Immigrants under corporate boots

Congress should grant all undocumented workers permanent residency and a clear path to citizenship.

Nathan Paulsen

You might not guess it by the mood on campus, but we are in the midst of one of the largest protest movements in modern U.S. history. In response to recent anti-immigrant legislation, millions of people poured into the streets demanding an end to congressional attacks on immigrant rights and dignity for undocumented workers. Protests drew as many as 300,000 in Chicago and 1 million in Los Angeles – the biggest demonstrations in their respective histories. In Los Angeles, 40,000 students walked out of class to support immigrant rights, many climbing over fences to escape school lockdowns. Demonstrations similarly were organized in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Denver, Phoenix, Milwaukee, New York and numerous other cities.

By denying legal documentation to nearly 12 million people in the United States, politicians have constructed a shadow workforce where outrageous abuses are left unchecked. Instead of providing corporate America with a cheap pool of vulnerable employees, lawmakers should grant all undocumented workers permanent residency and a clear path to citizenship.

Forcing immigrants to stay in legal limbo has created an immense body of insecure workers available for exploitation at farms and factories. In placing 5 percent of our total workforce outside the protection of law, legislators have handed employers a license to abuse workers. Today it is not uncommon for immigrants to work 60 hours or more per week in dangerous, illegal environments while getting paid far below the minimum wage. Although they contribute to the economy like everybody else, if undocumented workers dare speak a word about the dire conditions of their employment – or attempt to organize a union – they are threatened with deportation. Indeed, the widely hated Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly known as Immigration and Naturalization Services, has made its name heeding calls from employers with raids on immigrant workers involved in union activity.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., is only the latest in a long line of bigots to advance their political careers on the backs of immigrants. In December 2005, Mr. Sensenbrenner introduced a draconian bill that eventually would call for the federal government to build a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border, expand migrant police patrols, restrict due process for “illegal” immigrants and impose severe criminal penalties on undocumented workers and those citizens who might be so bold as to aid them with food, medical care or advice.

Of course, militarizing the border and criminalizing immigrants has done nothing to stem the flow of humans into the United States. The reason is simple: Undocumented workers come predominantly from Mexico and Central America – countries that have been ravaged by 150 years of U.S. imperialism. Throughout the Americas, the U.S. government has launched dozens of brutal military interventions on behalf of business interests. U.S. intelligence agencies have overthrown democratically elected governments, put down efforts by workers to organize and provided financial and logistical support for death squads that murdered hundreds of thousands of innocents in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador in the 1980s alone. The legacy of these policies – not to mention the structural adjustment and debt-slave programs of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank – is a poverty so extreme it defies the imagination of most college students.

Immigrants go north because their families are at risk of starvation and there are no other options available. This is not an “immigration crisis,” it is a poverty and foreign policy crisis – one that never will be addressed by lawmakers whose primary concern is making sure the profit margins of corporate classes remain robust.

Congress has no intention of depriving United States finance capital of its cheapest source of domestic labor by deporting or imprisoning even a small fraction of the 12 million undocumented workers who reside within our borders. The goal of legislation seeking to impose stiff penalties on immigrants is to raise the level of insecurity among undocumented workers. Not only does the second-class citizenship of immigrants set the stage for the superexploitation of millions of workers, it also acts as a downward pressure on wages across the board. Moreover, the scapegoating of immigrants divides workers against one another, making it far more difficult for labor to organize a united front in defense of working-class interests and rights.

The consequences are predictable: The rich grow richer while the poor get poorer – a trend that has reached a fevered pitch in the United States over the past three decades. The economic malaise facing America’s working class is the direct result of the richest 5 percent of our population controlling more than 65 percent of all financial assets. There is only so much to go around.

I suspect that as our nation continues its great immigration debate in the years ahead, more and more people will come to the conclusion voiced by 18-year-old Aranza, who immigrated to Minnesota from Mexico two years ago: “Legalization would benefit immigrant families and the U.S.-born, by raising the floor for all and providing all with equal labor protections.”

Nathan Paulsen welcomes comments at [email protected]