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ISR Issue 52, March–April 2007


Facing the anti-immigrant crackdown

The challenge of ICE raids, deportations, and guest-worker legislation


THE FEDERAL government has developed a tremendous arsenal for cracking down on immigrants—Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) workplace raids, “no-match” terminations, and Operation Return to Sender sweeps—allegedly aimed at “criminals” but in practice much broader in scope. The most high-profile attacks have included an ICE raid of Swift meatpacking plants across six states in December, rounding up 1,300 immigrant workers; the termination of seventy-five workers based on no-match letters sent by the Social Security Administration in November at pork-processor Smithfield Packing in Tar Heel, NC; Operation Return to Sender arrests of 750 undocumented immigrants in metro Los Angeles in January; and, most recently, an ICE raid on Los Angeles MTA transit lines. Over the last year we’ve witnessed an escalation in the use of these repressive measures against immigrants concurrently with local anti-immigrant initiatives driven forward by politics inspired by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO).

The Bush administration has clear priorities when it comes to immigration reform: arduous legalization for some, an extensive guest-worker plan to meet the needs of U.S. capital, and further militarization of the border. As journalist David Bacon argued in December:

At Swift, the administration is sending a message to employers, and especially to unions: Support its program for immigration reform, or face a new wave of raids. “The significance is that we’re serious about work site enforcement,” threatened ICE chief Myers.
After six years in office, ICE’s choice of this moment to begin their campaign is more than suspect. It is designed to force the new Democratic congressional majority to make a choice. The administration is confident that Democrats will endorse workplace raids in order to appear “tough on illegal immigration” in preparation for the 2008 presidential elections. In doing so, they will have to attack two of the major groups who produced the votes that changed Congress in November—labor and Latinos.

And in a follow-up article, Bacon wrote:

Of all the supporters of corporate immigration reform, Homeland [Security] Secretary Michael Chertoff is the most honest. The day of the notorious raids at the Swift and Company meatpacking plants, he told the media the raids would show Congress the need for “stronger border security, effective interior enforcement and a temporary-worker program.” Bush wants, he said, “A program that would allow businesses that need foreign workers, because they can’t otherwise satisfy their labor needs, to be able to get those workers in a regulated program.”

We are not likely, therefore, to see attacks based on Sensenbrenner-style vengeance against all the undocumented by the Bush administration via the Department of Homeland Security—that would be too disruptive to immigrant-dependent sectors of the economy. Instead, the administration can selectively use various parts of its repressive machinery to squeeze employers and unions into accepting a guest-worker plan, while at the same time appeasing the marginalized Sensenbrenner-Tancredo wing of the Republican Party by criminalizing and cracking down on the undocumented.

As Bacon points out, it would appear to be no coincidence that ICE raids targeted Swift, where immigrant workers are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) which opposes creating a new guest-worker program. Additionally, the effect of these attacks is also to create fear and terror in immigrant communities and among pro-immigrant organizations, creating conditions where any kind of legislation seems better than an escalating attack.

The forces that supported the McCain-Kennedy/Hagel-Martinez Senate immigration bills last year (S. 2611 and S. 2612) have re-launched themselves as The Alliance for Immigration Reform 2007. Central to the alliance is the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (EWIC) formed in 1998 to promote Bush’s pro-corporate vision of immigration reform. Membership in the EWIC costs between $50,000 and $250,000, with the funds channeled into political campaigns for tighter border security and a new guest-worker program. The EWIC is made up of forty-three of the largest corporate industry associations in the U.S., including Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods, and other large employers of immigrant labor.

Joining the EWIC in the alliance are Change To Win unions, SEIU and UNITE HERE, along with the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In keeping with their business unionism approach, SEIU and UNITE HERE have long accepted the corporate driven model of immigration reform. Instead of challenging the principle of guest-worker programs, they opted to lobby the Democratic Party, now the new congressional majority, for access to organizing future guest-workers. Following heated criticism for its support of the Hagel-Martinez legislation last year, SEIU in particular has attempted to give the guest-worker proposals a pro-labor gloss, denying it will resemble in any way the notoriously disastrous Bracero Program that operated from 1942 to 1964.

