Immigrant rights at a crossroads

TO TRY to make sense out of why immigration reform has failed to materialize since the election of Barack Obama and the Democratic congressional majority in 2008, we have to look beyond the over-simplification that Washington partisanship is solely to blame. The onset of economic recession transformed the landscape, with immigration politics being pushed into the background and pre-2008 political alignments and arrangements wiped away.

Instead of a comprehensive restructuring of immigration policy providing a path to citizenship, a new consensus has taken shape within the US ruling class—expressed through both political parties—that reform be taken off the table. Instead of providing a path to legalization, the preferable modus operandi in the context of a crisis of capitalism is keeping immigrant workers mired in the conditions of social marginalization. In other words, the status quo is the best case scenario for maximum profitability at a time of economic uncertainty, since the maintenance of a persecuted section of the working class can be used to leverage lower wages and working conditions against other sections of the labor force. This is especially possible after the decline of the immigrant workers’ movement, which burst onto the national scene on May 1, 2006, pushing legalization to the forefront of national politics. High unemployment rates and six years of intense state repression have severely weakened the movement’s capacity to resist.

This can explain why both political parties have closed ranks to endorse the “enforcement-only” approach to immigration, while at the same time maintaining a sizeable undocumented worker population. If right-wing demagogues have been unsuccessful in efforts to pass more extremist measures at the congressional level, it is because the politics of immigrant scapegoating have failed to find a hearing with a large majority of the US working class. This is why the anti-immigrant movement has since shifted efforts to more conservative states where traditions of Jim Crow racism still inform the body politic. At the same time, the electoral strategy that linked immigrant rights to campaigning for the Democratic Party has also hit a dead end, demoralizing many Latino supporters of the Obama administration and rights activists who believed meaningful reform would quickly emerge from a Democratic congressional majority in 2008.1

Immigration discourse has since passed from a one-sided debate to a nearly non-existent one. Meanwhile, the selective targeting of immigrant workers continues under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and state governments across the country. While the immigrant rights movement has stalled, the ongoing economic crisis and the incessant attacks on workers, students, and poor people carried out by a political class bought and paid for by the Fortune 500 has forged a new resistance movement. By agitating against the vast inequality of capitalism and a decaying political system hell-bent on making the 99% pay for a crisis they didn’t create, the Occupy Wall Street movement creates the potential for uniting the working class, documented or not, against the 1%.

The non-debate over immigration
Current immigration politics are limited to enforcement-only measures, which have been largely moved out of the public eye. To understand why immigration politics have toned down, it is necessary to examine two significant and overlapping factors. First, there is the lack of substantial support on a national level for an intensive campaign against immigrants. In other words, a majority of working people sees the failing economy, unemployment, and widening inequality as the main source of their hardship, not immigrants. Secondly, a substantial, contained population of undocumented workers has become indispensible and highly profitable for US capital, even more so at a time of capitalist crisis.

The mass immigrant rights protests, strikes, and boycotts of 2006 were a watershed moment in US class relations. The movement defeated the anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner-King Bill (HR 4437) and changed the course of immigration politics. Immigrant and Latino voters, those most harshly affected by racial profiling and punitive immigration measures, helped shift the debate in Washington as well as public opinion regarding immigration reform. The Democrats were able to capture the Congress in 2006 and the presidency in 2008. Since this transition, polls and voting patterns have shown consistent, broad support for legalization. Over the same period, there has been a substantial deterioration of support for anti-immigrant organizations.

A quick survey of five years worth of public opinion shows that the US population as a whole stands to the left of the two political parties on the issue of legalization. Public opinion on immigration policy can be examined in three ways: opinion polls, voting patterns, and the level of material support for anti-immigrant organizations. 

Public opinion polls
Polls have demonstrated two trends over the last several years: a consistent level of support for legalization and a decline in scapegoating of immigrants for the economy’s problems. A 2009 Pew Research Center poll showed that 63 percent of the population supported a “path to citizenship” for the nation’s undocumented workforce.2 A May 2009 CNN poll found that two out three respondents supported legalization.3 A May 2010 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll found that while there is a substantial increase in support for enforcement measures (reflecting the enforcement-only trajectory in the media and politics), 80 percent of respondents nationally support “creating a program that would allow illegal immigrants already living in the United States for a number of years to stay here and apply to legally remain in this country permanently if they had a job and paid back taxes.”4 A December 2011 Fox News poll found that 66 percent of national respondents (including 57 percent of Republicans) supported a path to citizenship leading even Fox to concede “the GOP candidates are largely at odds with voters of their party.”5

While a consistent majority supports legalization, there is less of an appetite to focus on immigration enforcement, a theme that Republican presidential candidates have rehashed on the campaign trail. A January 2012 Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that 51 percent of respondents believed that politicians should focus on jobs and the economy, with only 1 percent believing that immigration was their main presidential issue. A January 2012 Pew poll revealed a decreasing percentage of potential voters who believed that “illegal immigration” was a top priority (55 percent in 2007, 39 percent in 2012); whereas the desire for a focus on job creation increased from 57 percent to 82 percent over the same period.6

These polls reveal the disconnection between the official policies of the 1% and the increasing class consciousness of the 99%. The failures of capitalism and rising inequality are fueling discontent that is being directed towards the system itself, and not towards immigrants—who are seen by many as working-class victims of the crisis as well.

