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ISR Issue 54, July–August 2007

Migrant workers:
Casualties of neoliberalism


In spite of the electoral thrashing of the Republican Right—who oppose any form of decriminalization of undocumented immigrants—these forces have still been able to set the terms of the debate over immigration reform. The potential now exists for unity with Congressional Democrats to implement what has come to be called “comprehensive immigration reform.” Despite its neutral façade, this phrase implies a very specific formula when annunciated by the Bush administration or the bipartisan architects of current proposals in Congress.1 This represents Corporate America’s blueprint for the comprehensive restructuring of North American labor under the aegis of immigration policy.

This includes the realization of a mass “guest-worker” labor importation program, increased militarization of the border, and a martial campaign of “attrition through enforcement” to corral, expel, or reclassify the existing undocumented population as a transient and subordinate workforce. In the words of security chief Michael Chertoff, immigration reform must include “stronger border security, effective interior enforcement and a temporary-worker program.”2 Reform—a term normally used to imply progress—has come to signify regression in modern political parlance.3

Corporate immigration restructuring seeks to sever immigrants’ historic right to citizenship once and for all, replacing the process of gradual incorporation of immigrant workers and their families with a temporary and revolving dual-labor structure. Rather than acknowledge and address the failed economic policies that lie at the root of northward migration, this model is designed to capitalize on the dislocation of Latin American economies, particularly Mexico’s.

Liberals, for their part, have fallen in line. As Democrat Ted Kennedy concluded, “Only a bipartisan bill will become law.… There is a lot of common ground, especially in the need to strengthen our borders and enforce our laws.”4 On the other hand, the immigrant rights movement—visible and audible across the country on May 1, offers a completely different vision for immigration reform.

The impact of neoliberalism on labor migration

In the early spring of 2007, the Bush administration toured Latin American countries to demonstrate U.S. interest in the region. According to Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the primary goal was “to send a message to traditional elites who have lost power to leftist governments in Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay, Bolivia and Nicaragua…to show that Washington is still fighting to get them back.”5

Bush also shored up support for friendly regimes pivotal to the expansion of continental free trade, leading him through Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Uruguay, and Brazil. Reaffirming his commitment to the strategy of development through corporate expansion, Bush acknowledged the “root causes of social injustice and poverty” that are pushing workers, farmers, and the poor to migrate, offering as a solution the need for more U.S.-style capitalism.

Latin America needs capitalism for the campesino, a true capitalism that permits those with nothing to improve themselves with hard work and dedication, and for this reason the United States is helping to strengthen Latin American economies that are opening up to the world.6

In other words, Bush’s strategy to address poverty is the continuation and extension of the same policies that have been the dominant economic model in the region for the last twenty years, and the catalyst for mass migration. These policies, referred to collectively as neoliberal capitalism, have been responsible for one of history’s greatest transfers of wealth from poor to rich nations (and from the working classes to the ruling classes) ever witnessed in human history. Since 1980, for instance, it hasbeen calculated that over $4.6 trillion dollars have flowed from poor to wealthy nations through these policies.7

A decade after the passage of comprehensive free-trade policies (such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA) inequality between the rich and poor in Latin America has also skyrocketed. The richest one-tenth of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean earns 48 percent of total income, while the poorest tenth earns only 1.6 percent, making it the most unequal region in the world.8

Mass poverty has predictably induced mass migration. According to the World Bank, over four million Latin American workers migrated to the north between the years 2000 and 2005, with two million leaving Mexico alone for the United States.9 Mexico is today the world’s largest population exporter.

Neoliberalism in Mexico (with the passage of NAFTA) was designed to induce a painful shock treatment into the economy, with the rapid transition to open markets, the abolition of tariffs and subsidies, and the reduction of social spending.10 Nowhere in the 700-plus pages of NAFTA text was there a plan to address the land loss, deindustrialization, and impoverishment that would immediately result in those sectors of the economy made vulnerable by exposure to the world market.11

While there is a deafening silence in the immigration debate about why workers are uprooting themselves south of the border, industries are lining up in droves to cash in on the immigration criminalization, one of the new growth industries in the U.S. economy.

U.S. immigration policy diverges significantly from that of NAFTA member Canada, which has the world’s highest immigration rate per capita, and is expected to be the sole source of population growth in the coming decades.12 Without immigrants, the country would find itself facing severe labor shortages and other economic problems, much like its southern neighbor. Rather than criminalize immigrants, Canadian policy prioritizes economic migration, and allows for residency and a three-year path to citizenship for the roughly 200,000 immigrant workers and refugees that enter the country each year.13

For the millions of undocumented workers/economic refugees in the United States, the welcome and reception has been less hospitable, even though they provide a similar service. In contrast, at virtually the same time that NAFTA was passed, the U.S. government began funneling tens of billions of dollars to build a technologically reinforced border wall.14 Legal access to the U.S. labor market is highly prohibitive for low-skilled workers. Most workers avoid the current costly, exploitative, and prohibitive temporary worker programs (such as the H-2A program for agriculture and H-2B for miscellaneous skilled or unskilled labor), which deprive the worker of the means to change jobs, negotiate wages in good faith, remain in the country to work for extended periods, or establish permanent residency.15 As for permanent work visas for unskilled workers, the U.S. government only distributes 5,000 per year on a global scale. Of these, only two went to Mexicans in 2005, closing the door for the overwhelming majority of prospective “legal” migrants.16 Since legal access is closed, a substantial undocumented population has resulted.

