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A two-faced immigration policy

By Lance Selfa | October 31, 2003 | Page 9

ONE CAN certainly wonder about the timing of the FBI raids that arrested more than 300 immigrants working for a cleaning contractor for Wal-Mart. Less than two weeks before, labor and community organizations completed the historic Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride that culminated in the largest demonstration for immigrant rights in U.S. history.

The image of hundreds of immigrants being led away in handcuffs replaced the image of hundreds of thousands of immigrants merely asking for their piece of the American pie. Combined with the Republican right's campaign to repeal a new law allowing California drivers to obtain licenses without having to prove immigration status, the raids were the latest reminder that the politics of immigration could emerge as a potent issue in the 2004 elections.

Nevertheless, anti-immigration politics contradicts the U.S's ideology as a "nation of immigrants." This contradiction was on full display in the recent California governor's race, where among the top five candidates were three immigrants (including the winner) and a right-wing Republican who made a big issue of opposing the drivers' licenses law. Right-winger Tom McClintock lost to "moderate" Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who promised to oppose the licenses law while touting his immigrant roots.

That the archetypal bosses' party includes the xenophobic McClintock and "moderates" like Schwarzenegger, reflects the two-faced way capitalism views immigration. The capitalist system is international, with products manufactured and sold worldwide, and with a global labor pool.

To fill the capitalists' demand for labor, this labor pool has to be somewhat mobile. National border controls ensure that capitalism, through its state, maintains control of labor, rather than allowing people to move at will.

When economic growth produces a demand for workers that the existing workforce can't satisfy, a "labor shortage" results. Just as women moved into arms industry jobs while men were fighting in the Second World War, immigrants often fill the ranks of workers when native-born workers can't.

In the economic boom of the 1990s, about half of all workers--and 80 percent of male workers--who entered the labor force were immigrants, according to U.S. Census figures analyzed by the Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies in 2002. In New England and the New York area, the workforce wouldn't have grown at all without immigration.

"The American economy absolutely needs immigrants," Northeastern University Center director Andrew Sum told the Washington Post. "I realize some workers have been hurt by this...but our economy has become more dependent on immigrant labor than at any time in the last 100 years." Immigrants have also contributed to the booms in retail and housing sales.

Immigration itself does not lower workers' wages. But competition and division between groups of workers does. If one section of the workforce can be exploited without any legal recourse, it's easier for the bosses to lower all workers' living standards.

Wal-Mart--whose ads are omnipresent in the Spanish-language media--may have known that it was employing illegal immigrant labor. If so, the fine of $10,000 per violation is chump change to a company whose owners include five of the world's 10 richest people.

Yet it's Wal-Mart's deliberate policies of paying low wages, offering stingy benefits and opposing unions that drive down workers' living standards--even if it didn't employ a single "illegal" worker. Bosses and politicians know that crackdowns like the Wal-Mart raids or "Operation Gatekeeper" at the U.S.-Mexico border won't stop workers from coming to the U.S.

Nor would they want to stop the flow of immigrant labor into the U.S. But maintaining the distinction between "legal" and "illegal" workers serves to convince at least some workers (including many "legal" immigrants) to support conservative "defenders of American jobs" who are really frontmen for corporate kingpins who continue to lower all workers' living standards.

Historically, workers of different races or nationalities have advanced together or they have sunk together. That's why all workers should support demands for drivers' licenses and legalization of immigrants.

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