According to the congressmen who cooked it up, the Simpson-Rodino Immigration Reform and Control Bill was designed to stop the flow of undocumented workers into the U.S. and to treat fairly those already in the country. But lies are the stock in trade of bourgeois politicians. In fact, Simpson-Rodino was not contrived to halt undocumented entry but rather to control by terror the activities of immigrants and other workers inside the U.S.
Rarely has a bill been so cynically stitched together, so larded with false promises, and so patently destructive of democratic rights as this one.
The measure’s key provisions are sanctions against employers who hire “illegals,” and “amnesty” for eligible undocumented workers now threatened with deportation. To soften the impact of employer sanctions, the bill provides a “guest worker” program ensuring U.S. growers a legal quota of 350,000 seasonal immigrant workers per year.
Sanctions are touted as the way to stop anyone from hiring those who are not guest workers. Supposedly, this will dry up the job market for undocumented workers and thereby remove the reason for their entry into the U.S. And this, supposedly, will save jobs for U.S. workers and save the imperiled “American Way of Life” from purported foreign encroachment.
But sanctions will be used to control the undocumented, not stop them from entering: the economy of the Southwest — and the nation — has in fact come to depend on the super-exploitation of illegal immigrant labor. The U.S. would not seriously attempt to stop or even reduce the entry of the undocumented unless faced with directly impending political upheaval brought on by their presence. And then, not sanctions, but sealing the U.S.-Mexico border — a virtual impossibility — would be required.
Nor will sanctions save jobs for U.S. workers. U. S. unemployment is caused by runaway shops and automation — not immigration. Further, the industries that exploit the undocumented generally avoid hiring U.S. workers, because citizens would not long tolerate the rotten wages and working conditions traditionally forced upon the undocumented.
Meanwhile, the relative plenitude of jobs in the U.S. and the poverty and political agony in Latin America combine to guarantee employers a continued torrential influx of illegal immigrants. And if history is any indication, the guest worker program will draw additional hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers into the U.S.
None of these workers will qualify for amnesty. But then, amnesty as administered by the reactionary border police is nothing but another scheme for entrapping the undocumented.
America the bigoted
Simpson-Rodino is a hoax in every way but one: it definitely aims to shore up the tottering American Way of Life — if by the American Way one means untrammeled capitalist control over an increasingly recalcitrant workforce, foreign and native-born.
The bill gives congressional sanction to racist anti-immigrant bigotry and facilitates enormously stepped-up discrimination against U.S. workers of color. Through the guest worker program it edges the U.S. toward permanent and legal apartheid-style exploitation of immigrant labor.
Moreover, by giving unchecked power to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to raid, to imprison, and to deport “undesirables,” Simpson-Rodino assures persecution of unionists, radicals, civil libertarians, political refugees, and all other targets of xenophobic anti-worker reaction.
Additionally, the U. S. will use the threat of mass deportation of Mexicanos as leverage for even greater control over Mexico’s floundering economy, because Mexico’s fragile political stability rests largely on its ability to export its jobless northward. Of course, mass deportations would entail great risks for the U. S. since its stability rests on continuing stability in Mexico.
A life insurance policy
It took a long time for Congress to implement this immigration “reform.” Many U.S. employers, and chiefly Southwestern agribusiness, opposed Simpson-Rodino. Undocumented workers, wholly without protections, are after all the most easily exploitable workers, and even the mere potential for enforcement of sanctions was enough to raise employers’ hackles. But U.S. capital’s absolute need to shackle and control the undocumented prompted Congress in this instance to override agribusiness objections.
Simpson-Rodino is a capitalist survival measure. The undocumented — 95 percent Mexicanos and, increasingly, refugees from war-ravaged Central America and from Asia — are an explosive political and social presence. In the U.S., they find the same poverty and exploitation they tried to escape at home, and it quickens their political education. They also bring the experience of Latin American and other Third World revolutions into the belly of the beast. By virtue of this and because of race, culture, and common exploitation, they are a catalyst for radicalism among longtime Latino and Asian American residents, and hence within the U.S. labor and social movements generally.