Migrant workers: Casualties of a failed economic model

Like other Latin American economies’ experience with neoliberal restructuring, the projected “boom” never materialized for Mexico’s majority. To enter NAFTA, Mexico had to devalue the peso, and renegotiate its pre-1994 debt through a series of “structural adjustment programs” negotiated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In exchange for a $20 billion loan from the United States,

Government businesses were sold to private investors and U.S. companies were allowed to own land and factories anywhere in Mexico without Mexican partners. Prices of basic goods were decontrolled and government subsidies on food and basic services for workers and the poor were cut or ended. By 1998, CONASUPO, a system of state run stores that sold basic food items like tortillas and milk at subsidized prices had been closed.17

According to the plan’s architects, the abolition of tariffs and constitutional protections forbidding foreign ownership of Mexico’s resources would open the door to massive foreign direct investment. Investments in industries tied to export to the U.S. market (cash crops and manufactured goods) would create new jobs, which would offset those lost in industries unable to compete with larger multinational firms. To maintain cash reserves (to pay down debts and ensure future loans) the Mexican state downsized its welfare system. The painful transition from a “protected economy” to free trade was to be temporary, giving way to renewed economic growth that would lift the conditions of all Mexicans.

The economy grew initially, due to the increased volume of trade with the passage of NAFTA and a massive influx of foreign capital. But massive trade and government deficits triggered by a peso devaluation produced an economic collapse in 1995, prompting severe austerity measures and an IMF-U.S. bailout. The current accounts deficit ballooned from $6 billion in 1989 to more than $20 billion in 1993.18 Mexico’s interest payments on its foreign debt was $14 billion—twice the value of its oil exports.19 This produced a modest recovery; but by the late 1990s, growth rates had begun to flatten.

Capital, both foreign and domestic, has played a parasitic role throughout the “restructuring” process, dismantling the Mexican state sector and reducing the Mexican worker (on both sides of the border) to a hyper-exploitable commodity. Mexico’s state-owned portion of the economy, once considered the bastion of Mexico’s traditional workforce, has disappeared through privatization. Between the years 1982 and 2000, the number of state-owned firms plummeted from 1,100 to about 200.20 Mexico’s oil, one of the few state-owned resources remaining, is responsible for maintaining the largest share of state revenue, which accounts for 40 percent of the federal budget, and which has been declining in both reserves and production levels in recent years.21

Simultaneously, the downsizing of the state sector has been accompanied by the privatization and selling off of state-protected indigenous land holdings (ejidos), encouraging land consolidation and displacement by capital-rich growers in the countryside.

Privatization of the state sector was largely beneficial to Mexico’s capitalist class, strengthening existing oligopolies or creating new ones. As the Los Angeles Times described it, “Instead of breaking up public enterprises to spark competition, the government simply transferred them to new owners.”22 Conducted through the crony capitalism of the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), billionaires in Mexico were created overnight. Mexican monopolies now dominate telecommunications, television, beer, cement, and a host of other industries. In 2006, Mexico received $19 billion in foreign direct investment.23 The United States accounts for 66 percent of all foreign direct investment in Mexico, concentrated in manufacturing, financial services, and retail.24

Most of the growth in the export sector has been concentrated in the maquiladora sector: foreign-owned manufacturing and agricultural complexes set up within Mexico to assemble and manufacture finished goods, which receive a third of all foreign investment.25 What began as a trickle turned into a flood (after the passage of NAFTA) of corporations moving in to take advantage of Mexican labor in Mexico; 80 percent of maquiladoras are U.S. owned, and 80 percent of all components imported are from U.S. companies (about 26,000 U.S.-based companies supply raw materials).26 The maquiladoras declined in the early years of the new century as investment flowed into new areas of cheap labor, primarily China, but this proved a temporary decline. As of 2007, there are more than 2,800 maquiladoras throughout Mexico, with a workforce of 1.2 million workers, producing goods primarily for U.S. markets.27 By 2012, the number of exporting plants is expected to rise to more than 3,000, with maquiladora employment growing to more than 1.44 million from today’s 1.23 million, according to projections from Global Insight. The value of goods produced are projected to reach $128 billion per year by 2008.28

According to Foreign Direct Investment magazine, which charts capital exports from the maquiladoras, “Manufacturing exports virtually quadrupled between the first five years of the 1990s and the first three years of the new decade to top $113 billion [of goods produced per year]. With such explosive growth, this sector’s share in the total exports of the largest exporting firms grew from 42 percent in the early 1990s to 56 percent in the first few years of the new millennium.”29

Underpinning corporate profitability in the maquiladora zones are the low wages of Mexican workers, which range from between $37 and $60 for every forty-eight-hour workweek.30 According to one study, low-wage production in Mexico adds as much as 25 percent of the value added to the finished goods sold back to U.S. markets.31 This is due to the role that the Mexican government plays in keeping the industry union free. As Ojeda and Hennessy observe,

Among the incentives the Mexican Government offers foreign investors is “labor peace,” and unions controlled by companies and the government play a key role here. Companies often buy union protection through collective agreements that shield them against workers’ attempts to establish authentic collective contracts.32

The abysmal wages in the maquiladoras have lowered the wage threshold across the whole manufacturing sector in Mexico. According to a recent study by Oxfam, “some studies show that the real wages in 2004 were less than in 1994.”33 Meanwhile, the minimum wage ($5–$6 per day) in 2003 was the same as it was in 1973.34 This on top of the already 67 percent decrease in real wages experienced by Mexican workers between 1982 and 1991, as neoliberal reforms were phased into the Mexican economy, and stable, manufacturing jobs and sustainable wages evaporated.35 Mexico’s wages are the most eroded of all Latin American countries over the last two decades, with half of all workers (and 90 percent of agricultural workers) making less than the minimum wage.36 This helps explain why over 90 percent of maquiladora products return to the United States—Mexican workers cannot afford the products that they make.37

