The Spark

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

Immigrant Workers, Native-Born Workers
—We Are One Class

Jul 26, 2017

Donald Trump’s openly racist, anti-immigration appeal, scapegoating the 11 million undocumented immigrants for the lack of jobs and a lot of other social problems, is nothing new. Much of the political establishment, both Republican and Democrat, already say similar things.

Trump just said it more crassly and openly.

And Trump’s barbaric proposal to boot out millions of immigrants and build a “beautiful” 2,000-mile wall along the border with Mexico is only describing the kind of attacks against undocumented immigrants that the U.S. government already carries out every single day.

The U.S. government has already erected a barbaric wall along the border that’s more than 650 miles long, and even extends into the Pacific Ocean. And the U.S. government already has a special part of the state apparatus devoted to the arrest, detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants. That repressive machine has been built up and reinforced under every single presidential administration, Republican and Democrat, for decades.

Trump promised to take these measures further. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. So far, he hasn’t. Arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants under Trump in his first hundred days were comparable to those carried out under Obama. Obviously, demagogic rhetoric for electoral purposes is one thing. But just the fact that someone using that openly racist demagogy is today president of the United States is an indication of just how barbaric and rotten the entire political situation really is.

U.S. immigration policy is based on giving the capitalist class what it needs, which is first of all, labor to exploit. The capitalists want plentiful labor, even a surplus, and they want to pay as little as possible for it. Historically, immigrant labor has helped to fill that void, not only because it is plentiful but also because immigrant workers tend to be in a more vulnerable position – even those with legal status. And those without a legal status, the undocumented immigrant workers, have a threat hanging over their heads that they can be arrested and expelled from the country at any time, breaking up their families, leaving kids without parents, destroying families’ livelihoods.

Trump’s anti-immigrant demagogy helps to reinforce that threat. But its main purpose is to address native-born workers, covering up what the capitalists are doing to them: taking their jobs, slashing their wages and benefits, in all the ways capital always does, with or without immigrant labor. Scapegoating undocumented immigrants diverts native-born workers from their real enemies and pushes them to turn against immigrant workers, thus allowing the capitalists to divide the working class against itself and take advantage of both immigrant and native-born workers.

The Importance of Undocumented Immigrant Workforce

Out of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today, eight million are in the workforce. About three-quarters are from Mexico and Central America. Altogether, undocumented workers account for about five per cent of the total U.S. workforce. But their labor is concentrated in particular sectors of the economy, where they play a much more important role. Undocumented workers make up more than half the agricultural workforce, one-third of meatpacking and 15 per cent of construction workers.

The capitalist class has depended on immigrants from Mexico, including undocumented immigrants, to do much of the work on the big industrial farms since the late 19th century. The U.S. government carried out the Bracero Program during World War II in order to bring in temporary farm labor from Mexico and extended that program for 25 years. Throughout this period, the big industrial farms also depended on undocumented farm labor. When the Bracero Program ended, the government sometimes provided temporary work permits for farm workers, but much of the labor remained undocumented. Farm labor is migratory, since farms need labor only on a seasonal basis, for the harvest and perhaps also planting. Once the work is done, the workers move on to find other work, either in the U.S. or they return to Mexico. By being able to depend on a regular influx of migratory labor, who are most often undocumented, companies have been able to keep wages extremely low.

In other sectors, such as meatpacking and construction, the influx of undocumented workers is relatively new.

The meatpacking plants in small rural communities began to bring in undocumented workers in large numbers in the mid-1980s. Up to the late 1960s, most meatpacking plants were in big cities like Chicago and Kansas City, and most workers were in unions. They earned pay that was as high or higher than the average manufacturing wage. But the companies moved the meatpacking plants to rural areas, where costs are lower, and tried to impose massive concessions on the workers. In some cases, workers carried out bitter and hard-fought strikes. But strikes were defeated and unions were broken, at least de facto. Companies cut pay and benefits to less than half of what they had been. This led to the beginning of the meatpacking industry’s move to hire undocumented workers.

Despite the low pay and harsh working conditions, meatpacking jobs were a step up from migrant farm labor. The pay was better and the job allowed immigrants to work year round. Their numbers steadily increased.

In construction, much of the influx of undocumented labor took place in residential construction, and it is concentrated in small, specialty trade sub-contractors, especially in roofing, concrete, drywall, carpeting and painting. The Pew Hispanic Center estimated that in 2006 one- third of the workers in those trades throughout the country were “unauthorized” – the official term for undocumented workers. And the proportion is certainly higher today.