Voting patterns
Of the ſifteen key races in the 2006 elections where immigration played a key role in the race, twelve of the contests were lost by the anti-immigrant candidate. In a shift of fortunes, the Democrats reclaimed the House of Representatives that same year. In 2008, twenty self-proclaimed pro-immigrant legalization candidates beat anti-immigrant candidates in twenty-two battleground House and Senate races.7 In the Republican primaries of 2008, all of the candidates making anti-immigration a central campaign theme were handily defeated. This helped cement victory for the Democrats, who then controlled Congress and the presidency. With the Democrats in complete control of the federal government, immigration legalization never materialized. Instead, the machinery of immigrant repression, now at the hands of the Obama administration and congressional Democrats, expanded.8

At the federal level, anti-immigrant efforts failed due to popular opposition. Legalization, albeit broadly supported, failed due to the lack of political appetite and effort amongst Democrats once in office. The locus of immigration politics has since shifted away from the national legislative forum and into less representative arenas. The Obama administration ramped up enforcement measures through DHS directives, and anti-immigrant partisans shifted tack to focus on passing anti-immigrant measures piecemeal through conservative state legislatures, where these politics could be propelled forward with less opposition.

Nevertheless, even in the most reactionary environments, anti-immigrant sentiment has suffered some recent setbacks. Recently, Russell Pearce, Arizona state senate president and the national anti-immigrant lightning rod who orchestrated the passage of anti-immigrant legislation SB 1070, became the first state lawmaker in Arizona history and the first senate president of any state to be recalled. Latino voters, most of whom supported the recall effort, accounted for 13 percent of the recall electorate. Since Pearce’s Republican rival Jerry Lewis won 53.4 percent to 45.3 percent, a large segment of his own base voted against him. According to the Arizona Republic, a conservative-leaning newspaper, “Poll respondents who voted against Pearce said they chose to recall the legislator, who was the state Senate President, because they felt that their representatives needed to focus less on immigration and more on jobs and the economy.”9 The outcome even led anti-immigrant demagogue Tom Tancredo to conclude that the outcome may have a “chilling effect” on like-minded [anti-immigrant] politicians in the short term.10

Declining material support for anti-immigrant ­organizations
A third way of understanding public attitudes towards immigration politics has to do with the level of material support for anti-immigrant organizations. National trends show a substantial decrease in both active members and monetary donations over the last few years. According to the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights:11

  • The membership of the Federation for American Immigration Reform fell by 58 percent from a high in 2007 to its new low in 2011.
  • The total gross receipts for ten established nativist organizations fell by 28 percent from 2008 to 2009.
  • The number of Minuteman organizations dropped by more than half, down from 115 local chapters in 2010 to fifty-three local groups in 2011.
  • The number of active local anti-immigrant groups fell 62 percent, from 320 in 2010 to 121 in 2011.

The failure of the movement to develop a substantial base in the working class has caused the hardcore of the movement to change its strategy. Anti-immigrant organizers, funders, and demagogues have moved the focus of their campaigns out of the streets and into Tea Party electoral formations where they have found a welcome home for their racial politics. Since they have not been able to cultivate a mass movement, they have shifted to the ballot box where there is more passive support. The space opened up by the far right-wing Tea Party movement has allowed the nativists to push their agenda into state politics, especially in those areas where Jim Crow racism is still prevalent. Since the Tea Party is funded by the right-wing sections of the capitalist class and supported by a small but highly mobilized base of middle class supporters, this relationship has allowed anti-immigrant politics to proceed at the state level where these formations wield more influence.12 This has driven conflict over immigration into the heart of the Republican Party in these regions, where some sections of big business, especially agriculture and construction, have been adversely affected by the diminished pool of immigrant labor.13

For example, despite the declining public support for anti-immigrant politics, the National Conference of State Legislators reports that state lawmakers introduced more than 1,600 bills and resolutions relating to immigration and immigrants in 2011, up from about 1,400 in 2010.14 If a survey of electoral trends shows that the majority of the population does not perceive anti-immigrant politics in their interest, at least at this point, then why do these measures advance? The dominant narrative attributes the impasse to partisan gridlock.15 Despite this “conventional wisdom” of Washington beltway politics, there are plenty of legislative techniques for bypassing gridlock. Even with legislative opposition, Obama could have halted deportations or suspended Homeland Security’s various enforcement programs through executive order pending legislative resolution. The fact is that immigration reform was never even brought onto the floor of either house of Congress for debate, a process that could have opened up a wider discussion and encouraged mobilization of public opinion. Obama himself revealed why he dropped his first major policy proposal. According to the Associated Press,