The opening of markets has contributed to industrial decline in Mexico outside the maquiladoras. First, uncompetitive industries have disappeared entirely. This has occurred primarily through the opening of the retail sector to the global retail market, controlled by none other than Wal-Mart. The U.S.-based company is now the largest retailer and private employer in Mexico, with 884 stores, restaurants, and other units. According to its sales reports, the company boasted over $15 billion in Mexican sales in 2005 alone.38 Revenues in 2007 are expected to reach $21 billion, and the company (under the name “Walmex”) even plans to open its own banks by the summer.39 Wal-Mart, as a conduit for cheaper consumer goods produced in China, has contributed to the underselling of local industries and the decline of much of Mexico’s traditional manufacturing sector.

Second, manufactured goods are tied almost exclusively to demand in the United States, which absorbs upwards of 90 percent of Mexico’s annual exports.40 Therefore, when the U.S. economy is pinched, the Mexican economy screams. Maquiladora jobs, for example, declined sharply from 2000 to 2002 during the last recession. Production contracted 30 percent and employment shrank 20 percent, a loss of 290,000 jobs as demand shrunk.41

In spite of the rebound of the maquiladoras, the number of manufacturing jobs overall has declined from a high of 4.1 million in 2000 to 3.5 million in 2004.42 Another 515,000 manufacturing jobs were lost by 2005.43

Neoliberal policies in Mexico have redistributed wealth from the poor to the already-rich. A March 2006 report by the World Bank claims that since NAFTA was enacted, 62 percent of the economically active population in Mexico has become impoverished.44 While the poorest 10 percent of the population earns only 1.5 percent of the total Mexican income, the richest 10 percent makes 42.8 percent, a reality witnessed by the growth of Mexico’s burgeoning billionaires club, which has risen from two to ten over the last decade, many making their fortunes in the corrupt sell-off of the state sector.45

The decline in manufacturing jobs coincides with a rise in poor, landless campesinos. Recent developments show the tumultuous consequences of this transition in Mexico’s southern regions, where the people are increasingly pressed to make one of three dire choices: starve, revolt, or migrate. According to Garrett Brown, Coordinator of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network:

In the Mexican countryside, 2 million farmers have been driven off the land by subsidized U.S. imports. Imports of U.S. corn have increased from 2.7 to 6.1 million metric tons over the last 10 years, while the price of corn for Mexican farmers has dropped by 70 percent. Starvation has literally emptied out rural villages of everyone but the old and very young.46

The Mayan heartland of Chiapas is both the cauldron of the Zapatista uprising and a state that is exporting on average 165 chiapanecos (people from Chiapas) to the north each day.47 Small and subsistence farmers in this region are unable to compete with U.S.-grown corn, which has flooded local markets. The abolition of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, which designated the state as guardian of the small farmer, eliminated the protections, price controls, and subsidies that had previously sustained the now-migrant diaspora.

Internally displaced Mexicans not absorbed by the vast informal economies in the larger cities (day labor, street vending and performance, “black market” activities, etc.), or in the maquiladoras (which they increasingly bypass), cross into the U.S. to find work.48 It is estimated that the Mexican economy cannot absorb 250,000 of those new workers entering the market each year.49 In other words, those not absorbed into Mexico’s economy enter the ranks of Mexico’s reserve army of labor, increasingly bottlenecked in the militarized border regions with the hopes of finding work in the north, where wages are higher. Absorption of displaced workers into Mexico’s informal economy and annual out-migration to the U.S. conceals the real rate of unemployment and underemployment in Mexico, which is annually registered at an artificially low rate (about 4–5 percent).50 It is estimated that two-thirds of all undocumented Mexican migrants in the U.S. arrived after NAFTA went into effect in 1994.51

This “excess workforce” can be tabulated by the rate of out-migration. Lauro López Sanchez, an assistant secretary of the Mexican Interior Ministry, has stated that 850,000 Mexicans were apprehended and deported trying to cross into the United States in 2005, while about 350,000 made it to their destinations.52 That number increases when migrants from Central America and other migrant-sending nations are included.

A recent survey published in the San Diego Union Tribune, affirms the character of the migrants, both in relation to the Mexican economy and that of the United States. Based on interviews with 1,700 Mexicans living in the United States in May 2006,

fifty-five percent said they were unemployed in Mexico. Thirty-nine percent said they earned no more than $400 a month in Mexico. Once they crossed the border, 51 percent found jobs within a month of their arrival in the United States. Thirty-eight percent were working in less than two weeks. Their average pay was $900 a month.53

The mass out-migration from Mexico is not the result of a demographic explosion. Mexico’s birth rate is declining at a rapid clip; now at 2.2 births per woman, it is hovering just around the “replacement rate” to maintain the stability of the current population.54 Structurally driven poverty is pushing displaced Mexican workers into the U.S. economy, where they are desperately needed to replace its declining workforce. According to government figures, the current fertility rate in the U.S. is 2.1 births per family, which is the current rate of replacement to maintain the existing population. Based solely on birth rates of the currently native-born, this rate is expected to decrease below the rate of replacement over the next two decades, sustained otherwise by immigration and the higher fertility rates of the younger Latino population as a whole.55 The U.S. Census Bureau projects that based on the current, native-born population by 2050, one out of every five Americans will be over age 65, making the U.S. population as a whole much older than that of Florida today. The elderly will be more numerous than children, with the population 65 and over outnumbering those 14 and younger by more than 13 million.56

Mexico not only provides U.S. employers with highly productive workers toiling for low wages on both sides of the border, it is furnishing a graying U.S. population with one of its most precious resources: its children. In 2005 alone, for instance, 7,000 minors crossed into the United States, unaccompanied by adults, and another 40 percent of migrants in the same period were women.57 Once in the country, immigrants not only furnish employers with cheap labor, but undocumented workers make a disproportionate contribution to the tax system without receiving benefits in return.58 This is the reality behind which the pundits have successfully scripted the U.S. as the victim of an inexorable human torrent from the south.

