The Spark

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

Immigration to the U.S. through the Centuries

May 13, 2013

From the very beginning, immigration policy in this country has been set to meet the demands of the ruling class. For them, the problem always was to cut labor costs. For that, they have always tried to divide the work force, and pay one group less than another.

Or not pay at all, such as in slavery and indentured servitude during colonial times. The use of direct bondage certainly had to do with particular circumstances existing in the colonies. When the land to be worked was large and open, the landowners tried to prevent their workers from running away, especially since they weren’t paying them anything.

In the 19th century, it was mainly German, British and Irish immigrants who built the infrastructure in the East for the bosses. And especially Irish workers faced blatant racism. Irish immigrants who came to America to escape poverty, racism and oppression at the hands of the British rulers, found more of the same, this time at the hands of American bosses, who adorned their businesses with the infamous “No Irish Need Apply” signs. Not surprisingly, the Irish got some of the lowest-paying, most dangerous jobs, such as mining and building the railroads.

While the railroad bosses put Irish immigrants to work on the railroads in the East, they used Chinese workers for that purpose in the West. Starting in the 1840s, Chinese workers had been brought in under so-called “coolie contracts,” the West Coast version of the indentured contracts of colonial period on the East Coast. By 1860, Chinese people made up 10% of California’s population, but almost 25% of its work force.

The 1870s brought economic depression, and the bosses did not need all the work force they had been using. In the West, people of European descent were turned against Chinese workers. In 1871, in a massacre that was apparently planned, a mob of more than 500 white men entered L.A.’s Chinatown to attack, rob and murder Chinese residents of the city. Attacks on Chinese people continued in Western states, and led to a political campaign by California bosses (especially large landowners, who had been taking over the land holdings of Chinese people) to legalize discrimination against the Chinese. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring Chinese people from entering the U.S.

Southern plantation owners supported the Western landowners in passing this immigration law written specifically against the Chinese. When, in turn, the Southern plantation owners imposed Jim Crow laws on the black population, Californians in Congress supported it. It was a deal that Southern and Western bosses had cut.

If bosses joined forces to divide the working class and attack different parts of it, workers also found ways to get together to defend themselves. Irish workers, who had been turned against black people during the “draft riot” of 1863 in New York City, were the backbone of the organizing effort to form a miners’ union in Pennsylvania, which culminated in a six-month strike in 1875. And Irish workers along with German workers were among those who led the great railroad strike of 1877, which set off near-general strikes in several major cities in the East and Midwest. In some of these cities, the strikes engaged a significant proportion of black laborers.

In this same time period, immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe surged, providing the cheap labor force capitalists demanded for expanding industry. The bosses also tried to use Italian and East European workers, often without their prior knowledge, as strike-breakers, along with black workers. All this was done with the complicity of some union leaders, who contributed to the divisions with their own racism – by excluding black workers, for example.

Italian and Eastern European workers didn’t always allow themselves to be used against other workers. Many of them were familiar with workers’ struggles in their own countries, and even brought with them some socialist traditions to their new country. The American capitalist class saw this as a threat, especially after World War I, when a wave of workers’ revolutions swept Europe. These revolutions were echoed in the U.S. by a national steel strike and the 1919 general strike in Seattle. The government responded with a wave of repression, known as the “Red Scare,” along with the most restrictive immigration laws passed in U.S. history, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924. Using an openly racist language, these laws barred almost all immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, where worker uprisings had occurred.

In this time period, internal migration replaced immigration from abroad as a source of labor. Black people, fleeing the poverty and terror of the Jim-Crow South, migrated to the industrial centers of the North and Midwest. They were joined by Midwestern and Southern white farmers who, fleeing economic devastation, also migrated to the industrial centers and the West. These migrants were used as a source of cheap agricultural labor in California and other Western states. When the internal migration did not supply enough workers, the bosses brought in temporary workers (“guest workers,” that is) from Mexico in the 1940s under a legal program known as the Bracero Program (originally in agriculture but later in other industries). And then the federal government opened the borders somewhat with the Immigration Act of 1965.

By allotting each country the same number of immigrants, the 1965 law led to an increase in the number of immigrants from most countries; but it caused the number of immigrants from Asia and Mexico to go down. This law also eliminated the Bracero Program. But migration into the U.S. from south of the border increased due to economic crises and persistent poverty in Latin America in general, and wars in Central America in particular. So the bosses continued to use workers from Mexico in ever-increasing numbers for low-wage jobs. But that meant these workers were forced to be “illegal,” that is, they were forced into a precarious existence, vulnerable to the whims of politicians and desires of the bosses – exactly what we are discussing today.

The American ruling class has always used immigration as a source of fresh workers to exploit. It has used the state, and politicians that run it, to try to regulate the flow and use of immigrant labor in its own interests. Even when the bourgeoisie legalized a record number of immigrants (more than three million) in 1986, it made sure the legalization was accompanied by a series of repressive measures and an expansion of immigration police and prisons. Today, once again, they are trying to do something similar – legalize a large number of immigrants (this time with all kinds of penalties and long waits), while stepping up repression enormously, and worsening the conditions for immigrant workers. And law or no law, this country has also seen big upsurges in the number of deportations – such as in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, but also today. That’s what immigrant workers have to expect from an immigration policy set and controlled by the bosses.

That’s why, to counter the policy of the bourgeoisie on immigration, or labor in general, the working class has to pose its own policy based on the understanding that, first of all, what divides people is not nationality but social class.

Bosses are the ones who have drawn the borders, for their own purposes. Big companies always move and operate across borders if it’s profitable for them – for example to exploit cheap labor. American companies have been among the biggest employers in Mexico for a long time.

The U.S. has always been a country of immigrants – immigrant workers. American workers have always come from different countries – if not themselves, then their parents or not-so-distant ancestors. They do have different backgrounds and cultures. But that is a strength of the American working class, not a reason to be divided.

A working class policy must emphasize the common class interests of all workers.

For sure, the bosses have always attempted to divide workers – not only by country or region but also by company, by skill, by age and gender and a hundred other ways. The working class can defend itself only when it is united in its own class interests. And workers can get their rights only through their own collective struggles.