Debating the Raids: A Misstatement and a Disagreement

January 9, 2009

In his article in the November/December issue, "Building the Homeland Security State," Roberto Lovato says: "David Bacon posits that the crackdown is purposefully meant to trigger an immigrant-labor shortage, which will eventually enable the government to establish the migration policy it’s been pushing for all along: a temporary guest-worker program." After setting up this straw man, he then proceeds to attack it.
While there’s no doubt that the Bush administration has been pushing guest-worker programs, I have never said that immigration raids are intended to produce a labor shortage. In fact, contrary to Lovato’s misstatement, I’ve exposed the false claims of "labor shortages" by employers and their government and lobbyist allies repeatedly over the years in numerous articles, most recently in Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Beacon Press, 2008).

As a journalist I’ve covered immigration raids for 18 years. I was a union organizer for 20 years before that, and have been an immigrant-rights activist during all that time. What I have said over those years is that immigration enforcement is part of a social, political, and economic system, whose primary purpose is the supply and control of labor. In Illegal People I describe this system, showing that trade treaties, structural adjustment policies, and neoliberal reforms displace communities and force millions of people to migrate. Immigration policy then channels that flow of people to areas of the economy where their labor is used, enforces the unequal and second-class status of migrants, and ensures that the price paid for their labor is as low as possible. The production of migration and the use of its labor are part of a single economic system. U.S. immigration policy is not intended to keep that labor out, but to determine the status of people in the places they go. I summarized a key part of the book’s argument in "Displaced People—NAFTA’s Most Important Product," an article published in the September/October issue of the NACLA Report.

Raids and the criminalization of work and migration enforce immigration policy. I spent months this year investigating the most recent wave of raids ("Railroading Immigrants," The Nation, September 17). This investigation shows that the Bush raids program has two primary functions. First, it terrorizes immigrant workers and their communities, attacking their efforts to organize in the big marches, and in workplace campaigns at Smithfield, Swift, Agriprocessors, Howard Industries, Woodfin Suites, etc. This enforcement increases pressure on people to accept even lower wages and worse conditions, overwhelmingly benefiting employers. Second, it produces a political crisis to pressure Congress to pass a corporate reform of immigration policy. The “comprehensive reform” bills proposed over the last three years all included both vastly expanded guest worker, or bracero programs, and a huge increase in enforcement to punish migration outside of them. Even without these bills being adopted, Bush’s raids are implementing their enforcement provisions by sending workers to prison for crossing the border and for working outside of guest-worker programs.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff described this plan after the huge raids at Swift two years ago, where more than 1,000 workers were picked up for deportation. In August he said, "We tried very hard last year to get a guest-worker program, which I continue to believe is not only necessary for the economy but it is actually a way of enabling the enforcement. There’s obviously a straightforward solution to the problem of illegal work, which is you open the front door and you shut the back door." Numerous statements by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the employer lobbies, and their Washington advocates, and even members of Congress in both parties, say the same thing. They all defend the corporate “comprehensive immigration reform” with big guest-worker programs and stepped-up enforcement. Bush is simply implementing that program on the ground.

What is disturbing about Lovato’s misstatement of my work is that he uses it to dismiss the idea that the raids advance any political program beyond the growth of the enforcement bureaucracy itself. He never mentions the bills. This gives a free pass to the backers of the corporate reform of immigration policy, and drops out any connection to displacement caused by trade and economic policies abroad. Lovato argues that the sole economic motivation of enforcement is giving fat contracts to administration cronies like Halliburton. That’s like saying the Iraq war was fought to profit Halliburton. There’s more to the war than that, and there’s more to immigration enforcement than contracts and the growth of a repressive bureaucracy.

For three years progressive immigrant rights activists have fought proposals in Congress that would eliminate those changes in immigration policy that were won in 1964–5 by the Chicano civil rights movement—establishing family reunification as the centerpiece for immigration policy, ending the bracero program, and moving away from contract labor. Those who have advocated the corporate "comprehensive" bills have claimed that legalization for the undocumented was possible only if we agreed to move backward, transforming immigration policy into a much more overt labor-supply system. To justify this, these advocates (including many Democrats) claim employers face vast labor shortages if they don’t get the labor they want at a price they want to pay.

Progressive immigrant-rights organizations and most of the labor movement today advocate alternatives that focus on ending employer sanctions, raids, and the criminalization of work and migration; guaranteeing real legal status (permanent residence visas) for the undocumented; expanding ways for people to come to the United States with rights (not as guest workers); and rejecting free trade treaties and structural adjustment policies that displace people and force them to leave home. Migration is a human right, but people should have alternatives for economic development that make migration voluntary, and not the sole means of survival.

We are already seeing the resurrection of the corporate "comprehensive reform" proposals. It is not enough to criticize the repression of the raids while ignoring the broad program they are intended to advance, or alternatives to it.

David Bacon
Berkeley, California

Editor Pablo Morales replies: The sentence that Bacon quotes from Lovato’s article does indeed misstate Bacon’s view, as expressed in the Dollars & Sense article that Lovato cited ("The Real Political Purpose of the ICE Raids," January/February 2007). This was wholly my own editing blunder, not Lovato’s. The sentence should have read: "David Bacon posits that the crackdown is purposefully meant to trigger a political crisis that will pressure Congress to approve the migration policy the government has been pushing for all along: a temporary guest-worker program." Despite the regrettable error, the disagreement between Lovato and Bacon — on how to interpret the immigrant deportation raids — stands. Lovato will reply in the next issue.


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