The hemorrhaging of Mexico’s workers is not the result of a natural or inexplicable phenomenon, but rather what economist David Harvey has described as “accumulation through dispossession.”59 In other words, rather than productive growth, wealth has been transferred from the poor to the rich through the sweeping abolition of redistributive mechanisms. Migration is not a choice as much as a survival mechanism induced by crisis, one that benefits economic interests on both sides of the border.

Why migrant labor is profitable

Capitalists rely on borders as a means to regulate and restrict the movement of labor, a rule that is not applied equally to the flow of capital. Through the manipulation of immigration policy labor can be stratified on the basis of nationality, creating special categories of workers that are denied access to democratic rights. By disassociating the factors that cause migration from the act of migration, capitalists attempt to absolve themselves of any culpability and take advantage of the vulnerability of a desperate group of workers.

The act of migration is criminalized not to halt the flow of labor, but to control its flow, and to ensure that migrant labor remains cheap and pliant. That doesn’t mean that the politics of immigration law correspond exactly with the changing needs of capital. In any case, even restrictive immigration laws can be gotten around when necessary for the employers. As Ronald Reagan once publicly declared, “No regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters.”60 He later went on to lead the charge for border militarization when the political winds shifted.

Migrant workers are a select group, requiring physical capabilities that allow them to withstand the rigors of precarious and demanding journeys in order to reach worksites, not to mention the demanding physical labor of the work itself. Migrants tend to be of prime working age, with over half of all migrants between the ages of 18 and 29, making it the youngest and most productive section of the workforce.61 In addition, the initial costs associated with the reproduction of these laborers—the food, shelter, education, and health care required to raise a child into a worker—are incurred by the family (and to a lesser extent the state) from which they emigrate. The migrants and their families also absorb the high costs associated with migration.62

Once in the country, the wages of migrant workers are spent not only in the local economy, but a large portion is remitted to Mexico, providing hard currency for the Mexican government and much-needed funds for families back home. In 2006, Mexican immigrants repatriated an astounding $24 billion.63 Not only has this infusion of wealth overtaken tourism to become the nation’s second-biggest source of foreign income (after oil), it now acts as a replacement fund for the fading state welfare system for poor Mexicans. The Mexican government has precipitously decreased the share of national wealth allocated for social spending, as part of the restructuring process, to a mere 10 percent of gross domestic product.64 According to a recent survey, at least four million families are now sustained by remittances from loved ones in the U.S., and at least one-third of them would live in poverty without the cash lifelines.65 Remittances are also a lifeline to the Mexican federal government, as they provide “international reserves to the central bank that serve to maintain the relative stability of the peso in relation to the dollar, that is to say, [they help] prevent devaluation.”66

The Mexican government has fallen in line with support for a permanent guest-worker program in the United States. A formalized labor importation system designed to absorb displaced workers within the region contributes to the economic and political stability of Mexico. President Felipe Calderón’s immigration policies within Mexico dovetail with Bush’s; he has his own plans to militarize Mexico’s southern border, which are considered too “porous,” and to implement a formal guest-worker program for Central American migrants, as part of a plan to control labor migration both to and through Mexico.67

U.S. banks, cashing in on immigrant workers in the through fees on accounts and money transfers, now own a majority of Mexican banks. By 2000, U.S. financial corporations owned twenty-four of Mexico’s thirty banks.68 As of 2005, foreign investors (mostly from the U.S.) had a 90 percent controlling share of Mexico’s financial institutions. With the boom in remittances (thought to total nearly $100 billion during the presidency of Vicente Fox), coupled with gradual deregulatory practices initiated since the last “bailout” of 1995, investors can now expect about a 20 percent rate of return from Mexican banks.69

The high productivity and low wages of non-citizen laborers also fits into the context of increasing global competition, and the intensive efforts of the U.S. government to actively aid corporations in the procurement of labor laws that bestow optimal comparative advantage. Since 2000, U.S. productivity rates have risen markedly higher than their European Union counterparts, fueled by the fact that U.S.-based workers (citizen and non-citizen) are working harder and longer for the same or less pay. According to the Economist, the weekly real wage of a typical American worker dropped or stagnated between 2001 and 2006, while labor productivity increased by 15 percent over the same period.70 Taking advantage of disempowered workers is part of the same general strategy to lower the standard of living for all workers.

Further militarization of immigration policy

The bipartisan “war on terror,” a comprehensive plan to expand and project military power to advance corporate interests around the globe, has been turned inward through the aegis of immigration policy. Pentagon planners and defense industry pitchmen have been able to successfully recast traditional, economic immigration as a national security threat, leading to the increased militarization of the border and of labor itself. To centralize efforts, immigration enforcement agencies and national security “first-responders” have been merged into the Department of Homeland Security.

