A renewed fight for immigrant rights

March 25, 2010

Orlando Sepúlveda looks at the significance of the big immigrant rights march in Washington, D.C.--and the fight against anti-immigrant proposals packaged as reform.

ABOUT 200,000 immigrants and supporters marched and rallied March 21 in Washington, D.C., to protest the inaction of President Barack Obama and Congress on legislation that could legalize more than 11 million undocumented immigrants--and to demand an end to raids and deportations, measures to assist family reunification, and a more just and humane immigration system.

If the harsh proposals recently put forward by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) become the basis for legislation, this spirit of protest and resistance will be necessary for immigrants to step up the fight.

The March 21 mobilization illustrates the potential to revive the immigrant rights movement, which showed its strength in spectacular fashion in 2006 with mass marches against draconian anti-immigrant proposals.

This latest rally--among the biggest in recent years--was called by the coalition Reform Immigration for America, which includes more than 200 organizations around the country--among them, immigrant rights advocacy groups, unions and churches. Together, they seek to force immigration reform onto the political agenda of Congress this year.

Hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Washington, D.C., for immigrant rights
Hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Washington, D.C., for immigrant rights (Vanissa Chan)

The effects of the march were felt on Capitol Hill even in the weeks before it actually happened. In a meeting with Obama, 13 movement leaders of Reform Immigration for America asked the president to work with Schumer and Graham "to present a framework for a comprehensive reform of immigration prior to the March for America on March 21," according to a press release of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant Rights and Refugees (ICIRR).

In fact, Obama did meet with Schumer and Graham to discuss the issue. "It is clear that the march is forcing the president and the political leaders to focus on immigration reform," the ICIRR stated in its press release. Thus, with pressure mounting as the march approached, Schumer and Graham published their immigration reform framework in a March 19 op-ed article in the Washington Post under the headline, "The right way to mend immigration."

Yet what Schumer and Graham put forward is the right way to "mend" immigration policy for the interests of U.S. corporations. It's all wrong for immigrants--and for all workers.

TO RESTORE profitability and come out on top in the current recession, corporations need to lower the cost of labor in the U.S. The immigration reform framework is an important part of this goal.

Whereas millions of people see the need to strengthen the rights of all workers, the politicians who support the establishment framework for reform--including Obama--see the opportunity to perpetuate inequality for immigrants. That, in turn, will lower everybody's living standards, and weaken civil and workers' rights.

The Schumer-Graham plan consists of four parts: strengthening border security and interior enforcement; biometric Social Security cards for all workers, native and immigrant; creating a guest worker program; and a "tough but fair" path to legalization.

On border security and enforcement, the senators write: "We would bolster recent efforts to secure our borders by increasing the Border Patrol's staffing and funding for infrastructure and technology...Other steps include expanding domestic enforcement... and completing an entry-exit system that tracks people who enter the United States on legal visas and reports those who overstay their visas to law enforcement databases."

In their blueprint, Schumer and Graham put "harsh and failed enforcement strategies" at the heart of their proposals "in hopes of drawing conservative support, regardless of the human rights consequences of such policies," according to a statement by the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR), released the day before of the march.

NNIRR stated that it was "very concerned that the provisions described by the senators would extend and deepen harsh enforcement practices that have caused trauma and separation for immigration families, fostered racial profiling and led to tragic deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border."

But if Schumer and Graham get their way, everyone's civil rights will be attacked--not just those of immigrants.

In support of their proposal for biometric Social Security cards, the senators argue that "ending illegal immigration will also require an effective employment verification system that holds employers accountable...We would require all U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who want jobs to obtain a high-tech, fraud-proof Social Security card. Prospective employers would be responsible for swiping the cards through a machine to confirm a person's identity and immigration status."

They also promise that "[e]mployers who refuse to swipe the card or who otherwise knowingly hired unauthorized workers would face stiff fines and, for repeat offenses, prison sentences."

But a biometric card will "do little to stop...corrupt employers who will continue to use 'off the book' workers," says Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for the Washington office of the ACLU. What's more, the cards will effectively serve as a national ID card for everyone--and as the ACLU points out, "Electronic employment verification systems can also increase discrimination against authorized workers, based on race, language and national origin."

Indeed, as the employer sanctions in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 show, regulations aimed at business are hardly ever enforced. As journalist David Bacon pointed out, employers at American Apparel, American Building Maintenance and a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, were immunized from prosecution for their cooperation in workplace immigration sweeps.

The ID card also raises concerns about the future of civil liberties in the U.S. "We cannot trade away our most essential civil liberties while attempting to fix our broken immigration system," said Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office. She added: "Like the Social Security number, use of a national ID would quickly spread to other areas like travel, voting, financial transactions and other cherished rights."

BUT THE attack on civil liberties is only one aspect of the problems a biometric card would bring to social and political life in the country. The card will also act as a wedge to widen the divisions within the entire working class, making it easier for corporations to divide and conquer when slashing benefits and wages.

