Change Immigrants and Labor Can Believe In

Change Immigrants and Labor Can Believe In

Change Immigrants and Labor Can Believe In

The Obama administration should embrace progressive tactics to protect human and workplace rights.


Since 2001 the Bush administration has deported more than a million people–including 349,041 individuals in the fiscal year ending just prior to the election. It has resurrected the discredited community sweeps and factory raids of earlier eras, and started sending waves of migrants to privately run jails for crimes like inventing a Social Security number to get a job. Every day in Tucson seventy young people, including many teenagers, are brought before a federal judge in heavy chains and sentenced to prison because they walked across the border.

It’s no wonder that Latinos, Asians and other communities with large immigrant populations voted for Barack Obama by huge margins. People want and expect a change. Ending the administration’s failed program of raids, jail time and deportations is at the top of the list. National demonstrations have called for a moratorium on raids since the summer, and one big reason why Los Angeles turned out so heavily for Obama was the anti-raid encampment and hunger strike in the Placita Olvera, which electrified the city.

But the raids program has been rejected by more than immigrants alone. The election took place as millions of people were losing their jobs and homes. Yet while Lou Dobbs and the talk show hysteria-mongers tried to scapegoat immigrants for this crisis (“What about illegal don’t you understand?”), most voters did not drink the Kool-Aid. In fact, every poll shows that a big majority reject raids and want basic rights and fair treatment for everyone, immigrants included. The political coalition that put Obama into office–African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, women and union families–expects change.

The country needs not just an end to raids but a move away from the policies they’ve been intended to promote. From the beginning, the administration’s enforcement program has been cynically designed to pressure Congress into re-establishing discredited guest-worker schemes called “close to slavery” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, being reminiscent of the old bracero program. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff called these raids “closing the back door and opening the front door.”

At least Chertoff was honest about his intentions. His underlings at Homeland Security, like Julie Myers, head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), tried to pretend that the imprisonment and deportation of abused workers was a form of labor standards enforcement. Meanwhile, actual protection for US wages, working conditions and union rights has been in free fall for eight years. Other Homeland Security officials mendaciously claimed immigrants were a threat to national security, as though imprisoning hungry teenagers or terrorized workers would help a fearful public to sleep at night.

No one whose eyes are open to the terrible human suffering caused by these draconian policies will be very sorry to see Chertoff go. But what policies will take their place, and who will enforce them? So far, the choice of Janet Napolitano is not encouraging. The Tucson “Operation Streamline” court convenes in her home state every day, and the situation of immigrants in Arizona is worse than almost anywhere else.

Napolitano herself has publicly supported most of the worst ideas of the Bush administration, including guest-worker programs with no amnesty for the currently undocumented, and brutal enforcement schemes like E-Verify and workplace raids. But Obama does not have to be imprisoned by the failure of Napolitano to imagine a more progressive alternative. In fact, his new administration’s need to respond to the economic crisis, and to strengthen the political coalition that won the election, can open new possibilities for a just and fair immigration policy.

Economic crisis does not have to pit working people against one other, or lead to the further demonization of immigrants. In fact, there is common ground between immigrants, communities of color, unions, churches, civil rights organizations and working families. Legalization and immigrant rights can be tied to guaranteeing jobs for anyone who wants to work, and unions to raise wages and win better conditions for everyone in the workplace.

These are not revolutionary demands. In fact, they’re what the Democratic Party used to stand for. Nor is the idea of combining them into a common program that is not just pie-in-the-sky. For two sessions of Congress, the Black Caucus and leaders like Sheila Jackson Lee and Barbara Lee have proposed legislation to create jobs, at the same time offering rights and legal status to immigrants without papers. The AFL-CIO’s campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act supports the surest means of ending the low-wage, second-class status of immigrant workers– organizing unions. And repealing unfair trade agreements and ending structural adjustment policies would raise the standard of living and reduce the pressure for migration in Oaxaca or El Salvador, while making jobs more secure in working-class communities in the United States.

