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Labor Fights for Immigrants | The Nation

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Labor Fights for Immigrants

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The conversion of Phil Gramm and at least part of the Republican right (including, most recently, Jesse Helms) to the pro-bracero position may actually help clarify the immigration debate. Gramm, the AFL-CIO and immigrant rights activists agree on one thing: The choice to be made is not over what will or won't stop people from coming across the border but over their status in the United States. It's the age-old American dilemma: bondage (whether as slaves, indentured servants or braceros) or freedom (even if that still leaves workers with the need to organize and fight to improve conditions).

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David Bacon
David Bacon is author of Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, and the...

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Reformers are targeting Mexican teachers, wielding tests as a weapon. Sound familiar?

Rejecting proposals to tighten borders, a network of grassroots groups calls for reform based on “human, labor and civil rights for all.”

Migrant Watch International, based in Switzerland, estimates that 130 million people live outside their countries of birth. Because neoliberal reforms and the transfer of wealth from developing to developed countries makes survival impossible for many in their home countries, they migrate to places with greater employment possibilities and higher standards of living. US investment in Mexico (the largest source of migrants to the United States) and the low-wage economic climate fostered by the governments of both countries push people north, along with repatriated profits. Under the rules of free trade, profits and investment have free passage across the border, but people don't.

In addition to factors pushing people out of their countries of origin, there are pull factors. Communities of immigrants act as magnets, attracting the family members of those who have already immigrated. "These people are not strangers," explains Lillian Galedo, co-chair of Filipino Civil Rights Advocates. "They are our mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, and even our children."

Behind the immediate political debates over individual reform proposals lies a fundamental question: Is the purpose of immigration law to supply labor to industry on terms it finds acceptable, or is its purpose the protection of the rights and welfare of immigrants themselves?

Punitive policies and the militarization of borders cannot stop the flow of immigrants. But there is another framework for dealing with migration, other than contract labor and repression. In 1990 the UN General Assembly adopted an International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. It extends basic human rights without distinction to all migrants, documented or undocumented. It supports the right of family reunification, establishes the principle of "equality of treatment" with citizens of the host country in employment and education, protects migrants against collective deportation and makes both sending and receiving countries responsible for protecting them. All countries retain the right to determine who is admitted to their territory, and under what conditions people gain the right to work.

Predictably, countries that send immigrants favor the convention, and countries that receive them don't. The United States has not ratified it. The convention does not answer all questions, but it takes two basic steps that still paralyze the US debate: It recognizes the global scale and permanence of migration, and its starting point is the protection of the rights of migrants themselves. That's where an immigration policy based on human rights begins.

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