While entrusted to contain “domestic terrorism,” the agency has directed its energies toward undocumented workers. Despite the fact that researchers have concluded that as a group “undocumented workers are statistically less likely than native-born Americans to commit crimes,” they have received all the focus.71 A May 2007 study released by Syracuse University has concluded “that out of more than 800,000 cases filed in federal courts by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) since 2004, only twelve were related to terrorism. Another 112 cases were filed using national security charges.” All told, about 87 percent of those charged were undocumented workers and students. The report concluded,

Despite the repeated statement by the DHS that stopping terrorism and preventing serious crime are its core missions, the record shows that since the DHS was established in the wake of 9/11/2001, most of the agency’s actual work recorded in the Immigration Courts has focused on traditional immigration matters.

The numbers of charges associated with “national security” and “terrorism” have actually dropped since the creation of the DHS.
For fiscal years 1994 to 1996, national security charges made up 0.031 percent of all immigration charges. For fiscal 2004 to 2006, such cases represented 0.014 percent. Regarding terrorism charges, the percentage of cases filed represented 0.009 percent during fiscal years 1994–1996. A decade later, that percentage also dropped to 0.0015 percent.72

The latest stage of border militarization is embodied in the “Secure Border Initiative,” which has augmented previous strategies73 with increases in the number of agents and personnel, detention facilities, military technology, and the deployment of 6,000 National Guard troops.74 In the fall of 2006, the U.S. Congress approved the construction of another 700 miles of border wall to consummate the far Right’s cry for one barrier across the contiguous 1,970 miles shared by the two countries. On the other hand, Republican immigration hawks in the Senate Homeland Security Committee are working feverishly to stall and subvert the implementation of parallel border enforcement policies with Canada. Perhaps unaware that the number of Mexican workers, shoppers, and relatives who legally cross the border each day dwarfs the number of both U.S. and Canadian crossers, Republican Senator Susan Collins complained that “for many Maine residents, quick and easy border crossing is essential…. They need access to vital services, travel to their jobs, attend church, and visit family and friends.”75

Along the Mexican side, this policy has forced people to cross the border through dangerously remote and hazardous regions in deserts and mountainous terrain, or into the equally dangerous underworld of human smuggling—through ports of entry in container cargo. This strategy has created a human rights tragedy, as more than 4,000 men, women, and children have died in the act of looking for work. In fact, there is a grisly correlation between the increased funding of this strategy and the dramatic increase in deaths. Funding for border enforcement has increased from $1.3 billion in 1994 to $7.3 billion in 2005. Over that same period of time, the yearly number of deaths has mushroomed from 23 to 473.76 Yet, unauthorized crossing rates have remained relatively constant since 1995, indicating that the forces pushing the flow of migration are more profound than the barriers seeking to arrest it.77

The focus on the border as the last line of “national defense” has ushered in a new boom in spending. According to Pacifica radio host and author Deepa Fernandes, spending on “national defense projects” has skyrocketed, from $13 billion in 2000 to more than $50 billion in 2006, a 300 percent increase.78 Contracts for border spending have attracted a swarm of defense sector lobbyists, eager to cash in. In 2003, over 490 firms employed 2,260 lobbyists specifically for the task of influencing the outcomes of homeland security-related policy (four times more than defense-related legislation); 82 percent of lobbyists were government officials targeting their former agency or government office.79

While engineers build up the border wall, recent migration rates have dipped in the first quarter of 2007, but not because of more wall construction efforts. Staying true to the law of economics—and not politics—border crossings have declined by 30 percent in 2006 due to the cooling U.S. economy. While the Bush administration is already taking credit, economists have identified that fewer jobs, especially in the long-booming construction industry are the real reason. Dawn McLaren, a research economist at Arizona State’s School of Business, has been tracking the relation between employment trends and migration over the last decade. Her studies have identified that every time border apprehensions have declined, the economy slowed about twelve months later. “About a year before a recession, or a down cycle, there was a slowdown in the number of arrests” on the border, she concluded.80 Fewer people cross because immigrants quickly discover through the grapevine that jobs are becoming scarce. The border doesn’t really prevent migration, it only serves to criminalize it.

Inside the country, migrant workers have been subjected to an extensive campaign of repression in the wake of the May 1, 2006, mass immigrant rights protests. A seemingly arbitrary campaign of raids has been conducted across the country in workplaces and communities populated with immigrant workers. Paramilitary in nature, with names like Operation Return to Sender and the National Fugitive Operations Program, more than 200,000 people have been deported to date, with the stated goal of the expulsion of over 600,000 people overall in the coming years.81

These sweeps, allegedly to round up immigrants who are “criminal aliens” and those who have received deportation orders, have mostly netted laborers using false working papers and collateral arrests, those who have committed no crime but were apprehended in the course of the raids and sweeps.82 The campaign to raid, detain, and deport some immigrants is designed to instill fear in the immigrant community. The practice fits the definition of state terrorism.83

The federal government’s campaign against undocumented workers is not aimed at deporting all undocumented immigrants. In addition to being red meat to appease the far Right, the raids dovetail with Bush’s plans to transform future migrants from “undocumented” (with limited freedom of movement, membership in unions, and permanent residence) to “guest workers” (with no freedom of movement, right to join unions, or permanent residence). The aim is to create a class of powerless and subservient laborers and to leverage their poor conditions to drive down conditions for all workers.

