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ISR Issue 49, September–October 2006


A great nation of the exploited

Justin Akers Chacón and Mike Davis
NO ONE IS ILLEGAL: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border
Haymarket Books, 2006
240 pages $14


NO ONE is Illegal is a timely contribution to the new movement for immigrant rights. Mike Davis and Justin Akers Chacón have made a critical study of immigrant workers-and of the popular and official response to immigrants within the United States. And while the new movement has risen, so has right-wing vigilantism-just in time to boost the posture of a discredited and fractured Republican Party. In this context, No One is Illegal can serve as a working handbook to help pull together a left wing of the movement and to counter the Right's domination of the debate.
The book offers history and analysis to challenge the myths of immigration and expose the realities. The same goes for the photographs by Julián Cardona, which humanize the dire situation of those who must move across the planet to find subsistence.
The historical treatment repeatedly turns up lessons for today. Politicians who are eager to make “compromises” on the rights of immigrants are now attempting to sell the movement short with a new guest-worker program. Akers Chacón lays out in clear detail why this possibility is not an acceptable option by looking back to the Bracero Program. Between 1942 and 1964, the program contracted some 4.8 million Mexican workers to work on a seasonal basis, primarily in agriculture. Akers Chacón writes that such guest-worker programs

have instituted a caste system of labor, by depriving their “guests” of the fundamental rights purportedly accorded to workers in a democratic society, and created a segregated class of workers whose participation in society-beyond contributing the products of their arms, legs and sweat-is proscribed by law.… A new guest-worker program would once again place absolute control over the workers back in the hands of the agricultural bosses.

Mike Davis focuses on the history of vigilantism in California. “Indeed,” writes Davis, “vigilantism-ethno-racial and class violence (or threat of violence) cloaked in a pseudo-populist appeal to higher laws and sovereignties-has played a far greater role in the state's history than is generally recognized.” Davis chronicles the succession of minority groups that have shared, at different periods under different political situations, a condition that alternates between serving as crucial labor and serving as scapegoats to be victimized by brutal repression.
Davis argues that vigilantism is both the result of the political climate and a significant contributor to it. He writes:

It would be a mistake to underestimate the impact of the fanatics in camouflage suits.… [They] have had an electrifying impact on the conservative grassroots. For the first time, the Bush administration has felt seriously embattled-not by Democrats-but by the anti-immigrant rebellion on its own flanks.

The tradition of popular violence, and its connection with official politics, goes back as far as the monstrous era of Manifest Destiny, when Native Americans were cleared from the land to make way for whites. “The abduction or murder of Indians was subsidized by the state government,” Davis writes, “which issued bonds to volunteer companies to exterminate California's first peoples.”
In the early twentieth century, when Japanese immigrants began to succeed in agriculture and became landowners, wealthy Anglo California growers struck back. The Japanese became targets of violence, Anglo schools were created to exclude Japanese children, and the 1913 Alien Land Law finally prohibited the ownership of land by Japanese nationals. This last attack provoked street protests in Japan, and certain forces in the Japanese government, which was then a close ally of the U.S., considered declaring war on California.
The experience of racism within the working class itself has had different effects in different circumstances-depending especially on the general level of struggle and organization. When these have been low, the racist ideas promoted by the propertied have held back greater class unity and struggle. Akers Chacón notes:

The political segregation of workers based on citizenship gradually segregated all immigrant workers from the rest of the working class. Many native-born workers and their unions became convinced that there was something to be gained by excluding immigrants, even though in practice it led to the decline in the conditions of labor for all workers.

Indeed, it was the policy of the AFL and later, the AFL-CIO, to oppose unionizing among immigrant workers for most of the twentieth century.
But there are also examples of trade unions that took the right side in immigration politics. Davis and Akers Chacón explode the caricature of malleable and ignorant migrant workers by laying out the history of immigrants fighting to organize unions, often on multiracial lines and under extreme repression.
The struggles of immigrants continue to be an integral force in the struggle of the working class. This truth extends from the German immigrants who fought alongside native-born workers for the eight-hour workday-and created May Day in the process-to the millions of workers who came out in the largest demonstrations in U.S. history on the most recent May Day, some 120 years later.
As in the eight-hours agitation, socialists and other radicals continued to play a key role in uniting the native-born with immigrant workers. Dr. Julius Hammer of the U.S. Socialist Labor Party said,

There is no middle coarse on this question of immigration and emigration. Either you support restrictions on immigration, or you energetically combat it. Legal restrictions on immigration must be rejected… We must create a great nation of the exploited.

Akers Chacón focuses on the struggle at the U.S.-Mexico border, but he makes it clear that immigration politics, and borders themselves, must be understood in the context of global capitalism. He examines neoliberalism as a primary material cause for immigration. Akers Chacón writes:

The global institution of neoliberalism set the stage for further economic convulsions. Out-migration served as a release valve for the socially dislocated. This by-product was welcomed by a U.S. market eager to absorb not only Mexican imports, but also its reserve armies of labor, since migrants could be paid less and leveraged against unionized workers.

Davis and Akers Chacón stress the need for an international working-class movement against capitalist exploitation, including a struggle against attempts to control and fracture the working class through racism and borders. Works like No One is Illegal can help deepen the perspective of the immigrant rights movement-a movement that continues to develop today-and help it blaze a trail toward the kind of movement that the whole class needs.
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