Introduction - Of Migrants and Minutemen: Inside the Immigration Battle

April 10, 2008

The last time NACLA devoted a report to immigration (“Welcome to America: The Immigration Backlash,” November/December 1995), we noted: “The roots of the backlash are essentially twofold: economic uncertainty and uneasiness about the country’s changing demographics.” While the themes of economic fear and nativism persist, today’s immigration battle is powerfully conditioned by two new factors: a boom in immigration, largely from Mexico, and the post-9/11 securitization of U.S. society.

The undocumented population has not only doubled since 1996 (reaching today’s estimated 12 million), but it has dispersed throughout the United States, providing cheap labor to a variety of industries. And as a few authors in this Report note, the September 11 attacks renewed the U.S.-Mexico border as a site of crisis in the popular imaginary. With the governors of Arizona and New Mexico having declared states of emergency on their borders, this sense of urgency has largely served to designate undocumented immigrants as a national security threat, with “Secure our borders!” as the rallying cry.

A first step in understanding the conflict lies in analyzing the anti-immigration movement itself. As Solana Larsen shows, this movement is a complex, decentralized web of think tanks, foundations, political action committees, politicians, media personalities, and grassroots groups. It spans both private and public power, from the white supremacist fringe to the halls of Congress. It not only musters popular support and helps to foster a general anti-immigrant climate, but it also raises millions of dollars to advance its policy goals (curtailing immigration, deporting the undocumented) in Washington.

The Minutemen vigilantes patrolling the border see themselves as fulfilling a duty that the U.S. government has failed to execute. Yet, as Forrest Wilder reports, immigration authorities have launched a major crackdown, arresting undocumented people, including families with children, and jailing them indefinitely. This has ramped up demand for facilities, giving rise to a nationwide “detention archipelago”—a series of detention centers largely run for profit by companies contracted by the government.

Anti-immigrant activists have also targeted urban day laborers, most of them Latino immigrants, as they congregate on street corners or at stores like Home Depot looking for construction work. Besides suffering violent attacks, employer abuses, and harassment, day laborers are portrayed as job-stealing criminals. Drawing on a national survey of day laborers, Abel Valenzuela Jr. demolishes five of the most pernicious myths about them and discusses the National Day Laborer Organizing Network’s successes in protecting these workers’ rights.

Day laborers’ activism is but one example of the labor movement’s revitalization through recruiting immigrants. As home to more undocumented immigrants than any other state, California, argues Ruth Milkman, has led the way. The groundswell of anti–Proposition 187 activism in the 1990s, together with a unionizing push, built the momentum that gave us last year’s mass mobilizations—in which millions of immigrants and their supporters took to the streets to denounce the now derailed Sensenbrenner bill.
With a wave of naturalizations and impressive turnout at the November 2006 midterm elections, the national Latino-labor vote may be poised to effect real change.

Finally, the immigration debate has spotlighted tensions between African American and Latino communities. Lost in the rancor are the voices of longtime community leaders who insist harmony is possible. Rene P. Ciria-Cruz gives us a close look at South Los Angeles—a formerly majority black district transformed in a decade by Latino immigration—and spotlights the key role these leaders and old-fashioned community organizing have played in resolving conflicts and building unity.

This Report thus intervenes in the immigration debate at a critical point. As we go to print, the STRIVE Act has been unveiled in Congress as a potential compromise between liberals and conservatives. It would provide a qualified citizenship path to the undocumented, institute a temporary worker program, and intensify border enforcement.

This being as “progressive” as an immigration bill gets in Washington these days, it’s clear that the struggle for comprehensive change in U.S. policy is far from over. We hope this Report provides the information and analysis that pro-immigrant stakeholders in this debate need to keep up the fight.


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