Guest workers: The new Jim Crow

Guest workers are attractive to big business because they are unfree labor. Their restricted and temporary status makes them a captive workforce, precluded from legally exercising proven forms of leverage used to negotiate better conditions of work. They cannot move freely between jobs, join unions, or participate in work stoppages. They cannot protest, register their discontent through voting, or utilize any other tools that the working class has historically employed to raise wages and improve their lives under capitalism. Under the guest-worker program (whether blue or white collar), workers are bound to their employer, who retains the right to terminate the contract—their job—at will. This makes their presence subject to the whims of their bosses, who can take advantage of their vulnerability to ensure passive compliance.

Keeping workers pinned under these conditions ensures a maximum rate of exploitation. As guest workers affect the whole structure of an industry and can affect competition between businesses, employers in key industries come to “largely rely upon the extraordinarily vulnerable guest workers for the bulk of [their] labor, [which creates] a race to the bottom in terms of wages to be paid.”84

According to a recent study of contemporary guest-worker programs conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center in March 2007,

Under the current system, called the H-2 program, employers brought about 121,000 guest workers into the United States in 2005—approximately 32,000 for agricultural work and another 89,000 for jobs in forestry, seafood processing, landscaping, construction, and other non-agricultural industries.85

The report enumerates the negative features of the program that hurt both immigrant and native-born workers:
• The demand for extortive fees from potential guest workers, since they must be offered work by a U.S. company and are recruited by “contractors” in the sending nations;

• The relation of power by which employers—not the worker—decides whether a worker can come and whether a worker can stay. At any time the employer can terminate the contract, thus nullifying the right of the worker to remain in the country, rendering them “illegal”;

• The inability to address grievances against abuse or fraud (except to terminate the contract and return to their home country);

• Lack of protections for guest workers from local law enforcement;

• The use of “blacklists” to isolate and remove workers who speak out against bad conditions or engage in any form of collective organizing. For instance, the North Carolina Growers Association circulated an “ineligible for rehire” report in 1997 that listed more than 1,000 names of “undesirable” guest workers;

• The manipulation of the rate of work, including underemployment and the denial of overtime;

• Lack of access to federally funded legal services;

• Dramatically high rates of sexual harassment and sexual abuse;

• Higher rates of accidents and poorer working conditions in “guest-worker industries.”

The new corporate preference for guest workers over undocumented workers is reflected in the fact that the latter have had the ability to leave exploitative jobs and join unions. Despite their vulnerable status, they have proven themselves potential lightning rods of trade-union resurgence, “as UNITE has found with laundry workers nationwide, the Roofers Union with home-construction workers in Arizona, Laborers with asbestos remediation workers in New York and New Jersey, and SEIU with its Justice for Janitors campaign.”86

Current guest-worker proposals seek to extend captive labor into industries across the economy. Looking at current pro-guest-worker program organizations reveal the forces behind the effort. The Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, an executive committee of U.S. manufacturing and service industries that rely on immigrant labor, “supports reform of U.S. immigration policy to facilitate a sustainable workforce for the American economy while ensuring our national security and prosperity.”87

If the defenders of corporate interests have locked arms to defile the concept of amnesty, there is good reason. The last amnesty led to an increase in wages for all workers. According to the San Diego Union Tribune,

History shows that wages rise after undocumented workers are legalized, as they did after the government offered amnesty to 2.7 million undocumented workers in 1986. Within five years, real wages of formerly undocumented workers rose an average of 15 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Wages for many of the jobs had been declining prior to legalization. Wages would also rise for native-born workers or legal immigrants who work in similar jobs. A University of California Los Angeles study five years ago estimated that if undocumented workers were legalized, wages for all workers would rise by about 5 percent in agriculture, 2.75 percent in services and 2.5 percent in manufacturing.88

The anti-union bias has penetrated the heart of current U.S. immigration enforcement. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Hoffman Plastic Compounds v. NLRB case that undocumented workers who are fired for union activities are not entitled to be reinstated or to back pay (under the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act) if they are without papers, even if their firing is itself illegal.89 According to the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund the case has

encouraged unscrupulous employers to engage in retaliation against unauthorized workers who claim violations of their workplace rights, and to make more claims that these workers are unprotected by any labor laws. This in turn has a chilling effect on workers’ enforcement of their remaining workplace rights. Court rulings that diminish protections for the undocumented encourage employers to hire and take advantage of undocumented workers, undermining immigration law enforcement. Finally, employers who would follow the labor and employment laws are harmed when their competitors are allowed to flout the law without suffering consequences.90
The state’s escalating role as anti-union enforcers in the immigrant working class became all too apparent in the massive raids at the Swift & Company meatpacking plants in December 2006. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency virtually shut the unionized meatpacker down, arresting 1,282 workers, all of them with Spanish and indigenous surnames. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents 10,000 workers in the company declared that ICE agents “marched into plants with military weapons, herding, segregating, and terrorizing workers” in an attempt to prevent further organizing.91

One doesn’t need to look beyond the nearest roadside farm to see the predatory consequences of guest-worker programs. After failed attempts to unionize guest workers during the era of the Bracero Program, labor activist Ernesto Galarza observed that employer opposition backed by the active support of local and federal authorities rendered any claim that temporary workers had rights or protections “meaningless language.”92 The long-term effects of any new program will be the same, albeit beyond the fields. Such a program will lower the wage threshold across all productive industries, and leverage captive labor against unionized workers, a phenomenon referred to as the “Bracero benchmark,” as wages in farmwork deteriorated to below the levels that existed prior to the introduction of the program.93

