Immigration battles have raged in the U.S. for a century. Ever-present economic crisis fuels racist scapegoating, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. But the last period has produced mammoth escalations in agitation against non-white or non-Christian newcomers.
However, repression breeds resistance. Immigrants and their supporters, with or without documents, have pushed back loudly, often joined by neighbors of those targeted. When demonstrators face down cops, bigots, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), they inspire social justice movements and some labor unions, often with many immigrant members, to stand up too. Raids are publicly protested with drummers, posters, and videocam broadcasting.
Unions such as UNITE HERE, Service Employees International Union, and United Food and Commercial Workers are regulars at immigrant rights marches and rallies. And last month, the 120,000-member Teamster Joint Council 16, based in New York and Puerto Rico, voted to become a “Sanctuary Union” after the arrest and deportation of a longtime member. They pledge no cooperation with ICE. Members are trained to demand judicial warrants instead of ICE warrants and to refuse to talk to ICE agents, instead calling the union hall for representation. Instructions for employers to not cooperate with ICE unless forced by a warrant have been added to contracts. Unions across the country should do the same!
An entire population at risk. Those targeted today, and historically, are mostly brown or Black people, and come from the Southern Hemisphere, Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. Approximately 11 million immigrants with no documents have lived, worked, built unions, gone to school, and raised families in the U.S. for decades.
Holding DACA status (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) are 690,000 immigrants brought here as children. Congress is focusing on these Dreamers as the issue to be solved, while ignoring the more than 10 million others who are already daily targets of ICE.
Another 410,000 immigrants have Temporary Protected Status (TPS) granted for some people escaping war or natural disasters. TPS allows them to stay in the U.S. until the Department of Homeland Security says it is safe to return to their country. Soon after Trump’s inauguration, his administration proclaimed that El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Sudan had “recovered” sufficiently for people to return, despite grim facts to the contrary. TPS holders were told they would soon have to leave.
In addition, over 4,000 Liberians who escaped war and Ebola hold Deferred Enforcement Departure (DED) status. DED protection expires in March, after years of automatic renewals.
Constant agitation is building support for immigrants. Despite racist sensationalism on radio and TV news, polls show 85 percent support for legalization for Dreamers. Recent surveys show that favorable views of all immigrants are increasing. Most U.S. voters don’t think people should be deported — Dreamers or not — just because they lack papers!
Trump’s baleful dance with Congress. The president changes his immigration plan daily but stays close to his xenophobic wish list.
He rails that Latinos and Muslims threaten our lives, and that he doesn’t want people coming here from “shithole” countries like Haiti and those in Africa. He sheds crocodile tears for Dreamers but insists on trading their freedom for the border wall and billions of dollars for ICE agents and border militarization. He wants to limit the rights of naturalized citizens to sponsor relatives for U.S. entry. He wants to eliminate the diversity lottery in order to lower the number of poor, Black, and Latino immigrants, while also slashing the total number allowed each year.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has been exposed as shamelessly opportunistic. In February, all but a few Senate Democrats voted for funding the wall and further militarizing the border in return for a vague, condition-filled promise of a path to citizenship for DACA holders only.
Democratic politicians have supported reactionary pieces of legislation against immigrants for decades.
For example, they have pushed “guest worker” plans in which incomers get visas tied to specific employers with virtually no job protections. Workers with these visas get fired, deported and blacklisted if they complain about withheld pay or dangerous working conditions, or if they try to organize and strike. Most unions have fought against these visas, which are often called legal slavery or indentured servitude.
Many immigrant rights leaders still insist that the Democratic Party still offers the best hope of some relief, but more and more of the ranks aren’t buying it.
Time for an alternative strategy. Democratic politicians are fake allies to other constituencies as well. They have spent decades telling unions they will get them “the best deal possible” in the face of plummeting membership, attacks on pensions, and a looming “right to work” decision by the Supreme Court.
Organized labor is showing signs of awakening. Some of the lowest-paid teachers in the U.S. struck in West Virginia and may strike in Oklahoma. When unions are willing to strike illegally and defy ICE to defend immigrants, this points to an opening to build a real fightback.
Immigrants need allies and the organized labor movement needs more members and militant energy. And if anything is going to change, Dreamers and all immigrants and working people desperately need an alternative to both the Democratic and Republican parties.
In talking to the Freedom Socialist, Eduardo Carreon, an undocumented student and activist in Los Angeles, repeated this message he has for the movement: “Instead of calling politicians and begging them for a change, start organizing with other workers and fight back.” In 2006, he noted, “a nationalist xenophobic bill (HR 4437) was defeated thanks to a general strike and the mass mobilization of workers.”
The best way to defend immigrants, who are above all workers with deep roots in the U.S. labor movement, is to push for a political alternative based on class. This means a labor party that represents all working people in a fight against capitalist abuse.
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