Immigration reform was an issue Obama promised Latino groups that he would take up in his first year in office. But several hard realities—a tanked economy, a crowded agenda, election-year politics and lack of political will—led to so much foot-dragging in Congress that, ultimately, Obama decided to set the issue aside.16

The lack of a political appetite to advance immigration reform can be attributed to the changing priorities of the US ruling class as the economy entered into recession. Despite campaign promises for immigration reform to the Latino community, the Democratic Party quickly abandoned the issue, especially after the effects of the 2008 recession deepened. Instead, the war on all workers has been accelerated, with immigrant workers the softest target.

Sustaining a criminalized segment of the workforce has proven instrumental for the 1% in sustaining higher profits through increased exploitation of immigrant labor. Since immigrant workers are integrated into many industries across the economy, maintaining this population in subjugation works to hold down other workers. Furthermore, anti-immigrant politics serve as a useful tool for conservative politicians in states like Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia to cut social spending under the guise of immigration enforcement. The repression of immigrant workers takes place against the backdrop of an intensification of class warfare, especially against those segments of workers organized into unions and where collective resistance has been the strongest. For example, Republican governors across the Midwest have been pushing laws to abolish or weaken both public and private unions.17 Democratic governors have also done their part, pushing savage budget cuts, cutting pensions, and serving up mass layoffs of public-sector, unionized workers.18 The demobilization of immigrant workers has become a key aspect of this strategy.

Immigration enforcement: “Discrimination ­mandated by federal law”
The conditions of economic downturn and intensifying competition internationally have exerted greater pressures on the US capitalist class to extract even more surplus value from workers. The suppression of the immigrant segment of the working class is one important facet of this overall strategy. 

As fewer immigrants have entered the United States since the onset of recession, those already in the country have chosen to remain. They have developed roots in the United States, are raising families with children often born in the United States, and have little incentive to return to their country of origin where the crisis is even harder felt.19 For example, a February 2012 National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) report has documented that the cost of living for the Mexican working class has risen while wages have dropped precipitously in the years 2001 to 2011. For example,

Mexican workers earning the daily minimum wage had to toil 11.38 hours in December 2011 to buy a basic basket of commodities, compared with the 9.55 hours of work necessary to buy the same group of products in December 2001…. The study reported that the daily minimum wage in Mexico lost 24.42 percent of its consumer punch in the ten-year period analyzed…. In sum, more than 60 percent of Mexican workers struggle to get by on wages that hover between $5 and $15 each day.20

In fact, despite the media attention given to deaths attributed to the drug war in Mexico, more people are dying of malnutrition than from drug violence. According to the Center for Studies and Research in Development and Social Welfare (CEIDAS; Mexico), “A total of 85,343 people died ‘due to malnutrition’ in Mexico between 2001 and 2010, a period during which another 49,804 victims were slain by organized crime gangs.”21 So immigrant workers have remained in the United States and in the shadows. This has developed as a manifestation of a larger project linked to US imperial policy in Mexico and Latin America.    

Since the promulgation of the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements (NAFTA and CAFTA), there has been a substantial spike in out-migration from Mexico and Central America as workers and poor farmers are displaced. According to a Pew Research Center study of Mexico, “In 1970, there were fewer than one million Mexican immigrants living in the United States. By 2000, that number had grown to 9.8 million and by 2007 it reached 12.5 million."22

There has been no attempt to create a workable policy that addresses economic displacement stemming from trade policies, increasing the likelihood of mass migration into the United States. Instead, the emphasis was placed on enforcement only. This has included: expanding the border wall, the incorporation of military technology and tactics, increases in enforcement personnel, and the expansion of immigration enforcement into the domestic sphere.

The US government currently spends about $17 billion on its immigration enforcement agencies, an amount greater than the annual GDP of at least eighty countries.23 Over the last eight years, the Bush-Obama administrations have allocated over $115 billion on immigration and border enforcement.24 A recent DHS report outlining the Obama administration’s accomplishments in “securing the southwest border,” brags that the number of Border Patrol agents has increased “from approximately 10,000 in 2004 to more than 21,000 today with nearly 18,500 ‘boots on the ground’ along the Southwest border,” deploying “dual detection canine teams as well as non-intrusive inspection systems, Mobile Surveillance Systems, Remote Video Surveillance Systems, thermal imaging systems, radiation portal monitors, and license plate readers to the Southwest border.”25

The United States has also added 413 miles of new fencing to its southern boundary since 2006, raising to 650 miles the total length of border.26 The Customs and Border Protection agency has also added a fleet of Predator drones and hi-tech blimps that it now uses for border surveillance.27 Since the border is designated as a “war on terror”conflict zone, new military technologies have been incorporated into enforcement, and in some cases the border provides a useful testing ground.