Construction craft unions traditionally had been extremely restrictive. Membership in the union was passed down from generation to generation, almost like a medieval guild. Black workers, other minorities and women were shut out by the unions, as were immigrants. They began to find work with subcontractors who brought them in on smaller, residential projects – for lower wages, of course. This subcontracting system pushed down the cost of labor, despite the big growth in employment during the last boom in construction. (“Compensation of Residential and Non-Residential Construction Workers,” Monthly Labor Review, April 2010.)

Undocumented workers are also increasingly being employed indirectly in large workplaces, including state and local government agencies and big companies. Once again, it’s through the use of contractors and subcontractors who provide various services, including IT, janitorial, building maintenance, food services, construction, renovation. It is a way to replace permanent workers, shrink the permanent workforce, and greatly reduce the cost of labor. Almost every level of government and many large companies have made use of it.

Undocumented workers make up part of other sectors of the labor force, including food preparation, hotels and restaurants.

In construction and other sectors, employers don’t just profit from low wages. It’s obvious that many employers rip off undocumented workers. In 2013, the Workers Defense Project, based in Austin, Texas, found that almost half the contractors and subcontractors that employ undocumented construction workers in Texas cheated the workers out of wages. These companies obviously assumed that undocumented workers would not use the usual legal remedies that workers have, out of fear that they would risk deportation if they had any contact with an official agency.

It’s no wonder that an ever larger share of the capitalist class, always on the lookout to lower the cost of labor, set its sights on the undocumented, aware that they are among the most vulnerable of workers.

A History of Migration and Struggle

The migration from Mexico and Central America during the last four decades might be large in numerical terms, but it is not unusual. The working class in this country has been built through great migrations of peoples, starting with the forced migration of black people from Africa to work as slaves, and those from Britain, who came as indentured servants. In the 19th century and early 20th century, it was the turn of the peoples from Ireland, Germany and China, followed by those from Eastern and Southern Europe. After the U.S. government closed off the borders of this country to most immigration in the 1920s, the working class was built through great internal migrations of black and white labor from the South and from the farms.

Each time, the capitalists shaped migrations to fit their purpose, that is, to maximize exploitation. One important aspect that accompanies this has usually been the legal and extra-legal divisions which the capitalists have fomented and their governments reinforced.

The capitalist class didn’t always succeed in dividing the working class against itself. During periods of mass upsurges and revolts, such as during the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, the great strike movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the black mobilization of the mid-20th century, the working and exploited classes found ways to defend and further their class interests, unifying their forces in common struggles.

Certainly, the greatest division inside the working class derives from the racist oppression of the black population. Historically, the capitalist class first kept black people in the position of slaves; then, sharecroppers; and finally in the reserve army of the unemployed. They have systematically been left behind while new immigrant groups bypassed them. The decades-long black movement that culminated with the urban mobilizations of the 1960s may finally have forced the capitalist class to open the doors for black workers into parts of industry and the mainstream economy formerly closed to them. But the capitalists and their political representatives did this grudgingly at best. They saw black workers as “trouble,” that is, formed by struggle, resistance and rebelliousness.

Within a few years, the economic crises of the 1970s and early 1980s hit, leading to plant closings and widespread and chronic unemployment. Black workers were hit the hardest once again. They were “the last hired and the first fired.” And once the job market picked up, during the weak economic recoveries that followed, many black workers were relegated to the fringes of the economy – the reserve army of the unemployed – while the capitalist class used the new wave of migrant labor to take their place. What the capitalist class was to have in store for the surplus of black labor was: prison.

Rather than Organize a Fight, the Union Apparatuses Find a Scapegoat

The latest influx of mass migration into the U.S. began in the 1970s, that is, when the capitalist economic crisis was taking hold, a crisis that hit the underdeveloped countries the hardest, driving millions of peasants off the land, and causing widespread unemployment in the big cities and small towns. The crisis in the underdeveloped countries has lasted to this day, and it has been made worse by the fact that the big imperial powers have tightened their grip over these countries and drained out even more of the wealth produced by the working masses. On top of that, the U.S. superpower has fomented widespread civil wars and conflicts, consolidating its control over vast regions of the world. Migrants flooded out of Mexico and Central America in order to escape crises and wars – caused to a great degree by the big U.S. imperial power that dominates their economies.

