t want to deal with the negative consequences, the damage to their reputation, internal problems from the rest of their workforce, even disruptions to production.

Of course, if Congress doesn’t pass immigration “reform” this year, business for the capitalist class will continue, just like it did six years ago, after Congress failed to pass similar legislation, despite a push from the capitalist class. The biggest companies would continue to profit from the low wages in other parts of the economy.

But the fact that these big companies are now pushing the latest immigration bill indicates that they want to tap into this very low-wage workforce themselves. The companies certainly don’t want to make the eleven million less vulnerable than they are today. The big companies simply want the law changed to make it easier for them to hire undocumented workers. In other words, they want it to be legal for them to hire as many immigrant workers as they want, but they also want to keep the immigrant workers’ status as close to “illegal” as possible. And that is what this “reform” would do.

The Unattainable Carrot and the Ever-Present Stick

The immigration bill that the U.S. Senate passed in June is presented as “a pathway to citizenship” for the undocumented immigrants. That is, it offers a promise of legalization, a promise that their legal situation and living circumstances will be regularized, that they will have “rights.” That couldn’t be further from the truth.

That pathway to citizenship is filled with delays at each step. First, the undocumented have to apply for a “registered provisional” status. Once they get it, they go six years, only to have to renew this provisional status for another four years. At each step, they have to go through background checks, pay fines, processing fees and back taxes, that is, jump through a lot of bureaucratic hoops, which take extra time. After at least 10 years in these two steps, immigrant workers can apply for a green card, that is, permanent residency. But to do that, they have to jump through more time-consuming hoops: background checks, fines, English language requirements.

All these delays could stretch the time spent in provisional status to much longer than 10 years. For some, the biggest delay of all will be waiting for the government to process their application for a green card. The Senate immigration bill stipulates that their applications will go to the back of the line, which means behind the applications of legal immigrants. Right now, the government backlog is about five million applications. It is now taking as long as 20 years for the government to process some applications, depending upon many factors, such as country of origin. The shortest wait is still two years.

The immigration bill does contain a vague mandate to reduce this backlog to “only” seven years. But even that is doubtful. “Measures are going to be taken” to clear the backlog, said Senator John McCain (The Arizona Republic, June 23). “Now, whether they are going to be completely successful or not is not clear yet.” In plain language, McCain admitted that no one should expect the application backlog to be reduced very much.

Once the immigrants finally get their green card, they still have to wait another three years to be eligible to become a naturalized citizen.

In reality, the promise of full legalization is like a carrot that the immigrant worker can never quite reach.

All the delays mean that the immigrant workers will be stuck in a registered provisional “legal” status for a very, very long time. In that status, they will be far from legal. For all that time, they will be expected to fulfill a number of onerous conditions set by the immigration bill. By far the most important of those conditions is that they have to be continuously employed. The immigration bill says they can’t be out of work for more than two months, a short period of time.

The meaning of this work requirement is clear: if they don’t keep their job, they can lose their legal status completely. This requirement ties the provisional immigrant workers to their boss. It means they have to put up with low wages, lousy working conditions, long hours to keep a job. They may even be expected to go the extra mile to serve their boss on their own personal time. In other words, shut up, be docile.

This special “legal” status is aimed at forcing immigrant workers to do everything to keep a job, that is, to please their boss. Effectively, they would continue to be deprived of most rights that legal immigrants have.

Above all, they cannot rock the boat. They cannot organize, demand a pay increase, or even protest when the boss steals some of their wages. If they do, they risk losing more than their job. For if they are blacklisted, they may well not be able to get another job under their own name; that is, they would lose their “legal” status altogether.

The other key part of the “reform” bill is the “guest worker” programs, which the bill expands. In its own way, it symbolizes the status of all those who will be made “legal” under the law.

Guest workers are admitted on a seasonal or temporary basis to serve the need of individual agricultural and industrial companies. Guest workers can stay in the country only as long as they are employed by the boss who sponsors them. Once that boss no longer wants them – once the harvest is done, for example – they lose their “guest worker” status and are shown the door. They don’t even have the right to look for another job. Their status now once again will be fully and openly “illegal.”

The guest worker programs epitomize how immigration “reform” puts the worker at the beck and call of the boss. This is exactly what companies want, big and small.

A Weapon Aimed Against All Workers

For more than forty years, the biggest companies have ruthlessly cut what they pay their workforce. Auto and other big industrial companies have cut labor costs by drastically reducing the size of their workforce though speed-up, lengthening the workday without paying overtime, and outsourcing much more work to low-wage shops. Over at least the last decade, they have practically frozen the pay of workers who were left on the job. They imposed a second tier of new hires, whose wages and benefits amount to less than half the old rate. Most companies also have a third tier of contract workers, temps and part-timers. They have been pushing more of the workers at the top tier either into retirement or even into the low-wage tier, while unloading more of their retiree pension costs, especially healthcare.

