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Exploited and then tossed aside

By Lance Selfa | January 16, 2004 | Page 9

PRESIDENT BUSH'S proposed immigration reform has left many details to Congress. For now, Bush can look like a "compassionate conservative," disguising this dressed-up bracero program behind a smokescreen of liberal pro-immigrant rhetoric.

The standard rap on Bush's plan coming from critics today is that it's "political," designed less to deal with the issue of immigration than to increase Bush's margins among Latino voters. There's certainly truth in that charge, but that shouldn't be surprising.

Immigration policy in the "nation of immigrants" has always been "political," shaped less by considerations of economic rationality and human rights than by narrow corporate interests group and partisan reasons. In general, immigration law has always been designed to be loose enough to accommodate the needs of business during labor shortages, but still arbitrary enough to keep the workers divided and lacking in basic rights.

Between 1820 and 1930, more than 32 million Europeans migrated to the U.S. Because growing industry created vast labor shortages, immigrant labor was essential to the buildup of U.S. industry. The U.S. would never have attained the rank of world industrial power without immigrant labor.

Yet, whenever the U.S. economy fell into recession and employers cut wages and laid off workers, they and anti-immigrant politicians found a ready scapegoat in immigrants.

Today, no one considers people of German and Irish descent anything other than "American." But in the 1840s and 1850s, the "Know-Nothing" movement worked to restrict their immigration. In the aftermath of the 1877 industrial mass strikes, employers tried to shift the blame for the unrest onto immigrants.

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited immigration of Chinese laborers, and denied naturalization for those already here. "The Chinese Exclusion Act was in actuality symptomatic of a larger conflict between white labor and white capital: exclusion of the Chinese was designed not only to defuse an issue agitating white workers but also to alleviate class tensions within white society," writes historian Ronald Takaki.

Other laws regulating immigration to the U.S. were explicitly racist and discriminatory. From 1924 to 1965, the annual number of places for legal immigrants was allocated among different countries through a system of "national origins quotas." The quotas for immigrants were based on a complicated formula heavily weighted to favor white immigrants from Europe over others.

In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act introduced both class and political discrimination into official immigration law. The act barred communists and socialists from immigrating to the U.S. and it set up a "preference" system to favor middle-class and wealthy immigrants.

The government used the McCarran Act to "smash labor unions, break strikes, further intimidate immigrant workers and harass the Mexican minority" in the U.S., wrote historian James Cockcroft. Only in 1965, under the pressure of the civil rights movement, did the U.S. repeal the national origins quotas.

The anticommunist ban held until the collapse of Stalinism in 1990. Ronald Reagan's 1986 Immigration and Refugee Control Act (IRCA), which many commentators likened to Bush's proposal, is cited as a progressive measure.

It was actually a major setback for immigrant rights. While giving amnesty for selected long-term residents, the act also increased funding for border enforcement. Under the policy of sanctioning employers for employing illegal workers, it made working without papers a crime for the first time.

These policies gave license to workplace raids and allowed for the detention of workers "suspected" of being illegal--for doing such things as speaking Spanish. IRCA spurred the longer-term trend of militarization of border and immigration policy that continues to this day.

The acts did not cut the numbers of immigrants--legal or illegal. Although clampdowns are presented as attempts to stop illegal aliens and to enforce the law, they never actually stop illegal entries. Nor are they really intended to.

They simply heighten the distinction between legal and illegal, extend the criminalization of sections of the workforce and allow for higher levels of exploitation. Beneath all the liberal-sounding rhetoric, that's the reality of Bush's new immigration proposal.

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