The economic crisis that began in the 1970s might not have been as severe in the U.S. as in the underdeveloped countries. But the capitalist class maintained its profits by pushing the working class’s standard of living down here also. Workers were increasingly plagued by the intensification of work, joblessness, plant closings, concessions, wage cuts – something that continues to this day.

The unions, the only workers’ organizations that exist in this country, did not propose an appropriate answer to these attacks. Their old way of leading fights, that is, narrow corporatist strikes at workplaces in one industry, one company or even one plant might have won some gains when the economy had been expanding. But those gains were really crumbs compared to the tremendous profits the companies were making. When the crisis hit, companies were no longer willing to grant anything. On the contrary, the companies and big employers were openly demanding big givebacks and concessions. For a while some unions continued to call strikes. But they were the old, narrow kind, and this time an isolated group of workers went up against not only one company, but in effect against the policy of the entire capitalist class and its government – a disaster. By the time of the 1978-79 recession, the second in the decade, the “Big Three” U.S. auto companies with the aid of the UAW apparatus imposed big concessions on the workforce, using the old line that the companies and workers’ jobs couldn’t survive without them. That opened the floodgates, as employers across the country – private and public – got in on the action and imposed big givebacks, often with the collaboration of the union apparatuses.

What the union apparatuses did not propose was a fight that could have allowed at least a part of the working class to mobilize wider forces against the generalized capitalist offensive. One isolated group of workers after another suffered defeat after defeat.

Many union apparatuses sought to divert workers’ anger and frustration against other parts of the working class. In the early 1970s, when companies began to close steel plants, the United Steelworkers put out a film, called “Where is Joe?,” which blamed foreign imports – that is, foreign workers – for the loss of jobs. The United Auto Workers carried out a huge campaign, blaming foreign cars for the loss of jobs. They handed out “Buy American” stickers, barred foreign cars from union hall parking lots and sponsored demonstrations where auto workers smashed foreign cars with sledge hammers. These vicious campaigns fanned the flames of racism and chauvinism inside the working class. The viciousness of it came violently to the surface in Michigan in the 1982 murder in Highland Park of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American, by a Chrysler plant superintendent and his son-in-law, who shouted, “It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work!”

Throughout the 1970s, the AFL-CIO had an openly anti-immigrant stance. It called on the government to step up border patrols. It promised native-born workers that by keeping immigrants out, it would limit the competition for jobs. It considered all immigrants to be scabs and union busters. The construction crafts called the immigration authorities on undocumented workers at work sites.

Even as immigrants came into a number of unions, this hardly changed the AFL-CIO’s anti-immigrant position, nor its openly racist attitudes. Some unions have discovered that they could make up their loss in numbers by adding immigrant workers. But the AFL-CIO held on to its chauvinist opposition to imports, keeping it as a key plank in its supposed program for jobs.

The right-wing and the extreme right wing simply picked up the unions’ chauvinist campaign against immigrants and foreign workers, calling on the government to stop immigrants from coming over the border and deport undocumented immigrants.

Legalization for the Capitalists and Anti-Immigrant Demagogy

This anti-immigrant atmosphere is what confronted millions of immigrants, fleeing the crises in their own countries.

By 1980 there were about three million undocumented immigrants living in this country. Smaller companies, or companies on the fringes of the economy like restaurants, already had been hiring the undocumented. But bigger, mainstream companies shied away from hiring undocumented workers – despite their lower wages – because they didn’t want to risk a sudden disruption caused by having parts of their workforce arrested and deported by the government. Nor did the bigger companies want the public relations headaches that came with that.

In that context, spokesmen for the bourgeoisie began to call for the government to regularize the situation in a way that benefitted the capitalist class. To address this, Congress passed and Ronald Reagan signed IRCA (Immigration Reform and Control Act) in 1986. IRCA contained what was advertised as an “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants. In reality, it was an “amnesty” that made it legal for companies to immediately hire undocumented immigrants, who had applied for amnesty. But for the immigrant workers to gain full legal status, that is, citizenship. They had to go through a long, drawn out and costly process that could drag on for ten years. So, while these workers were legal for the company, they themselves were not “legal,” because their applications could be turned down at any time in the process. This left the workers in a weak, subordinate position, making it easy for companies to pay them less, and put them to work under the worst conditions. Of the three million people who applied for this “amnesty,” 2.7 million gained it gradually.