In the final analysis, the pursuit of a new, expanded guest-worker program is the outgrowth of Corporate America’s efforts to press forward with the neoliberal restructuring of North American capitalism. A major component of this strategy is the restructuring of the U.S. labor markets, or more pointedly, a continuation of the war on unions and the living standards of North American workers. Along with union-busting law firms, two-tiered employment schemes, victimization of union organizers, and outsourcing of union jobs, the guest-worker strategy is the next front of the “employer’s offensive.” This stark reality has been recognized by some in the labor movement, but tragically, organized resistance remains tepid at best. Nevertheless, the AFL-CIO has identified that,

Such a system will create a disenfranchised underclass of workers. That is not only morally indefensible, it is economically nonsensical. We’ve had plenty of bad experiences with such shortsighted answers to a complicated problem…. This means that everyone who is admitted to work must immediately be on a track toward permanent residency or citizenship.94

Rather than accept the corporate diktats embodied in the current immigration proposal, a whole new vision for immigration reform is needed.

Another vision for immigration in the twenty-first century

The rapid erosion of the conditions of life for undocumented migrants in the United States poses a threat to the basic human rights of all peoples. The freedom to move, work, and live—free of harassment, violence, and privation—is diminishing for an increasing sector of working America, which will ultimately lower the bar for the rest. In different form but similar content, this regressive course is reviving elements of the most insidious and discredited labor systems of the past.

An alternative vision for immigration is desperately needed; one based on the international realities created by the ascendancy of neoliberal capitalism. Capitalist globalization amounts to the creation of a borderless world for capital, “nothing more than internal transfers from one division of a U.S.-based transnational corporation to another division,” but relies on the use of border walls and restrictive policies to curtail the movement of workers and to prevent the creation of a transnational workforce capable of organizing across borders.95 According to Beatriz Maya, director of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC, AFL-CIO) immigrant rights campaign,

What is the message we want to give to Latin America? That we need them to come to work but we don’t want them to stay and be a part of this community? The U.S. will be host to millions of workers who would form a permanent, even if rotating, underclass of people who have no rights and no path to citizenship. We propose the development of a Freedom Visa, with freedom to travel and work with full rights and dignity for all workers.96

As North American capitalism expands its control over the Americas, the conditions for all workers will continue to erode unless we fight for our own globalization, the right to free movement for all workers, without border walls. This is a precondition for the solidarity that will be required to fight the corporate agenda embedded in NAFTA and other free-trade policies. Furthermore, U.S.-born workers must fight for full equality and integration of immigrant workers in this country as a precondition for rebuilding the trade-union movement, and achieving any form of social justice in the years to come.

In the United States, the ongoing struggle over immigration reveals the widening class divide in U.S. society, and holds the future for all working people in the balance. Corporate America is gearing up for a long and bitter struggle. So should those who stand for equality and justice. The mass movement born out of the May Day marches of 2006 and 2007 has given us a different vision—one worth fighting for.

Justin Akers Chacón is co-author, with Mike Davis, of No One Is Illegal: Fighting Violence and State Repression on the U.S.-Mexico Border (Haymarket Books, 2006), and is a frequent contributor to the ISR on immigrant rights.

1 Such as the House bill H.R. 1645 (STRIVE Act) and the pending Senate Immigration Proposal (referred to as the “Grand Bargain”).

2 Cited in David Bacon, “The real political purpose of the ICE raids,” New American Media, March 30, 2007.

3 Such as in “welfare reform,” or “tax reform.”

4 “Kennedy response to Bush’s immigration speech,” press release, April 8, 2007,

5 Kelly Hearn, “Chávez a step behind Bush’s Latin tour,” Washington Times, March 13, 2007.

6 David Brooks, “Bush se suma a ‘la causa de la justicia social’ en América Latina,” La Jornada, March 6, 2007.

7 David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 162.

8 From a World Bank study, “Inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean: Breaking with History?” October 7, 2003.http://

9 Roberto Gonzalez Amador and David Brooks, “México, el mayor expulsor de migrantes del planeta, dice el BM,” La Jornada, April 16, 2007.

10 For a comprehensive explanation of neoliberalism, see Eric Toussaint, Your Money or Your Life: The Tyranny of Global Finance (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005).

11 See NAFTA Text, Including Supplemental Agreements, (Chicago: CCH Publishing ,1994).

12 “Immigration fuels Canada’s growth,” Guardian, March 14, 2007.

13 Elisabeth Smick, “Backgrounder on Canada’s immigration policy,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 6, 2006.

14 It is estimated that the border wall will cost $7 billion while the “smart border,” will run up to $30 billion. See Andres Oppenheimer, “Better uses for border fence money,” Miami Herald, November 25, 2006.

15 Southern Poverty Law Center, “Close to slavery: Guest-worker programs in the United States,” March 2007.

16 Julia Preston, “Rules collide with reality in the immigration debate,” New York Times, May 26, 2006.

17 Martha Ojeda and Rosemary Hennessy eds., NAFTA from Below: Maquiladora Workers, Farmers and Indigenous Communities Speak Out on the Impact of Free Trade in Mexico (San Antonio: Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, 2006).

18 Joseph A. Whitt, Jr., “The Mexican peso crisis,” Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta,


19 Jorge G. Castañeda, The Mexican Shock: Its Meaning for the U.S. (New York: The New Press, 1995), 199.

20 Harvey, 101.

21 Elisabeth Malkin, “Output falling in oil-rich Mexico, and politics gets the blame,” International Herald Tribune, March 9, 2007.