Within the United States, enforcement efforts are largely unnoticed by most Americans. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), for example, extracts individuals or small groups of immigrants from their communities, homes, schools, workplaces, parks, public transit, supermarkets, and other sites with such tactical stealth so as  not to alarm the public, attract the media, or disrupt business as usual. Deportations have reached record levels under President Obama, rising to an annual average of nearly 400,000 since 2009 (with that number now the “quota”)—about 30 percent higher than the annual average during the second term of the Bush administration and about double the annual average during George W. Bush’s first term.28

Deportation targets a large section of the workforce for the sole reason of working without documents. For example, in California 53 percent of deportation proceedings in 2011 were based solely on that violation, up more than 2,000 cases statewide from 2010. Meanwhile, “the share of potential ­deportees charged with an aggravated felony—including violent, drug and theft-related crimes—has remained steady the past five years at 4 percent.”29 The intensification of detention and deportation under the Obama administration was highlighted during a massive immigrant roundup at the end of March 2012. ICE agents detained 3,168 undocumented immigrants over the course of six days in a national operation across all fifty states, three territories, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia.30 Dubbed “Operation Cross Check,” it was the largest single coordinated immigration sweep in US history. These national raids are taking place concurrently with the systematic, mass firings of undocumented workers through workplace “immigration audits,” which began under the Obama administration in 2009. An audit requires an employer to verify employee documentation with ICE agents, and to fire those without papers or risk fines and penalties. There were over 2,300 companies audited in 2011.31 There have been some recent instances of employers “self-auditing” at a time when their workers have tried to form or join unions, effectively using the audit as a union-busting tool.32

In practice, enforcement policy has done little to alter the realities of immigration. Rather, it leads to the increased isolation and oppression of immigrant workers. As a result, elements of Jim Crow era segregation are reinstituted in communities, cruel and unusual forms of punishment are invented, and federal immigration agents target, detain, and deport thousands of individuals each day across the border in an extrajudicial manner. Without legalization, immigrant workers have limited means to leverage their legal rights to challenge low wages and poor working conditions. Intensified internal enforcement, along with the conditions of vulnerability in a recessionary period, mean that most workers will remain on the job but in conditions that breed fear and underconfidence. Under these conditions a substantial exploitable workforce can be maintained. This has led immigration expert Douglas Massey to conclude that “discrimination against a large number of Mexicans is mandated by federal law.”33

Money determines mobility
While workers are persecuted, the wealthy move freely around the globe without fear of detention or deportation. For example, NAFTA reduced or eliminated restrictions for the free movement of capital, and by extension the owners of capital. US investors have since extended their reach deep into the Mexican economy, owning large or controlling shares in many sectors of that country’s industries. Large numbers of US citizens have since followed, with little or no restriction on their movement.34

Investment in Mexico has been very profitable, while the extension of global production and distribution networks (vis-à-vis corporate supply chains) into previously sheltered markets has also been destructive. Not only have high productivity rates and low wages in Mexico provided a boon for US investors, but illicit outflows to the sum of $50 billion a year have skyrocketed since NAFTA was implemented.35

According to a report from the Washington-based anti-corruption advocacy group Global Financial Integrity, at least $872 billion has flowed out of Mexico illegally between 1970 and 2010. Of that, $642.9 billion, or about 74 percent, result from so-called trade mispricing, such as companies manipulating export and import invoices.36 NAFTA facilitated the siphoning off of vast quantities of wealth, much of it leaving Mexico in repatriated profits (legal and illegal). This helps explain the dramatic boom in out-migration which becomes a second source of profitability as US business exploits undocumented workers.

One of NAFTA’s unstated aims was to attract displaced, cheap labor into the United States as a means to aid in the restructuring of the US economy, asserts Ricardo Delgado Wise, director of development studies at the Universidad ­Autonoma de Zacatecas.37 This form of “restructuring” is a euphemism for lowering wages and weakening unions to ­increase profitability. His studies on Mexican labor migration further reveal that Latino immigrant labor, through its high productivity and low wages, contributed 17 percent of total US economic growth between 2000 and 2007. These immigrants receive about 30 percent less than they should receive in comparison to what the contribute.38

On the other hand, those with money can purchase mobility. The international 1% (the wealthiest of the wealthy) amounts to 185,795 in­di­vid­u­als world­wide, with at least $30 mil­lion net worth each, and with a combined bank account of $25 trillion (38.5 percent of global household wealth), spread out in various forms and investments across the globe.39 The global 1% and their capital know no boundaries. In fact, a person’s legal mobility is determined by where he or she fits in the hierarchy of wealth. Money buys entry in various forms: assets, education, employment, and potential investments are all keys. The richest maintain properties in multiple nations, but they are not called immigrants. Others find gateways through privileged visas, trade agreements, or other means associated with their wealth or position.