Justice for immigrants does not have to be the third rail of US politics, as Rahm Emmanuel has called it. Instead, immigrant rights is the demand of one part of a broad coalition that seeks fundamental social change. Immigrants can’t achieve justice on their own, but then no element of this coalition can win its demands in isolation. Only a common-ground strategy can actually achieve the changes people hoped for when they went to the polls. Stopping the raids is the first step in a process that will help to end the nightmare of the past few years, and at the same time can help the administration begin to address the larger issues of immigration reform, jobs and workplace rights.

Something is clearly wrong with immigration enforcement. Desperate workers get fired and deported, families get terrorized and divided, while the government protects employers and seeks to turn a family-based immigration system into a managed labor supply for business. Even before presenting a reform plan to Congress, the Obama administration has the power to change some of the worst elements of the Bush program by administrative and executive action. What Bush put in place by fiat can be changed by the same process. In its first 100 days, a new administration could take simple steps to protect human and workplace rights, instead of allowing the abuse to continue:

* Stop ICE from seeking serious federal criminal charges, with incarceration in privately run prisons, when a worker lacks papers or has a bad Social Security number.

* Stop raiding workplaces, especially where workers are trying to organize unions or enforce wage and hour laws. This would help all workers, not just immigrants.

* Halt community sweeps, checkpoints and roadblocks, where agents use warrants for one or two people to detain and deport dozens of others. End the government’s campaign to repeal local sanctuary ordinances and drag local law enforcement into immigration raids.

* Double the paltry 742 federal inspectors responsible for all US wage and hour violations and focus on industries where immigrants are concentrated. The National Labor Relations Board could target employers who use immigration threats to violate union rights.

* Allow all workers to apply for a Social Security number and pay legally into a system that benefits everyone. Social Security numbers should be used for their true purpose–paying retirement and disability benefits–not to fire immigrants from their jobs and send them to prison.

* Re-establish worker protections, ended under Bush, connected with existing guest-worker programs; force employers to hire domestically first and decertify any contractor guilty of labor violations.

* Restore human rights in border communities, stop construction of the border wall between the US and Mexico, and disband the Operation Streamline federal court, where scores of young border crossers are sent to prison in chains every day.

Democrats still have to decide what reforms to bring before Congress, and when. Some would delay action for a year or more. But the US Chamber of Commerce and dozens of trade groups have been pushing for years for big guest-worker programs. They are more than willing to accept raids and enforcement as a price, and are already working to bring back the “comprehensive” bills that would give them what they want. Instead of arguing over “what’s politically possible” in Congress, immigrant and labor rights activists need a movement for a progressive alternative.

That alternative has to strengthen human rights on both sides of the global divide. In countries like Mexico and the Philippines, the families of migrants are fighting for real development instead of poverty, forced migration and a remittance-based economy. Here in the United States, movements in immigrant communities have brought millions of people into the streets on May Day, and continue to fight the raids and deportations. We need proposals that address both the situation of immigrants here and the conditions in their countries that force them to migrate.

To move towards equality and rights in the United States:

A law to give permanent residence (green-card) visas to the undocumented, and clear up the backlog of people already waiting for them abroad. If visas were more easily available, people wouldn’t have to cross the border without them. Employer sanctions that make it a crime for immigrants to hold a job should be repealed. Guest-worker programs with a record of abuse should be ended, as they were in 1964.

To end the displacement at the root of most forced migration:

A new approach to trade policy, including renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and rejection of potential new trade agreements with countries like Colombia. Protecting corporate access to markets and low wages leads to rising poverty and the displacement of communities. We need to concentrate on the welfare of people at the bottom rather than the top, help grassroots communities of farmers stay on their land, and boost wages and employment for urban workers. Instead of subsidizing war and displacement, US tax dollars could expand rural credit, education and healthcare abroad, easing the pressure behind migration.

A new administration that has raised such high expectations should look for new ideas in the areas of immigration reform and trade policy, not recycle the bad ones of the last few years. The constituency that won the election will support a change in direction, and in fact is demanding it. The Obama administration owes its victory to that constituency, and its promises of change that brought it to the polls. Now it needs to deliver.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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