U.S. capital must smother “alien” cultures, must defuse and eradicate all potential radicalism in order to impose political conditions wholly amenable to sky-high profits and business as usual. Hence Simpson-Rodino.
It is important to recognize that this racist slave labor bill is the brainchild of Democratic liberals and “moderates” in Congress. What more vivid illustration of the degree to which rightwing imperatives now dictate the policies of liberals, and of the necessity for radical action in defense of immigrant rights?
Sanctions against whom?
As stated before, sanctions will not stop the hiring of undocumented workers. But if sanctions aren’t really intended to stop the use of illegals, what exactly are they meant to accomplish?
After the bill takes effect in May 1987, employers who hire new illegal workers will be subject to fines, and to imprisonment for repeated offenses. Discrimination by employers against legal immigrants is supposedly forbidden (another point that offended employers), though no means for hearing discrimination complaints has been set up.
Prime among the many catches to sanctions is that there is no standard documentation for determining who is and who is not a legal immigrant. It has been left to the INS to work out guidelines for establishing legality. Capricious and arbitrary determination of legality is a foregone conclusion, as is increasing discrimination against “foreign-looking” dark-skinned workers, especially Latinos and Haitians — citizens or not.
As always in times of anti-immigrant reaction, the INS will wink at the use of undocumented workers by employers, upon whose beneficent influence the agency depends during congressional budget hearings. It will use its doubled budget and power to raid job sites, hiring halls, community centers, and neighborhoods in search of the politically troublesome, especially in the Chicano and Latino communities. Employers dependent on illegal labor in the agriculture, garment, and service industries will meanwhile continue to hire the undocumented in droves.
At the same time, employers can and will use the pretext of obeying the law to deny jobs to workers who cannot prove they are legally in the U.S., regardless of whether they are citizens. This abuse is sure to provoke an outcry from civil rights activists. But this protest, in conjunction with continuing fulminations against the presence of the undocumented, will be used by rightwingers to demand that national identification cards be made a mandatory condition of all employment.
Instituting national I.D. cards is a key move toward the Nazi-like regimentation of labor sought by U.S. capitalism as the solution to its economic malaise. This motive as much as anything is the point to employer sanctions, and to the Simpson-Rodino bill itself.
Edging toward apartheid
The guarantee of guest workers — immigrants who can be legally imported to work in the fields and then deported back to their “homelands” after the harvest — blunted some grower opposition to Simpson-Rodino, although in their eyes unhampered access to the undocumented remains the ideal.
The guest worker provision is as insidious as any part of the bill. It is essentially a means of introducing into ever-widening sectors of U.S. industry the apartheid-like system of labor exploitation that has existed in Southwestern agriculture from the beginning. Hence, this provision works in tandem with sanctions as a method of bringing the entire U.S. workforce to heel.
The garment, service, and other industries dependent on illegal labor — and now faced with sanctions — are sure to start clamoring for similar access to guest workers. The corrosive effect of rent-a-slave labor in these industries — on union organizing, worker unity, and democratic rights — is obvious. These industries, moreover, employ the highest percentage of women and people of color, both citizens and non-citizens. Guest worker conditions imposed upon them will exacerbate the traditional race/sex divisions that already wrack the U.S. working class.
There is more: the guest worker provision will act as a magnet to hundreds of thousands of job-hungry immigrants, far more than the quota of 350,000 per year. The first guest worker, or bracero, program, instituted in 1942 to cover the labor shortage caused by World War II, attracted millions of the undocumented. Then, as now, quotas did not begin to meet the need for workers. Then, as now, growers preferred a surplus of labor, to keep wages low and undercut worker organizing.
Braceros were mistreated, paid unconscionable wages, used as strikebreakers, and deported. The undocumented, meanwhile, were even more ruthlessly exploited. The Bracero Program worked so well for growers that it was extended periodically until 1964, when it was dropped, in part because of protests from the labor and Chicano movements.
The Simpson-Rodino guest worker program offers an intensified replay of the same scenario of legal and illegal slavery, with the added prospect of even more rabid agitation for “control” over immigrants.
Come out wherever you are
Along with sanctions and the guest worker program, the so-called amnesty provision of the bill is meant to seal the coffin on immigrant rights.
