A Grassroots Vision for U.S. Immigration Policy—and Beyond

The governments and corporations that hold power all over the globe are pushing people from their homes with one hand and punishing them for leaving with the other. Any policy addressing the right to migrate needs to take into account “the right not to migrate” — already a popular slogan among indigenous people from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, as documented by labor journalist David Bacon.

January 16, 2009

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the situation for immigrants in the United States has turned increasingly insecure. Every week hundreds of immigrants are arrested in raids on their homes and workplaces. Hundreds more are arrested on the street by local police for the crime of “living while Latino” and often handed over to the immigration agency for deportation. People are detained, deported, faced with impossible choices, and then blamed for it all. Children are separated from their parents or jailed in special “family” detention centers. Workers are exploited and abused on the job, stripped of their rights to organize, then punished with federal prison sentences for complying with their employers’ demands for fake IDs. Young people who don’t remember the country where they were born are denied any options to legalize their status and are stuck without a future—as high school graduates unable to attend college, or as college graduates forced into low-wage, off-the-books labor.

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A chorus of self-appointed policy makers — including mainstream “advocacy” groups, elected officials, and business associations — tells us the solution is “comprehensive immigration reform,” which mostly ends up looking like this:

1. A limited legalization plan with a punishment component. This usually requires undocumented immigrants to return home, pay heavy fines, wait in line, and suffer further indignities and delays.

2. Stricter enforcement of existing rules. This includes the construction of new walls and fences along the U.S.-Mexican border, which pushes more migrants to cross—and die—in remote desert and mountain areas. It also includes stepped-up workplace raids, which claim to target employers who hire undocumented immigrants, but which instead end up hurting the workers and pushing down wages.

3. A guest-worker plan for temporary foreign laborers. Under most guest-worker proposals, employers get to decide who comes here, and the workers are tightly controlled and can’t defend their rights. If they complain, they are sent home.

There are variations on this scheme that claim to be more compassionate, with less stringent punishments for undocumented immigrants or limited labor protections for guest workers. Some sectors, particularly the labor unions, oppose guest-worker programs and are working to come up with an alternative plan. Ana Avendaño, an attorney with the AFL-CIO, last July laid out a framework for an immigration policy through a workers’ rights lens. The plan includes (1) swift, practical, inclusive legalization, (2) immigration enforcement, but only if accompanied by real mechanisms to enforce protective labor and employment laws, (3) the establishment of an independent body to determine labor needs, along with guarantees that all workers who come to the United States get full rights and an option to become permanent residents, (4) extension of the social safety net to all workers, (5) the protection of civil liberties and civil rights for all, and (6) the clearing up of the application backlog for legal immigration with a priority on family unity.

As of this writing, the AFL-CIO hasn’t adopted this proposal; Avendaño says it’s still developing. While it’s an improvement over the usual model of comprehensive immigration reform, it has serious shortcomings. For one thing, immigration enforcement can’t co-exist with effective enforcement of labor laws, because raids targeting immigrant workers create widespread fear that make it nearly impossible for those workers to report abuses or otherwise defend their rights. The idea of basing the “future flow” of immigrants and foreign workers into this country on perceived “labor needs” creates another problem. Do employers really need a larger pool of workers, or do they just want workers who are more vulnerable and easier to control?

What both of these proposals lack is attention to the worldwide political and economic factors that impel people to migrate. Those who are marginalized and impoverished are not to blame for the theft, over centuries, of their natural resources and labor; they are not to blame for the fierce repression that crushes them whenever they dare to resist. The governments and corporations that hold power all over the globe are pushing people from their homes with one hand and punishing them for leaving with the other. Any policy addressing the right to migrate needs to take into account “the right not to migrate” — already a popular slogan among indigenous people from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, as documented by labor journalist David Bacon.

If we take into account the increasingly interconnected global economy, we might come up with a progressive U.S. immigration policy that looks something like this:

1. Put an end to deportation and detention. The United States should allow everyone who is living here and wants to stay a chance to achieve citizenship. Many immigrants are de facto citizens already; we should let them enjoy their full rights, with no limiting conditions and no punishment.

2. Let visitors fill out an entry form at the airport or border — the way U.S. citizens do when they visit most other countries — and don’t turn anyone away. (If someone shows up who is charged with a crime, either here or abroad, we can make use of existing mechanisms for criminal prosecution or extradition.) People who want to stay and work should be provided with social security numbers and information about their labor rights. People should be able to go back and forth as desired between the United States and their home country without penalty.

3. We should end the U.S. government’s military, political, and economic intervention in world affairs. We should repeal NAFTA, CAFTA, and all other asymmetrical trade agreements. We should stop international financial institutions from imposing further poverty and suffering on the Global South. We should halt the arms trade. We should start a dialogue about ways to redistribute wealth and compensate people and communities whose resources were stolen over the past centuries.

This may seem more like a fantasy than a policy proposal. As we face a growing recession, the scapegoating of immigrants is likely to increase, and we can’t count on new faces in Washington to bring us a fair immigration policy. But as activists, advocates, and members of affected communities, it’s our job to mobilize around what we actually believe in. If we are divided, if we demand crumbs, we will get nothing. If we unite around a common vision, those in power will try to placate us with crumbs. If we are millions, if we are organized, if we demand everything, we’ll get something closer to what we want. Now is the time to act. The status quo has shifted, and people are energized and open to new ideas.

We can start with dialogue at the grassroots level, across and within communities, listening and talking to each other. That can lead us to a broad, clear vision of what we really want for everyone. We can’t separate immigration policy from domestic and international policy, or isolate immigrant demands from citizen demands. Immigrants and citizens share the same desires: Most of us want a good quality of life, access to health care, fairness for all, and a sustainable environment for the next generation.

To get there from here we must begin to retrieve historical memory, to learn the history of peoples and communities, our own and others. We need to learn the history of struggle: what has worked in the past, what hasn’t, and how we ended up in this current global crisis. There are thousands of great resources out there—books, films, oral histories—to help us learn. We can share these resources by setting up film screenings, discussions, and study circles, by creating our own media, using the Internet, and just talking to each other.

We must also organize. Disenfranchised communities need to build power; communities with more resources need to expand their solidarity—locally, nationally, and globally. We need to take concrete action to support immigrants who are organizing here and also people who are rising up around the world, demanding the right to a better future. We can’t let ourselves be isolated and weakened by petty differences. When communities stand up to defend their rights and their resources, they face repression, and we must respond.

There are thousands of grassroots groups doing organizing work. If you can’t find one that suits you, get together with friends, neighbors, or co-workers and start something new. You don’t have to consider yourself an activist or an organizer, and you don’t need experience, as long as you’re willing to learn. When we are able to build real solidarity and unity among our struggles, we’ll start seeing results.

Jane Guskin and David Wilson are the authors of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, 2007). They edit the Weekly News Update on the Americas (weeklynewsupdate.blogspot.com).


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