Since September 11, the issue of racism and immigration in the United States has assumed an even greater importance. Attacks on Arab Americans, the growth of paramilitary gangs patrolling the US-Mexican border, and tensions between racial and ethnic groups have increased. The ongoing economic stagnation and attacks on the living conditions of all working people hits immigrants and minorities in general harder than the broader working class.
Due to the severe economic crisis which has tortured the whole of Latin America for decades, immigration to the United States in search of a better life has reached unprecedented levels. According to the U.S. Border Patrol, about 50,000 people were caught crossing illegally in the Tucson Sector, a 15,000-square-mile area that stretches from the Texas border to western Arizona, between October and December of 2002 alone. The exact number who succeed in making the dangerous crossing is impossible to estimate. The bulk of these immigrants are from Latin America - Mexicans made up 69 percent, or 4.8 million, of the estimated illegal immigrant population of 7 million in 2000, compared with 58 percent in 1990. According to the most recent estimates, there are now an estimated 8 to 14 million people living within US borders illegally, with their population growing an average of at least 350,000 per year.
California has the most illegal immigrants, about 2.2 million or 32 percent of the national total. States with the largest numerical increases in the 1990s were California, Texas, Illinois, Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina. California’s share, however, has dropped from 42 percent of the total population in 1990, which reflects the growth of the Hispanic and immigrant population in other states over the past decade. Some of the highest growth occurred in states where immigrants traditionally have not settled. Georgia’s immigrant population was estimated at 228,000 in 2000, up from 34,000 in 1990, and North Carolina’s rose from 26,000 in 1990 to 206,000 in 2000. The largest numerical increases were in California and Texas.
Both the American and Mexican bourgeois benefit from this situation. Not only are the economies, but also the labor forces of the two countries integrated more and more tightly. Revenues sent back home from Mexicans working in the US make up an important part of Mexico’s GDP. Incredibly, it is the second most important source of revenue for the state, with only the state-owned petroleum industry, PEMEX, bringing in more. With hundreds of thousands of would-be job seekers leaving Mexico yearly, pressure on the government and economy there is relieved. Even many conservatives in the US, who are generally anti-immigration and have a racist attitude towards Latinos, understand the vital role played by cheap immigrant labor, especially for large agricultural interests and service-oriented companies such as fast food. U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue is forced to acknowledge the importance of these workers to the US economy: “if they went home, we’d have to shut down the country.”
Fox’s Dreams Shattered by September 11 and the Capitalist Economic Crisis
As we explained three years ago in relation to US / Mexican relations: “Many in Mexico and the US have illusions in new president Vicente Fox and his right-wing PAN party, so he will get a bit of a honeymoon – but not for long. The Mexican economy has been expanding for the past five years, thanks in part to NAFTA - but at the expense of the majority of the population. Already Fox has attacked living conditions by raising the prices of essentials like tortillas, and many Mexicans don’t even make the US$3.60 daily minimum wage.
“Bush’s one day visit with Fox didn’t lead to any agreements, but it did lay the foundation for a very friendly relationship between the two. As governor of Texas, Bush has met with Mexican leaders many times in the past - Texas does more trade with Mexico than the other 49 U.S. states combined. They discussed trade, immigration, the drug trade, and energy – with Bush raising the possibility of allowing US investors to build electrical plants in Mexico. This would be a monstrous infringement on the state-owned electrical and petroleum industries which are considered national treasures by Mexicans (and rightly so!). At the moment Fox claims he is against privatization, and has brought in a number of successful private businessmen to make state-owned industries more efficient. But eventually he will be forced to follow the dictates of the US and IMF.
“Fox’s government will be one of crisis and instability as he tries to privatize the state-sectors, and as he widens his attacks on the conditions of workers and students generally. Bush will work closely with the PAN government to try and avert the economic disaster awaiting the US and Latin America, and the inevitable reaction against Fox’s policies and the impact this will have in the US.”
Our overall perspectives have been confirmed by events. Fox has failed to implement his privatization schemes, the economy has taken a nose-dive, and he has not delivered a single of his campaign promises, including the easing of border restrictions between the US and its neighbor to the south. Bush’s latest plan is no doubt an effort to give his fellow rancher some political brownie points.
Racism and Capitalism
Illegal immigrant workers are at the mercy of their employers, with few if any legal, labor, or political rights, and are constantly faced with the uncertainty of deportation back to their country of origin. And heaven forbid they try and fight for improvements in wages and conditions! While the bosses are happy to hire these undocumented workers at low wages, they are quick to call the INS if they cause any “trouble”.
Despite all this, the economic incentive for making a successful crossing attracts hundreds of thousands. The treacherous border crossing is fraught with danger - heat, exhaustion, dehydration, hunger, the elements, snakes, and worse. As if this weren’t enough, the number of anti-immigrant militias in the American Southwest has risen dramatically in the recent period, especially in Arizona. Based on their beliefs, there are few differences between these militias and large, well-organized hate groups such as David Duke’s “National Organization for European American Rights”. As many as 60 of these groups exist, the largest of which is Ranch Rescue, which claims 250 volunteers in several states and is most active in Arizona, Texas, California and New Mexico. Many of these groups advocate building concrete walls along the border in certain areas, and even support the idea of using tanks and soldiers to close the U.S.-Mexico border.