All undocumented immigrants who can prove they have been in the U. S. continuously since January 1982 are eligible to apply for legal status. Eligibles can apply first for temporary status and work permits, then for permanent residency after 18 months, and for citizenship after five more years. Undocumented farmworkers can apply for temporary status if they have worked in agriculture for at least 90 days between May ’85 and May ’86, for permanent status after 18-30 months, and for citizenship five years later.
That’s a long time to wait. There’s also the fact that it will cost each person seeking legal status an estimated $600 to $1000 in attorney’s fees to get through the maze of records, requirements, and paperwork — if there are no problems. That’s each person, not each family. Further, eligibles have virtually no legal or political rights while waiting out the long process to citizenship. This alone makes them targets for abuse on the job and elsewhere in society — much the same as before, only now they are more tightly in the grip of the INS.
The concept of eligibility is, in itself, far from simple. Most undocumented workers have been forced to live a fugitive existence and, consequently, have never obtained the papers, such as tax returns, employment and housing records, that could prove their eligibility. The sole authority to accept or reject documents rests with the INS, an ominous fact given this agency’s long record of racist terrorism and capricious enforcement of immigration law.
It is also no mere coincidence that the cutoff date for establishing eligibility was set at the end of 1981. Most of the hundreds of thousands of Central American refugees arrived in the U.S. after that time. Simpson-Rodino escalates the war against them and the sanctuary movement that shelters them.
In addition, amnesty specifically excludes lesbians, gays, the mentally and physically disabled, communists, “national security risks,” prostitutes, anyone “likely” to need welfare benefits, and anyone convicted of “moral turpitude” or drug abuse. Thus, Simpson-Rodino legally sanctions discrimination against eligibles (and strengthens the rightwing push to reimpose legal discrimination against U.S. citizens), and widens the scope for the INS’s political terrorism. Anyone can be labeled a “national security risk” and deported, or intimidated by the threat of deportation, by the rightwing border police.
Crossroads for activists
How are the U.S. labor and social movements and the Left preparing to fight the effects of Simpson-Rodino? Labor’s top dogs in the AFL-CIO have been among the most vicious anti-immigrant agitators, perpetuating the myth that immigrants are to blame for U.S. unemployment. This racist scapegoating has served to deflect workers’ attention from the real causes of labor’s misery — capitalist dismantling of industry, unionbusting, and all the rest — and the union bureaucrats’ acquiescence to these conditions as well.
Under the leadership of Chicano labor activist Bert Corona, CASA (Center for Autonomous Social Action) fought early versions of the Simpson-Rodino bill through education and forums. But with the advent of Stalinist leadership in the mid-’70s, CASA halted its active opposition to congressional assault on the undocumented.
Some unions, however, are now actively recruiting the undocumented and helping them organize to fight for their rights, on and off the job. Notable among these are locals of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), Service Employees International Union, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, and United Auto Workers. The consensus among organizers involved, many of whom are immigrants themselves, is that this organizing is necessary. Anti-immigrant reaction fuels the assault on all labor .
These union efforts, centered in the Southwest, resulted in tangible gains and, above all, in resurgent militance among the undocumented. The ILGWU fought for and won a federal ruling that the undocumented have a right to organize. And they have organized — on their own when necessary — because they know they are better off in a union, and because they despise scabs. Mexicanos have struck together with Chicanos in many labor actions, e.g. Farah, Mission Food, and Watsonville.
In 1986, undocumented hotel and janitorial workers conducted a number of fiercely fought strikes in Los Angeles and Houston. These strikes and the ruling no doubt played a substantial role in hastening the passage of Simpson-Rodino.
Labor’s efforts to organize the undocumented will bring it increasingly into conflict with U.S. immigration policy. The difference between survival and defeat for U.S. labor depends on how unions succeed in organizing the most downtrodden — the immigrants and undocumented. The labor movement has a responsibility to see beyond the racism, sexism, and national chauvinism of its backward elements and unite with these workers. Women and people of color can bring pressure within unions to help the labor movement fight the new challenges to union organizing, INS terror tactics against union membership, and the rise of general anti-immigrant organizing.