In Britain, for instance, overseas “super-investors” who keep £5 million in a UK bank account are to be given the right to stay indefinitely in Britain after only three years, two years faster than the five-year wait imposed on every other migrant.40 In the United States, the EB-5 visa program allows foreign investors to attain a green card for themselves and their families if they invest a minimum of $500,000 in a US-based enterprise. The capital generated by the program was expected to total $1.2 billion nationally for 2011, up from $845 million in 2010. Many more investors arrive with other variants of the E-series visas, available to immigrants who make “substantial” investments (generally more than $100,000) in a business venture, which provides them with cross-border mobility.41

For example, in 2010 the State Department issued 1,965 E1 and E2 visas to wealthier Mexicans, a 49 percent increase since 2005. Furthermore, the number of Mexicans with college degrees working in the United States more than doubled between 2005 and 2010 to 1.1 million.42 In 2009, 13.1 million Mexicans traveled to the United States, representing almost a quarter of the total foreign arrivals to the country (second only to Canada) and spending $8.3 billion, according to the US Commerce Department.43 Most come on business or tourist visas. According to a BBVA Bancomer research study on migration, 20 percent of people with PhD studies born in Mexico live in the United States. This number is greater than the number of researchers attached to Mexico’s National System of Researchers.44 This represents the mobility of Mexico’s business and middle classes, whose education and dollars are valuable to US capitalism through legal access, compared to the labor of the working classes, whose profitability is increased with persecution.

While the recession has meant that fewer immigrants have entered the United States since 2008, those within the country have faced increased poverty.

Capitalist crisis and immigrant workers
Since the onset of the recession, an average of about 150,000 Mexican workers have crossed the border into the United States each year, compared with 500,000 annually during the first half of the last decade.45 This, more than any border enforcement policies, explains declining immigration, even as politicians try to take credit for the immigration slowdown. According to Juan Luis Ordaz, senior economist for the Bancomer Foundation, “The arrests on the border are moving like the US economic cycle.”46 In other words, there is a decline in migration as the recession decreases the number of job opportunities. Because of their social marginalization and vulnerable economic position, the capitalist crisis has hit migrants in the United States the hardest.

The poverty rate for Latino immigrants has increased as low-income jobs dry up and those at the bottom are squeezed the hardest by unemployment. For example, especially hard hit in the economic downturn were the home-building and construction industries, which employ a large percentage of undocumented workers. According to migration scholar German Vega of the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana, “Migration has decreased because employment opportunities in the United States are not good. Fewer migrants have full-time jobs. Hours are reduced. Wages are lower. The amount of money they send home is less.”47

Nationally, Latinos have the highest poverty rates, most concentrated in Latino immigrant families. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos have seen the greatest decline in household wealth, compared to other racial or ethnic groups, as a result of recession. From 2005 to 2009, median household wealth among Latinos fell by 66 percent, compared with a drop of 53 percent among Blacks and 16 percent among whites.48 According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate among Latinos in December 2011 was 11 percent, up from 6.3 percent at the start of the Great Recession in December 2007. Over the same period, the national unemployment rate increased from 5 percent to 8.5 percent.49 Between 2006 and 2010, the poverty rate among Latinos increased nearly 6 percentage points—more than any other group—from 20.6 percent to 26.6 percent.50 Latino children now have the highest rate of poverty, reaching almost 30 percent in 2010.51

East of San Diego, the border community of El Centro typifies this effect. More than 80 percent of the city’s 42,500 residents are Latino, with a large percentage of Latino immigrant workers concentrated in agriculture and construction. Since these two industries have been hard hit by the recession, the unemployment rate has climbed to 28 percent, one of the highest in the country for a city of that size.52 The degrading of immigrant workers extends beyond systemic economics. Employers also exploit their vulnerabilities in other more direct ways.

Over two-thirds of low-wage immigrant workers experienced “at least one pay-related violation” in the work week reported, a recent survey conducted by the Center for Urban Economic Development, the National Employment Law Project, and the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, found. Furthermore, 26 percent of workers were paid less than the legal minimum wage; 76 percent of employees who worked overtime were not paid the legally required overtime rate; 70 percent of workers who performed work outside of their regular shifts did not receive any pay for this work; and 30 percent of tipped workers were not paid the tipped minimum wage.53

So what is the result of such efforts to drive down the standard of living of immigrants? Sociologists Doug Massey and Julia Gelatt of Princeton University reveal that the result is higher profitability. According to their research, “the average wages of Mexican-born immigrants in the US, adjusted for inflation, were no higher in 2007, on the eve of the Great Recession, than they were in the early 1960s.” Furthermore, the research shows that,

Between 1950 and 1970—a more welcoming era for immigrants in the US—the average hourly wages of Mexican-born workers rose in tandem with the wages of native-born whites and Mexican Americans, though immigrant wages were lower overall. But from 1970 to 1990, it shows, the wages of native-born Mexicans in the US dropped to early 1960s levels (about $15 per hour in today’s dollars), and have been stuck there ever since.54

They point out that the intensification of “enforcement,” beginning in 1986 with the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act under President Ronald Reagan and continuing in bipartisan fashion through to the Obama administration, is to blame for the stagnant wages of Mexicans in the United States.