What happened in higher-wage industry served to weigh on the rest of the working class, giving other employers the pretext to lower their labor costs.

Up until now, big companies haven’t employed undocumented immigrant workers directly. But the push by big companies for this immigration bill shows they want to start to tap into this part of the working class directly. It’s obvious that if they bring in immigrant workers, who are effectively deprived of most legal rights for a very long time, they will be able to slash labor costs even more. With this immigration bill, the companies would be able to hire this low-wage sector of the working class directly in much bigger numbers.

In other words, a fourth or fifth tier of wages, benefits and working conditions can be established. It’s obvious such a situation can be used to bring down the wages of everyone else, just like the big industrialists are now using the two-tier and three-tier wage structure to bring all workers’ wages down to the lowest tier.

But what happens then at the small companies that employ undocumented workers today? In fact, undocumented workers will remain an important part of the workforce. The “reform” sees to that. For the so-called legalization applies only to workers who can prove they have been in the U.S. since December 31, 2011, which was two years ago. All those immigrants who entered the U.S. since then, or overstayed their visa, will remain “undocumented.” But also, this immigration bill makes it obvious that new layers of undocumented immigrants can continue to come in when employers want to hire them.

The big so-called “military surge” along the border, inserted into the immigration bill to gain the votes of a few Republican senators, will not change that. Neither will a couple of Homeland Security Department officials who will supposedly certify that the border has been sealed. Lengthening the fence along the border by a few hundred miles won’t prevent more immigrants from coming into the country, especially if companies are hiring them. No, the entire border “surge” is nothing more than one more giveaway to the military-industrial complex, which will pocket tens of billions of dollars in new orders, partly replacing what they will be losing on orders for weapons for Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Workers’ Answer: Unity and Solidarity

If the immigration bill becomes law, it could sharpen the already big divisions inside the working class in the U.S..

The capitalist class has exploited divisions since this country’s inception. At the very beginning of the development of this country, the capitalist class brought in people from Africa, to work them as slaves. In the U.S. government’s first law governing citizenship that was passed in 1790, citizenship was reserved for free white people. The capitalists continued to exploit this division ever since. A “special” status is still reserved for black workers, under a different form since the end of slavery: black workers have always made up the most important part of the “reserve army of the unemployed,” with the highest levels of unemployment and low-wage jobs. As wave after wave of immigrants were brought in, that reserve army of the black unemployed continued to be pushed to the bottom of the pile.

Immigration from different parts of the world fueled this country’s development over the entire continent. At first, immigration came mainly from northern Europe. Then it came from the southern and eastern European countries. On the West Coast, immigration came from Asia. In the Southwest, people came from Mexico. The working class has been made up of a mosaic of different cultures, languages and experiences – differences which the capitalists always tried to use to poison and drive a wedge into the working class, trying to pit workers against each other who couldn’t speak to each other, pitting more recent immigrants against older immigrants and native-born workers. In the 1930s, a few industrialists like Henry Ford brought black workers into their factories at a time when no one else was employing black workers in heavy industry. It was Ford’s attempt to establish a part of the work force very loyal to him, and in the 1930s, Ford tried to use black workers to oppose the union organizing drive.

But history shows that the bosses didn’t always have their way. Many times workers found the way to overcome divisions – most spectacularly during the Great Railroad General Strike of 1877, the fight for the eight-hour day in 1886, the Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912, the Great Steel Strike of 1919, the 1932 Southern textile strike, and the strike at Ford in 1941 in which black and white workers united. The workers succeeded in understanding each other because in the end, they all spoke a common language: that of their own class interests. They had a common class interest in uniting to fight for what they needed, for what the capitalists were trying to take away. The black mobilization that culminated in the urban revolts of the 1960s finally put black workers in large numbers into heavy industry, and that helped to break down some of the divisions in the workplace as well, as black workers played a leading role in the wildcat strikes of the 1970s and opposition movements to the entrenched union bureaucracies.

The working class, confronted by the long assault from the capitalist class during the economic crisis, has need of unity, solidarity. And, just like in earlier periods, it can find the way inside of itself to overcome the divisions the capitalists try to cut into the workers’ ranks. The working class, in all its disparate parts, can feel that all workers have a common interest. That means, first of all, to fight for full rights and equal pay for everyone. Faced with the attempt of the bourgeoisie to label some parts of the working class “illegal” and others only “provisionally legal,” the working class has one obvious and necessary demand to fight for: full legalization of all workers immediately.