Politicians, who had resorted to demagogically scapegoating immigrants for the loss of jobs, had to find a way to justify their support of “amnesty,” claiming that the government was offering it only for the people who were already here, and they pointed to provisions in the bill that would beef up the Border Control. As for the AFL-CIO, which had opposed immigration, it also shifted its position to support of IRCA, by pointing to sanctions that employers who hired undocumented immigrants would face.

These provisions, while victimizing immigrants, completely ignored the real cause of immigration: the increasingly virulent crises that were hitting the populations of Mexico and Central America, and the main perpetrator of those crises: U.S. capitalism. And the more that people migrated, the more they drew more people from their families, towns and cities. Throughout the 1990s, the flow of undocumented immigrants into the U.S. accelerated.

When a new major recession hit in 1991 in the United States, Republican politicians, the mass media and some union officials again rushed to blame the increasing unemployment and the deep spending cuts to social services and public programs on undocumented immigrants, fomenting another anti-immigrant backlash. This backlash was crystalized in 1994 in California, when a Republican-sponsored referendum was passed by a big majority to ban undocumented immigrants from access to public education and “non-emergency” health care. The courts overturned these provisions and they were never implemented. But the damage as far as adding to the anti-immigrant hysteria had been done.

The Clinton administration, which came into office in 1993, tried to outdo the Republicans at their own game. It began programs to construct barriers and walls along the border outside of populated areas, including San Diego, Calexico, Tucson, Nogales, Brownsville and El Paso. It increased the size of the Border Patrol and the INS, the predecessor to ICE, which resulted in more arrests and expulsions, both at the border and from inside the country. In 1996, when Clinton passed sweeping anti-crime measures that would push millions of black people into prison, it also expanded the number of offenses that would make an immigrant “deportable.” And when the Clinton administration took the knife to big social programs, especially when it ended welfare as an entitlement, it also excluded immigrants – legal and illegal – from receiving most social benefits.

Some of these measures have been truly devastating. The resulting militarization of the border, with walls, barriers, moats, cameras, sensors, huge blimps with low altitude radar, roving bands of Border Patrol and checkpoints inside the U.S., have made it harder and more dangerous for immigrants to cross. Immigrants are rerouted away from highly trafficked and relatively safe urban crossing zones into remote and perilous stretches of scorching, waterless desert. As a result, from October 2000 through September 2016, the Border Patrol documented 6,023 deaths in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. And that’s the number of confirmed deaths. Undoubtedly the real toll is many times higher.

As could be expected in this system where almost everything is fair game for a capitalist bent on gaining more profit, private companies dashed into the detention and imprisonment of immigrants. All those detainees are held in facilities owned by private companies, such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the Geo Group, that are listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Congress gave them guaranteed minimums of how many detainees they would hold at any one time; in effect, taxpayer-funded insurance for private companies. Companies hold detainees in these centers for months, years, and sometimes indefinitely, while they rack up more profits.

Eleven Million Undocumented Human Beings

These measures made migration to the U.S. more dangerous – and potentially fatal – but they didn’t stop the flow of migrants from countries dominated by U.S. imperialism. In the eight years Clinton was president, the number of undocumented immigrants living in the country rose to more than eight million. It was a large labor force, that attracted the attention of a lot of companies in more sectors of the economy seeking to use its illegality to lower labor costs. But the fact that a government raid could cause them to lose big chunks of their workforce remained a big barrier to these companies. This put on the agenda another round of regularization of the undocumented workforce so that any company could hire them, after George W. Bush took office in 2001.

But Bush’s plans were abruptly shelved after the terror attacks of 9/11, which were soon followed by U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and preparations to invade Iraq. Instead, anti-terrorism and anti-immigration became synonymous. Tom Ridge, Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security, announced plans to deport all undocumented immigrants. His department staged big, headline-grabbing workplace raids, sometimes including coordination among multiple police departments and SWAT team-level technology (like police helicopters).

By the time Bush started his second term, in 2005, the number of undocumented immigrants had risen to 11 million – which for the bourgeoisie represented still more of a reason to find a way to regularize the legal situation. This took concrete form in 2005, when the Bush administration presented a new plan for “Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” This so-called “reform” was endorsed by 47 business associations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is an indication of how important it was for the capitalist class as a whole. The terms of what they were proposing showed whose interests it would serve. It would have taken at least 13 years for an undocumented immigrant to become fully legalized. While it would have immediately legalized the hiring of immigrant labor by big companies, the workers had to wait at least 13 years to gain full legal status. So, for 13 years, it would have relegated those workers to the status of indentured servant, in which deportation was still held over their heads for all those who did not please the boss.