The structural shift, we argue, stems substantially from the rising share of undocumented migrants and increasing exploitation and exclusion on the basis of legal status during the 1990s, followed by increasing marginalization of all immigrants in the context of a deteriorating economy after 2000.55

They conclude that

A...plausible that US immigration policy evolved to generate a larger population of people without labor rights in the United States, inducing scrupulous employers to exclude undocumented migrants as well as those who look like they might be undocumented, while at the same time providing unscrupulous employers with new leverage to increase exploitation of all workers, both documented and undocumented.56

Like the relationship between capital investment and displacement, migration and criminalization are integrated parts of the profit equation.

This fits into the larger patterns of capital accumulation in recent years. There has been a concerted effort over the past few decades—now accelerated amidst a deep recession—to increase the rate of profitability by pushing down wages and the standard of living for all workers in the United States. This is a response to increased competition internationally and a declining share of the world market for US corporations. According to the McKinsey Global Institute:

In 1999, the web of cross-border investments centered on the United States, which was partner to 50 percent in all outstanding international financial positions. By 2009, the US share of total cross-border investments had shrunk to 32 percent…prior to the 2008 financial crisis, cross-border investments between Latin America, emerging Asia, and the Middle East were growing at 39 percent annually—roughly twice as fast as these regions’ investments with developed countries.57

The investigative website Remapping Debate illustrated how the administration has adhered to this policy, even as Obama appears to strike a populist tone in the run-up to the 2012 elections. As part of an effort to decelerate outsourcing and increase manufacturing, the administration promoted a study that shows a trend of increasing productivity and declining wages as a favorable development. This, combined with rising labor costs in China, hold out the possibility that US corporations might “return home” if labor costs continue to plummet. The study, produced by the Boston Consulting Group,

claimed that rising labor costs in China combined with the fact that the United States “is becoming a lower-cost country” would “virtually close the cost gap” between the two countries for many goods. It went on to say that “when all costs are taken into account, certain US states, such as South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee, will turn out to be among the least expensive production sites in the industrialized world.”58

In fact, US productivity has been outpacing wage increases consistently since 1970.59 The other faces of labor suppression, from the full-frontal assault on workers’ rights in Wisconsin, Indiana, and other states, to the repression of immigrant workers through the aegis of law enforcement, connects the different facets of the war on workers that is raging in US society. In each case, the 1% and its enforcers aim to divide the working class amidst the economic crisis, by turning workers against each other.

But the ratcheting up of immigration enforcement is doing nothing to alleviate the economic crisis for other workers. In fact, it is making it worse. Arizona, for instance, became a flashpoint for the repression of immigrants. It is also one of the states hardest hit by the recession. Under the conditions of crisis, high unemployment, and a visible migrant population, anti-immigrant politics can find a hearing. For this reason, anti-immigrant groups like the  Minutemen flocked to Arizona and reactionary and opportunistic Republicans launched political careers off of the backs of undocumented workers and their families, attempting to generate public antipathy towards an immigrant presence.

Even though a broad array of anti-immigrant policies has been implemented in Arizona, it has done nothing to improve conditions for citizens. According to the Arizona Republic, job opportunities for college graduates in the state have plummeted in recent years. In 2007, 51 percent of graduates found work; by 2009 this number dropped to 20 percent.60 After waging a public campaign to purge undocumented immigrants from state welfare rolls, Governor Jan Brewer then proceeded to cut the state’s Medicaid program by $500 million, pushing an estimated 100,000 low-income Arizonans off the program rolls.61

In 2010, Arizona had the second highest foreclosure rate in the nation with one in seventeen housing units, or 5.73 percent, receiving at least one foreclosure filing. The state had a total of 155,878 foreclosures. By 2010, more than 50 percent of the homeowners in the Phoenix area owed more than their home was worth and were “underwater” on their mortgages.62

In Alabama, another recent anti-immigrant law (HB 56, the so-called “Hammon-Beason Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act”) allowed for local police to check the immigration status of people stopped for other crimes, required public school officials to collect data on the number of undocumented children enrolling, and forbade undocumented immigrants from entering into private contracts or conducting any business with the state.63 The first assessment of the law has shown its harmful effects. The fear of arrest sowed terror in the immigrant community, which fled in droves.64 It also gave lie to the idea that the expulsion of immigrants would create jobs for citizens. Instead, the law could cost Alabama up to $11 billion in GDP and nearly $265 million in state income and sales tax (since fewer than nine of every hundred of the 80,000 jobs vacated were being filled by unemployed legal residents and citizens), according to Dr. Samuel Addy of the Center for Business and Economic Research.65

The crisis of capitalism and continued attacks on the standard of living of most Alabamans, Arizonans, and other working and poor people across the country sets the backdrop for the criminalization of immigrants. As the repression of immigrants has done nothing to solve the real problems of poverty and inequality for the 99%, the potential for renewed resistance has presented itself with the emergence of Occupy Wall Street.