As the ACLU's Murphy points out, "A biometric national ID system or a massive employment verification system would essentially require every American to obtain a 'permission slip' in order to work."

A permission slip for workers seems to be exactly what Schumer and Graham have in mind. For their proposed temporary-worker program, the senators hope that their proposal will help in "[d]eveloping a rational legal immigration system [that] is essential to ensuring America's future economic prosperity...attracting the world's best and brightest. Our legislation would award green cards to immigrants who receive a PhD or master's degree... from a U.S. university...[and] create a rational system for admitting lower-skilled workers."

This is simply a new gloss on an old category of labor with little or no rights: guest workers. Such programs in the U.S. have a long history of abuse and super-exploitation of immigrant workers. Referring to the mid-20th century bracero program, author Justin Akers Chacón called it a "caste system" that "granted the formal right for temporary workers to join American unions" but sabotaged this right by "multiple layers of obstruction":

The contract bound the "guest worker" to perform consistent labor, and then return to Mexico at the end of the harvest. Any "breach" of the contract by the individual, such as stopping work, leaving or otherwise "willfully refusing" to carry out the agreement, resulted in deportation.

By individualizing the contract, collective bargaining was precluded. This secured a way to detach bracero labor from the rest of the working class and legally redefine temporary workers as virtual property of the growers.

The abuse of guest workers has continued under other programs since then. Most recently, in March 2008, about 100 immigrant workers at the Signal International shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., walked off the job to protest slave-like working and living conditions. The workers had been recruited in India under the current HB-2 guest worker program and forced to accept these conditions because they remained in debt to their recruiters.

"The overriding issue is that the U.S. government's guest-worker program is used as a vehicle for labor trafficking and forced slavery," said Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, a labor rights organization that aided the Signal workers.

Under the Schumer-Graham framework, such abuses would be institutionalized on a massive scale. As the NNIRR's statement put it, this repackaged and expanded guest-worker proposal "is a recipe for disaster, and merely sets up the prospect of more exploited migrant workers with fewer rights, including workers with little access to green cards and who could eventually become undocumented."

WHAT ABOUT the promised path to legalization--something millions of undocumented workers urgently need? Here again, the senators promise a solution, but impose obstacles that are insurmountable for most immigrants:

For the 11 million immigrants already in this country illegally, we would provide a tough but fair path forward. They would be required to admit they broke the law and to pay their debt to society by performing community service and paying fines and back taxes. These people would be required to pass background checks and be proficient in English before going to the back of the line of prospective immigrants to earn the opportunity to work toward lawful permanent residence.

By pushing legislation that would force undocumented immigrants to pay fines and back taxes, Schumer and Graham aim to blunt criticism from the anti-immigrant right. However, because employers keep wages for undocumented workers low, millions will find these conditions impossible.

In any case, study after study shows that undocumented workers do pay taxes--in rates equal to or greater than the rest of the population.

To assure critics that they are not proposing amnesty, Schumer and Graham want undocumented immigrants "to admit they broke the law and to pay their debt to society" with "community service." What exactly does this mean? Should we expect, if their proposal becomes law, to see groups of laborers on the highways and in parks working for free in what could be a paid job? Images of chain gangs come to mind.

And if millions of undocumented workers are compelled to do unpaid labor, it will bolster animosity from native workers against immigrants for performing work that--in a time of economic crisis and mass unemployment--could otherwise put food on the table of their families.

Meanwhile, undocumented immigrants--while working extra hours to pay fines and taxes, in addition to their unpaid community service jobs--would have to study to become "proficient in English."

Then there's the requirement "to pass background checks." Does a DUI conviction disqualify someone? How about getting caught smoking pot while an adolescent? What about immigrant drivers or youth who do nothing wrong, but are racially profiled by police and arrested on some manufactured charge?

Even if and when an undocumented worker actually meets all these conditions, there's still a requirement that he or she go "to the back of the line of prospective immigrants to earn the opportunity to work toward lawful permanent residence." Gee, thanks, senators.

"The right way to mend immigration" has actually been put forward by undocumented workers, youth and immigrant right activists who have challenged the politicians' indifference. For example, campaigns such as the fight to stop the deportation of Chicago college student Rigo Padilla, and the big recent protest against anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona--both led mainly by youth--have helped rebuild the confidence of the immigrant rights movement.

The movement's revival could be seen in the march of undocumented youth in Chicago on March 10 to announce that they were coming out of the shadows to fight back. Their spirit was carried on the hundreds of buses that came to Washington, D.C., on March 21.

The protesters loudly voiced their demands--and at no point did they chant for enforcement and border security. Neither did they call for biometric cards or any other verification system, nor for guest-worker programs.

Instead, they demanded legalization for all, family unification--and justice and dignity.

The massive demonstration on March 21 shows that we can fight for legalization for all--and without perks for the corporations. But this fight must be part of the struggle for the right to work for all workers in this country.

Sí se puede! Yes we can--and we must come out again on May Day for legalization and jobs for all.

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