Employer associations, the Catholic Church, the corporate news media, the Democratic Party apparatus, immigrant rights organizations and union cadre provided particularly by the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) pushed to bring out massive outpourings of immigrants to support Bush’s bill designed to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie.

In the end, the reform law was torpedoed by the Republican extreme-right wing, as well as some liberals in the Democratic Party, who posed as defenders of workers’ jobs, who feared that they would not be re-elected if they voted in favor of the reform. That is, they feared the backlash that they themselves had helped to whip up.

The defeat of Bush’s immigration bill did not stop parts of the capitalist class from employing undocumented labor, especially in construction. And the number of undocumented immigrants inside the country continued to increase until 2007, when it reached 12 million. But in 2007, a severe recession was set off by a gigantic housing crisis, leading to massive layoffs that started in construction. As unemployment mounted, undocumented immigrants who were jobless simply left the country. And the number of immigrants trying to get into the country also dropped. As a result, there was a net outflow of immigrants. For the first time in decades, the total number of undocumented immigrants in the country fell by about a million to a little more than 11 million people, and then stabilized. It has remained at that level ever since.

During the first years of the crisis, the U.S. bourgeoisie put any kind of formalized legalization of undocumented immigrants on the back burner. But the Obama administration, which took office in 2009, did find administrative ways to make it easier for companies that hired undocumented immigrants. In Obama’s first term, he replaced Bush’s spectacular workplace raids with his own system of “silent raids” on workplaces. With the audits, workplaces were not disrupted and most undocumented immigrant workers caught without adequate papers were not deported – although workers sometimes lost their jobs. Even though the bourgeoisie couldn’t get regularization of the undocumented immigrant workforce with a change in the law, it worked with the Obama administration to get it another way: by changing how the law was enforced.

In 2012, Obama signed an executive order bypassing Congress that created DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), a program that provides renewable two-year work permits for young undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children. This program has about 750,000 participants, who are in the prime working age that companies covet. Companies clearly hoped for a docile workforce, since the permit is temporary, short-term and can be withdrawn at any time.

This is an executive order by Obama that Trump has not overturned ... yet.

During Barack Obama’s second term, which began in 2013, the Republican-controlled Congress voted down the Obama administration’s bill to legalize the hiring of undocumented immigrants for the capitalist class, even though Obama’s bill made the “pathway to citizenship” for immigrants even longer and harder than did Bush’s bill in 2005. But failure was expected, since the Republicans in Congress were voting down practically everything that the Obama administration was proposing.

So, the Obama administration largely “legalized” the situation for companies de facto, that is, by simply leaving most of the undocumented population alone. It drastically scaled back the arrests and deportations from the interior of the country. Almost all the arrests and deportations in Obama’s second term came at the border. This led to a steady drop in the number of deportations that were carried out over the next four years. For the bourgeoisie, this meant fewer disruptions to its workforce.

More than 11 million undocumented immigrants still live, work and go to school in this country. They live in fear, because they can still be arrested and deported at any time. They are taken advantage of, paid lower wages, and their low wages can be used to drive down the wages of the rest of the working class.

For a Fighting Policy of the Working Class

Thus, the working class is divided. Workers are in competition for jobs, pay, everything. Just like the capitalists are in competition with each other, so are the workers. It’s exactly how capitalism operates, by pitting workers against each other.

But these divisions inside the working class are not permanent or immovable. History is rich in examples of how workers have overcome these divisions – when workers begin to fight. Masses of workers learn through their own experience that they have common interests and that they are stronger when they unite their forces.

What workers – native-born and immigrant, legal and undocumented, black and white – need is a fighting policy to fight for what all workers need: jobs, decent wages, safe working conditions, decent schools and health care. These are the things that the capitalists are trying to take away.

When workers begin to carry out that fight, native-born workers will discover that immigrant workers are a reinforcement. Not only do they increase the size and weight of the working class, but they also supplement the collective knowledge and experience of the entire class. For immigrant workers come from various places with their own history, their own lessons from their struggles.

And that will be an advantage for future struggles that the working class in this country and elsewhere will carry out.