Conclusion: Immigrants’ rights struggle and the Occupy movement
If the capitalist class and their policy advocates have constructed an ideal arrangement in the current configuration of immigration policy, immigrant workers themselves began the process challenging this system. The 2006 May Day actions across the country flexed immigrant labor’s muscle and demonstrated that it is possible to fight back. Immigrant workers have revitalized key sectors of the union movement, revived the traditions of solidarity, the mass strike, and internationalism as the building blocks of labor. As a monument to this renaissance of class struggle, immigrant workers brought back May Day—International Workers’ Day—to the land of its origin.

The immigrant rights protests of 2006 demonstrated the numbers, the geographical spread, and the power of immigrant workers to confront the unjust policies of the 1%. The mass worker stay-aways, student walkouts, and mega-marches of millions that year demonstrated the power of the working class to bring whole segments of the economy to a standstill.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has helped focus the source of the rapid deterioration of people’s standard of living: an economic system that favors profits over people when it works, and a kept political class willing to make the 99% pay for system failure when it doesn’t. The 1%, the small group of super-wealthy that actively opposes workers rights, unions, social welfare, and an equitable redistribution of wealth, is also responsible for the policies that have displaced millions of people in Mexico, Central America, and other parts of the world.

The Occupy movement helped revive a rich tradition of confrontational protest—seizing and holding space, disrupting the status quo, civil disobedience, and seeking solidarity with labor to build the power of the 99% to shut down production. Furthermore, it has identified and named the system (and its political representatives) that produces misery for the 99%. History has been made when the different sections of the 99% have found common cause, refused to be divided by the ploys of the 1% and its agents, and used their collective power. The aspirations for another type of society—one that overturns inequality and all of the social mechanisms that underpin it—binds together documented and undocumented workers alike, along with the rest of the 99%, against the same system.