As Marxists we understand that racism is part and parcel of the capitalist system – and so do many of the militia members. In the words of one of them, “it’s not about racism or vigilantism. It’s about property rights.” As always under capitalism, the “rights of property” are more valuable than human life.
Some of these groups have even placed ads in newspapers and on the Internet openly promoting the hunting of illegal immigrants as if it were a sport. A few years ago, a radio DJ from northern California offered a McDonald’s hamburger as a prize to anyone who ran over immigrants on the highway. While no militia groups have been accused of crimes against immigrants, over the past few years several have been found dead for unexplained reasons and others are known to have been “mysteriously” murdered. No arrests have been made, and the U.S. Border Patrol says Mexican drug dealers and human smugglers are to blame. However, human rights groups say the militias should be investigated for possible crimes against migrants.
The federal and state governments have not helped the situation. Not only have they increased official INS patrols in the region, leading to migrants taking even more perilous routes, but there are alos many examples of retired Border Patrol agents active with the militias. In Arizona, legislators have introduced House Bill 2440, which would amount to the state’s seal of approval for militias. It calls for creation of an armed, civilian volunteer organization called the Border Area Reserves, composed of U.S. citizens who would do exactly what the militias are doing.
However, the vast majority of border-dwellers do not feel this way. In an informal survey conducted in one the most affected counties in Arizona, 80 of 100 respondents said they oppose civilian militias. As reported on Newsday.com: “Burt Devere is a sixth-generation Tombstone native whose ranch is in the footpath of illegals heading for the highway out of town. Devere rejects militia claims that illegal migrants are burgling homes, damaging property and freeing livestock by cutting barbed-wire fences as they cross private land. ‘We know it’s not the Mexicans, but the Mexicans get blamed for it because they’re not here to defend themselves.’ Devere and his wife, Dorothy, say the real problem is Border Patrol agents and ‘local yokels’ who rampage through private property in all-terrain vehicles, bust down fences, let livestock loose onto highways and use water towers for target practice. ‘Migrants have always come through here. If we didn’t have them, who’d do the menial labor the Americans won’t do?’”
Now, in a transparent bid to attract American-born or naturalized Latino voters, President Bush has proposed a “temporary worker” program that would allow millions of illegal immigrants to work legally in the US. These immigrants would have permission to leave the country and come back as needed, and would be able to renew their three-year visas – provided they can prove they have a job. However, this is not an amnesty or citizenship program. This is in reality an effort to control the already torrentious flow of immigrants, and to provide cheap labor to the big bosses. It’s well-known what kinds of jobs most immigrant workers have: the hardest, most degrading, worst-paying agricultural and service jobs, with long hours, no benefits, and no union or political representation. As the proponents of the program themselves acknowledge, “employers would first have to show the jobs cannot be filled by Americans, who increasingly shun the types of menial labor jobs that immigrants take.”
In many ways, Bush’s plan does nothing more than recognize a fait accompli. Conditions are so bad in many parts of Mexico that hundreds of thousands of immigrants risk death each year to cross the US frontier. In the past year alone, more than 400 people died trying to cross the border. These people are going to come to the US anyway, and what the Bush plan seeks to do is control their movement and activities. By being able to tax the minimum wage paychecks of these workers, the government could raise tax money from what is now largely an “underground economy”. And with what could well be another close election for the Presidency, Bush would like to ingratiate himself with voters in possible swing states such as California and Florida.
Bush is a “free marketer” and pro-globalization so long as the terms of trade are favorable for US corporations. His plan to expand NAFTA into the FTAA is an effort to control the flow of the Western Hemisphere’s resources and workers in the interests of the US capitalist class. His plan for immigration “reform” is merely an extension of this. Why ship jobs and entire factories to Mexico when you can bring those low-wage workers here instead? By tracking the movement of millions immigrants, the government will be better able to tighten their control over the population as a whole, and will be able to send back these immigrant workers any time they choose. Millions more workers will be brought onto the minimum wage pay and tax-rolls - Millions of workers who will not have the right to vote – true taxation without representation. Any opposition to this plan by “conservatives” is nothing but wool pulled over the eyes of working Americans in an effort to divert attention from the real class interests involved.
Is it not ironic that merchandise and money are allowed to flow without restriction across artificial national borders, yet human beings are not? This is a damning condemnation of the capitalist system of exploitation. Commodities, pieces of paper, computer data, and above all profit are more valuable than harnessing the full potential of humanity to improve everyone’s lives.
The bottom line is that this new proposal will do nothing to genuinely improve the conditions of immigrants living here in the US, and absolutely nothing to improve conditions for the working class in general. All it will do is “legalize” the exploitation of millions more workers. What is needed is not a capitalist “work program”, but a Socialist Federation of the Americas in which the working class has democratic control over production, distribution, and exchange, in harmony with the environment. Only when quality jobs, housing, health care, education, and infrastructure and more are available to all Americans (including the millions living in North, Central, and South America), will we live in a society that can truly be considered human.