What immigrants need: amnesty, open borders, and a movement that won’t back down

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The following article is a slightly revised version of a talk given by Eduardo Martínez Zapata at a Freedom Socialist Party May Day celebration and forum in Portland, Oregon on May 6, 2006.

When I was nine years old, my family came to the United States because my parents had no other option as they struggled to provide for six children. “Free trade” is used by capitalism to expand profits at the expense of human needs, and it forced my family to leave Mexico.

One of the most notorious free trade or neoliberal policies is NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Since the inception of NAFTA, the economies of many Mexican communities have been destroyed. This has forced workers, farmers, and those making a living by selling goods in the informal economy to search for work elsewhere. And it is the reason for the widespread opposition by Latin American workers and farmers to the Central American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., five Central American countries, and the Dominican Republic.

Like my family, many economically displaced Latin Americans come to the U.S. Because of their immigration status, they take low-wage jobs and suffer abuse from employers that is far worse than what most native-born workers experience. Meanwhile, the U.S.-based corporations are also going abroad to seek cheap labor and laying off thousands of workers at home. Immigrants and foreign workers become the scapegoats for lost jobs and badly funded social services.

To increase its profits, big business goes back and forth between countries freely to set up shop. Yet immigrants are harassed and persecuted and are now under the threat of being turned into criminals. The corporations already have the benefit of open borders — we need to demand them for workers too!

Amnesty ahora! Right now, what the 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S. need is unconditional amnesty with full citizenship rights.

Some immigrant rights champions call for “legalization” — which sounds good, but is dangerously vague. This demand leaves the door open for supporting “guest worker” legislation under consideration in Congress that supposedly offers a “clear path toward citizenship” but in reality does no such thing.

Guest worker programs are just like the racist bracero program of the post-World War II era. They benefit big business because they officially create a class of workers at the complete mercy of employers: low-paid indentured servants. This type of legalization could result in most immigrants waiting in line for up to 14 years or, worse, being fired from their jobs and deported.

Immigrants have had enough of all that!

In contrast, demanding immediate amnesty with citizenship rights is specific. Undocumented workers need the protection of civil liberties to defend themselves against employer reprisals for union organizing, for example, and against raids by la Migra — the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the successor to the INS.

Many who oppose amnesty use the argument that immigrants are a drain on the country’s resources, even though immigrants are a bedrock of the economy. They claim that there just isn’t enough money for education, healthcare, etc., to go around. But could there be?

You do the maths. In my home base of Oregon, for example, over 76 percent of the state’s $14 billion in general funds come from individual income taxes. Corporations contribute a mere 3.6 percent of the state funds. Yet if we look at how much the corporations rake in, we discover billions in Oregon and trillions nationally. Steeply taxing corporate profits would go a long way toward meeting the social needs of both new and native workers, who generate those profits.

Strengthening the movement for victory. The dynamic immigrant rights movement has huge potential, but it comes with inherent dangers.

First, there are opportunist leaders who would love to veer the militancy in the streets into support for Democratic Party politicians in the upcoming November elections. These misleaders include some bureaucrats in the union movement who support guest worker programs.

Another danger is the careerists in the movement. Interested in making names for themselves by getting cozy with elected officials and other rulingclass sympathizers, they put a lid on shaking things up too much. These are the redbaiters who attack socialists. They try to discredit anyone making radical demands such as amnesty, open borders, or, heaven forbid, women’s rights! They operate undemocratically in order to try to maintain control of the movement at all costs, as they derail it off course.

So how do we keep that from happening? How do we move forward and fortify the inspiring explosion of anger and passion?

First, we need organized labor on our side. It is crucial that the union movement mobilize its ranks in defense of immigrant rights. Since immigration is heavily driven by “free trade,” immigration is not just an immigrant issue. It’s not just an issue of Mexicans or Latinos or Canadians. Immigrants require and demand the same conditions and legal protections as the entire working class — including healthcare, living wages, quality education, and the right to organize on the job.

Rank-and-file unionists understand the needs of immigrants because they share them. Workers in organized labor can and must push their leadership to take the right stand.

Second, the movement will advance by leaps and bounds by utilizing the concept of a united front.

A united front is the coming together of many workingclass groups under the same banner for the same cause. The autonomous groups within it represent many issues, such as stopping the war, women’s liberation, youth activism, or workers’ rights. But the united front is distinguished from other broad coalitions in that it doesn’t work with, make deals with, or concede anything to the ruling class or their puppets, like Democratic Party officials or careerist demagogues. One of the immediate things a united front for immigrant rights could organize around is the defense of students and undocumented workers facing reprisals and retaliation at their schools, in their workplaces, or by la Migra.

Finally, as a socialist and a feminist dad, I think the immigrant struggle must include the fight for women’s issues. It is important for men to speak up for women’s rights. Immigrant women suffer double or triple oppression and, because of this, they have the most to gain from battling for immigrant rights, amnesty and open borders. The struggle for women’s rights will also help to push the immigrant movement in a revolutionary direction, because feminism is a revolutionary question: capitalism simply cannot meet women’s needs and survive intact. And this is a much-needed direction for the movement.

For a world without borders! At the root, the problem for immigrants is capitalism, a system that exploits the poor to benefit the rich. Capitalism needs workers with no rights on both sides of the border. What we need is a system of planned, nonprofit production and distribution under workers’ control. In the spirit of the immigrant women who launched the fight for the 8-hour day, we must continue their vision of toppling the economic system that oppresses all workers and replace it with socialism.

Humanity needs to move to our next stage — not corporate globalization, but collective globalization, in which the needs of all will be met. We will have no use for national borders; people will not be forced to uproot their entire families from their homelands just to survive. Movement from place to place will be the free choice of free people.

• Abolish NAFTA, CAFTA, and all neoliberal free trade agreements! • No to the criminalization of immigrants! No to guest worker programs! Stop the raids by la Migra! • Amnesty now! Open the borders for workers! • End the war against Iraq! Fund union jobs and social services! • For a world free of want — for democratic socialism!

Eduardo Martínez Zapata works as an educator with migrant students and their families.

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