  1. Ray Sanchez, “Latino voters 2012: Exhilaration over president Obama turns to dread and disappointment,” Huffington Post, January 17, 2012.
  2. Scott Keeter, “Where the public stands on immigration reform,” Pew Research Center, November 23, 2009.
  3. See the data and analysis at
  4. CNN Wire Staff, “CNN Poll: Support for border crackdown grows,” CNN, May 26, 2010.
  5. Elizabeth Llorente, “On immigration, polls show most GOP voters share Gingrich stance,” Fox News Latino, December 14, 2011.
  6. January 2012 Washington Post-ABC News Poll available online at
  7. America’s Voice Online, “20 pro-reform candidates beat hard-liners in 22 battleground House and Senate races.” Available online at
  8. For a comprehensive explanation of this process, see: Justin Akers Chacón, “The preventable rise of Arizona’s SB1070,” International Socialist Review 73 (September–October 2010).
  9. Elizabeth Llorente, “Poll: Latinos were key factor in Arizona recall vote,” Fox New Latino, November 15, 2011.
  10. Alia Beard Rau, “Russell Pearce recall may indicate new political climate” Arizona Republic, November 12, 2011.
  11. Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind, “Report-Beyond FAIR: The decline of the established anti-immigrant organizations and the rise of Tea Party nativism,” Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights (IREHR), January 17, 2012. Available online at
  12. See Frank Rich, “The billionaires bankrolling the Tea Party,” New York Times August 28, 2010.
  13. Miriam Jordan, “Alabama immigrant law irks business,” Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2011.
  14. See National Conference of State Legislators, “Immigration policy report,” September 19, 2011. Available online at
  15. For example, see Rachel Rose Hartmann, “Obama blames Republicans for failure of immigration reform, says increase in deportations is misleading,” Yahoo News, September 28, 2011.
  16. Suzanne Gamboa, “Obama takes immigration reform agenda off table” Associated Press, April 29, 2010.
  17. Tom LoBianco, “Indiana governor signs right-to-work bill,” Associated Press, February 1, 2012.
  18. See Wyatt Buchanan, “Democrats OK big cuts to California’s safety net,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 4, 2011. 
  19. Immigration Policy Center, “Mexican migration patterns signal a new immigration reality,” August 1, 2011. 
  20. Frontera NorteSur on-line, “Mexican workers pulverized,” Center for Latin American and Border Studies at New Mexico State University, February 9, 2012.
  21. ANSA/El Semanario Sin Limites, “México: más muertes por desnutrición que por narcotráfico,” February 20, 2012. English translation available online at
  22. Pew Hispanic Center, “The Mexican-American boom: Births overtake immigration,” July 14, 2011.
  23. Marshall Fitz, “Safer than ever: A view from the US–Mexico border: Assessing the past, present, and future,” Center For American Progress, August 2011. Available online at
  24. Ibid.
  25. Department of Homeland Security, “DHS’ progress in 2011: Southwest border,” Press Release, January 23, 2012. Available online at
  26. Fitz, “Safer than ever.”
  27. William Booth, “More Predator drones fly US-Mexico border,” Washington Post, December 21, 2011.
  28. Mark Hugo Lopez, Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, and Seth Motel, “As deportations rise to record levels, most Latinos oppose Obama’s policy,” Pew Hispanic Center, December 28, 2011.
  29. Ryan Gabrielson, “Fewer face deportation because of criminal charges, data shows” California Watch, December 11, 2011.
  30. Jorge Rivas, “ICE arrest 3k immigrants in 6 days, largest roundup ever,” Colorlines, April 3, 2012.
  31. Miriam Jordan, “Immigration audits drive illegal workers underground,” Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2011.
  32. Emma Roller, “Firing of workers who failed to provide documents divides Pomona College,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 12, 2012. 
  33. Melinda Burns, “Why Mexican immigrants can’t get ahead,” Miller-McCune, December 22, 2011.
  34. See Justin Akers Chacón, “The US-Mexico border: Free trade without free people,” International Socialist Review 73, September–October 2010.
  35. Reuters, “Mexico loses $50 bln/year in illegal outflows—report,” January 30, 2012.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Michael Graybeal, “Mexico’s economic policy and migration,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 2011.
  38. Ibid.
  39. “Credit Suisse: Global wealth has soared 14% since 2010 to USD 231 trillion with the strongest growth in emerging markets,” Press Release, October 19, 2011. Available online at
  40. See Alan Travis, “Super-rich to be given fast-track to settle in Britain,” Guardian, March 15, 2011.
  41. See Lornet Turnbull, “Wealthy immigrants can invest way to visas,” Seattle Times, December 10, 2011.
  42. Jeremy Schwartz, “Austin beginning to compete with other Texas cities for wealthy immigrants from Mexico,” The Statesman, June 6, 2011.
  43. Juan Carlos Ruiz, “Mexico: Travel trends to the United States,” US Department of Commerce, December 2010.
  44. BBVA Research, “Mexico migration outlook,” Press Presentation, October 25, 2010. Available online at
  45. Elizabeth Aguilera, “Illegal immigration from Mexico continues decline,” San Diego Union Tribune, July 7, 2011.
  46. Nick Miroff and William Booth, “Border arrests see big decline,” Washington Post, December 4, 2011.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry, and Paul Taylor, “Hispanic household wealth fall by 66% from 2005 to 2009,” Pew Hispanic Center, July 26, 2011.
  49. Paul Taylor, Mark Hugo Lopez, Gabriel Velasco, and Seth Motel, “Hispanics say they have the worst of a bad economy,” Pew Hispanic Center, January 26, 2012.
  50. Carmen DeNavas, Bernadette D. Proctor, and  Jessica C. Smith, “Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the United States: 2010,” US Census Bureau.
  51. Mark Hugo Lopez and Gabriel Velasco, “Childhood poverty among Hispanics sets record, leads nation,” Pew Hispanic Center, September 28, 2011.
  52. Jennifer Medina, “Economic downturn holds fierce grip on border town,” New York Times, March 16, 2011.
  53. Matt Hilburn, “Wage theft shatters American Dream for many low-income immigrants,” Voice of America, December 28, 2011. Available online at
  54. Burns, “Why Mexican immigrants can’t get ahead.”
  55. Douglas S. Massey and Julia Gelatt, “What happened to the wages of Mexican immigrants? Trends and interpretations,” Latino Studies (2010), Volume 8, pages 328–54.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Charles Roxburgh, Susan Lund, and John Piotrowski, “Mapping global capital markets 2011,” Mckinsey Global Institute, August 2011.
  58. Mike Alberti, “On manufacturing policy, White House remains in grip of ‘ratchet-down’ consultants” Remapping Debate, January 18, 2012. Available online at
  59. Mike Alberti, “Producing More, Earning Less,” Remapping Debate, January 25, 2012.
  60. Betty Beard, “Arizona jobs outlook for recent college graduates bleak, but improving,” Arizona Republic, June 6, 2010.
  61. Mary K. Reinhart, “Arizona Supreme Court lets AHCCCS cuts stand,” Arizona Republic, February 15, 2012.
  62. Susanna Kim, “2010 had record 2.9 million foreclosures” ABC News, January 11, 2011.
  63. Some aspects have since been blocked by Federal Courts. For a good analysis of the law, see Shaun Harkin and Nicole Colson, “Resisting Juan Crow in Alabama” International Socialist Review 81, January–February 2012. 
  64. For instance, see Campbell Robertson, “After ruling, Hispanics flee an Alabama town,” New York Times, October 3, 2011.
  65. Samuel Addy, “A cost-benefit analysis of the new Alabama Immigration law,” Center for Business and Economic Research, University of Alabama, January 2012.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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