In a recent Washington Post piece titled “A change of heart on guest workers,” Janet Murguía, president and chief executive of the NCLR, responding to Rep. Charles Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) charge that Bush’s State of the Union immigration proposal was tantamount to a new slavery, reveals the logic behind the liberal hand-wringing in support of guest-worker programs:

After decades of strongly opposing temporary-worker programs for the very reasons that Rangel articulates, my organization and many Latino leaders find ourselves in the interesting position of being principal advocates for a significant new worker visa program as part of comprehensive immigration reform.

 Some think we got here as the result of some devil’s bargain with our allies among business leaders: They get a new worker program, and we get a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. Not so. We have concluded that a new legal pathway for the future flow of immigrant workers to the United States is the safest, most reasonable path for immigrant workers, for their co-workers in this country, and for a nation hungry for order and control at the border…
We are deeply aware of the risks of going down this path in the immigration reform debate, including accusations that we are selling out one group of immigrant workers to help another. But our critics offer no practical solutions for the flow of migrants that will surely continue or for the abuses these workers will face if they survive the trip across the border. We owe it to migrants, as well as to the nation that their hard work will sustain, to shape a new path for migration that is legal, safe and endowed with protections for immigrants and American workers alike.

The logic goes that labor and civil rights provisions can be built into the new program, making it humane. However, given the tremendous hostility in government and among corporations to unionization and workers’ rights, this is quite difficult to imagine. Corporate America’s hostility to unions will deepen further in response to global economic competition and the introduction of future guest-worker programs is a vehicle to destroy working-class organization and drive down working class living standards yet further. No amount of rhetoric can get around the fact that a guest-worker program is a system of organized exploitation and deportation. It does nothing to address the horrible conditions for millions of undocumented immigrants who will continue to arrive.

As it stands, the labor movement is divided on the question of accepting future guest-worker programs. The AFL-CIO, Teamsters, and UFCW are most prominent among unions opposed to creating a new guest worker program. Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice-president of the AFL-CIO, has argued “There is absolutely no good reason why any immigrant who comes to this country prepared to work, to pay taxes, and to abide by our laws and rules should be relegated to a repressive, second-class guest worker status.” UFCW International President Joe Hansen cautioned, “Historically, guest worker programs have led to worker mistreatment. There’s every reason to believe that an expanded guest worker program would lead to increased worker abuse at a time when the current climate is to relax, if not outright ignore, labor protections in many workplaces.”

In April 2006, more than 140 organizations signed onto the National Statement Against Unjust Immigration Legislation initiated by the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR), calling for genuine legalization for all and no expansion of guest-worker programs.
With the new Democratic Party majority in Congress, many pro-immigrant organizations have made lobbying their focus. This is understandable, but meeting with Democrats has played the role of lowering expectations and reinforcing the idea there needs to be a compromise on a whole range of issues. At the same time, major well-funded national organizations leading the lobbying strategy have not been willing to organize a coordinated challenge to federal attacks on immigrant workers.

Despite the focus on Congress, no significant section of the Democratic Party has spoken out strongly against Bush’s orchestrated raids and sweeps of immigrants. These attacks are clearly aimed at spreading fear and terror inside immigrant communities and forcing acceptance of anti-immigrant legislation, which the Democratic Party is culpable for shaping and backing. Without the pressure of mass protest, whatever future “compromise” legislation the Democrats and Republicans eventually cobble together is unlikely to break from the framework of meeting the needs of U.S. business over the needs of immigrant workers, present and future.

However, awareness of increased raids, deportations and other attacks on immigrants is growing. Activists are seeking to vent their anger and tap into wider sentiment among immigrants and their supporters eager to express opposition. The demand to stop raids and deportations is coalescing across the country and will be central to organizing in the coming months and to May 1, 2007, actions and demonstrations.

Confronting the escalating attack is crucial to building the confidence and organization to continue the fight for genuine legalization for all, no guest-worker programs, and demilitarization of the border. Inevitably, these demands will be opposed not just by the Bush administration but also by the corporate-dominated Democratic Party. For this reason, the task of building an immigrant rights movement independent of the Democratic Party that’s able to articulate its own demands based on the interests of immigrant and native-born workers has to remain central.

Shaun Harkin is an activist in the March 10 immigrant rights coalition in Chicago. He can be contacted at [email protected]
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