Simpson-Rodino will hasten a split in the labor movement between the pro-capitalist bureaucrats and those workers who realize that their own well-being is inseparably tied to the struggle for immigrant rights.
A split in the wind
The measure similarly promises to polarize the Chicano, antiwar, and other social movements.
The polarization is very evident in the Chicano movement. Though Chicano and Latino militants have taken the lead in opposing Simpson-Rodino — in the West Coast’s Comité para Defender los Derechos de los Inmigrantes y Refugiados (Committee to Defend Immigrant and Refugee Rights), for example — other leaders and misleaders have given in to cynicism, such as that produced by Democratic Party politics.
Prominent among such examples are the five out of 11 congressional Hispanic Caucus members who voted for the bill. Caucus leader Esteban Torres, for example, lauded the “generous” legalization program and the effort to dry up the job market for the undocumented.
Torres’s bottom-line justification for voting for Simpson-Rodino was that its passage prevented “a more punitive bill in the next Congress” — illogic typical of liberal sellouts who deny that, given the proper leadership, the people can fight and defeat the reactionaries.
César Chávez, leader of the United Farm Workers, took an equivocal and self-defeating stance on the Simpson-Rodino bill during a question-and-answer session with a Seattle audience in December 1986. He stated that the amnesty program was good, though it didn’t go far enough — a complete misrepresentation of this entrapment scheme. He opposed the guest worker program, implying that guest workers couldn’t be organized and that their presence would undercut farm worker organizing in general. When an audience member raised the possibility of organizing guest workers, Chávez shifted the discussion to other topics.
Chávez’s refusal to come out foursquare against Simpson-Rodino and his shameful misrepresentation of amnesty are an inevitable consequence of his ties to the pro-capitalist and anti-immigrant AFL-CIO leadership. Chávez’s orientation to the labor skates has in the past led to anti-immigrant and anti-radical thuggery by the UFW itself.
His present Pontius Pilate-like position on Simpson-Rodino is a windfall for xenophobes and union-busters and, if not reversed, will ultimately destroy the UFW.
Chicano and Latino militants disenchanted with Chávez’s misleadership can and must join with immigrants and pro-immigrant activists against the liberals and sellouts who would hand over the movement to the reaction. These militants — allied with other groups in a united front against the right wing — could raise the struggle of immigrants and the undocumented to new heights and forge a mighty movement against the common enemy.
The same holds true for antiwar and sanctuary movement activists, because INS terrorism against political refugees is a domestic component of the U. S. war against the Central American revolution. Currently, the antiwar movement is blindly channeling resistance wholly into raising electoral support for Democrats, supposedly the only alternative to Reaganism. But fruits of Reaganism such as contra aid were produced by the votes of these same Democrats.
Antiwar and sanctuary movement activists must realize that to fight the war successfully elsewhere, they must simultaneously fight it at home. They can start by understanding that the Democrats who voted for contra aid and championed Simpson-Rodino are not their allies, now or ever, that they, no less than the Republicans, are spear carriers for the bigots and warmongers in Washington.
Finally, it is up to radicals in the labor and social movements, whose understanding of struggle is rooted in class analysis, to unite those movements in defense of immigrants and themselves, against the pro-capitalists.
The heart of the matter
Immigrants with their allies are now fighting for an end to the policies made law by Simpson-Rodino; for an end to Migra (INS) terrorism; for legal and political rights; for access to social services; for the right to organize as workers and to integrate politically with the U.S. working class.
Capping their struggle is the fight for an open border, for the right to work where they choose, promised in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo by the U.S. after the theft of the Southwest from Mexico in 1848. This is the most radical of radical demands, for capitalist domination of the Americas is dependent on national separatism and race segregation. It could not long withstand the effects of erasing the barrier between the U.S. and Mexico.
Beefed-up ranks of border police are a capitalist necessity, along with unionbusting, redbaiting, the U.S. war drive, and all rightwing attacks. Capitalist necessity dictates our own: a united struggle against all xenophobic and antidemocratic broadsides, and for the free co-mingling of peoples under socialism.