22 Marla Dickerson, “Mexico’s stubborn lack of choices,” Los Angeles Times, April 16, 2006.

23 Luis Rojas, “Foreign investment in Mexico up 66 pct in 1st qtr,” Reuters, May 23, 2007.

24 “In Mexico, 1Q direct foreign investment jumps by 66 percent over same period last year,” San Diego Union Tribune, May 23, 2007.

25 Diane Lindquist, “Maquiladora industry is resilient, expert says,” San Diego Union Tribune, January 28, 2006.

26 “International trade: Mexico’s maquiladora decline affects U.S.-Mexico border communities and trade; Recovery depends in part on Mexico’s actions,” U.S. General Accounting Office Report, July 2003.

27 Jesus Cañas, Roberto Coronado, and Robert W. Gilmer, “Maquiladora recovery: Lessons for the future,” Southwest Economy, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, March/April 2007.

28 David Hendricks, “Global Eepansion: Industrial parks bring manufacturing back to Mexico,” April 12, 2007,

29 “TNCs stand firm despite FDI slide,” Foreign Direct Investment, October 20, 2004.

30 Brian Chasnoff, “Profit and poverty: Mexico’s maquiladoras,” Daily Texan Online, February 2, 2004.

31 Based on a 2001 study produced by the San Diego Dialogue, a cross-border research group based at the University of California, San Diego,

32 Ojeda and Hennessy, 6.

33 Sanjay Suri, “Free trade enslaving poor countries,” IPS News, March 20, 2007.

34 Ojeda and Hennessy, 4–5.

35 Kim Moody, “Harvest of empire: Immigrant workers in the U.S. pt.1,” Against the Current, March/April 2007, 12.

36 Patricia Muñoz Rios, “Salarios en Mexico, entre los peores del mundo,” La Jornada, February 8, 2006.

37 U.S. General Accounting Office Report, 24.

38 See Wal-Mart’s Web site at

39 “Wal-Mart’s Mexican empire steadily advances,” Frontera NorteSur (FNS) Online, Center for Latin American and Border Studies, New Mexico State University, May 9, 2007,

40 Elisabeth Malkin, “World business briefing Americas: Mexico, economic growth surges,” New York Times, February 17, 2005.

41 Tyche Hendricks, “On the border, maquiladoras,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 25, 2005.

42 Louis Uchitelle, “NAFTA should have stopped illegal immigration, right?” New York Times, February 18, 2007.

43 “Youth migration on the rise,” FNS Online, January 10, 2006,


44 Gina-Marie Cheeseman, “Free trade agreements spur immigration,”, March 15, 2007.

45 See Marla Dickenson, “49 billion is Slim’s pickings in Mexico,” Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2007,


46 Based on a speech given by Garrett Brown at the Immigrant

Workers in Construction Conference, Center to Protect Workers’ Rights, Sacramento, California, April 12, 2007,

47 Martín Vargas, “Chiapas vapuleado por la migración,” Cuatro Poder (a Chiapas-based newspaper), March 20, 2007.

48 Because wages have been so depressed in the maquiladora sector, most able-bodied migrants with enough money to cover smuggling fees, prefer to cross into the U.S., creating periodic labor shortages in the maquiladora zones.

49 León Bendesky, “Economía de la migración,” La Jornada, May 28, 2007.

50 See Jonathon Clark, “Unemployment statistics don’t tell the real story in Mexico,” Miami Herald (Mexico Edition), June 11, 2005.

51 Brown.

52 “New deportation numbers quoted,” FNS Online, April 7, 2006,

53 S. Lynne Walker, “Flow of money from Mexicans in the U.S. counters pressure to control migration,” San Diego Union Tribune, February 7, 2006.

54 Shannon O’Neil, “Will we have enough workers?” Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2007.

55 Jennifer Cheeseman Day, “National population projections,” U.S. Census Bureau,

56 Phillip Longman, The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 18.

57 Juan Balboa, “En el sexenio foxista, 3.4 millones de mexicanos expulsados a EU,” La Jornada, April 3, 2007.

58 See Mike Davis and Justin Akers Chacón, No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006).

59 Harvey, 159.

60 Fareed Zakaria, “America’s new Know-Nothings,” Newsweek, May 28, 2007.

61 “Survey of Mexican migrants,” Pew Hispanic Center, March 2, 2005,

62 “Pew Hispanic Center Report: Unemployment plays small role in spurring Mexican migration to U.S.,” Pew Hispanic Center,

December 6, 2005,

63 “Banks leap across borders,” FNS Online, November 21, 2006, banks.htm.

64 “Mexico’s urban poor work harder for less,” World Bank, August 27, 2005,

65 Walker, “Flow of money.”

66 Bendesky, “Economía de la migración.”

67 “Calderón reveals Mexico’s new immigration reforms,” Associated Press, March 2, 2007.

68 Cited in Harvey, 103.

69 “Banks leap across borders,” FNS Online, November 21, 2006.

70 “More pain than gain: Many workers are missing out on the rewards of globalization,” Economist, September 16, 2006.

71 Sebastian Mallaby, “The low risk from immigrants: Off-target priorities for homeland defense,” Washington Post, May 28, 2007.

72 Norberto Santana, Jr. “Report questions DHS focus on immigration,” Orange County Register, May 28, 2007.

73 See Justin Akers Chacón, “Operation Gatekeeper: Militarizing the border,” International Socialist Review 18, June–July 2001.

74 “Fact sheet: Secure border initiative update,” Department of Homeland Security, August 23, 2006,

75 Chris Strohm, “Senators offer bill to delay security rules for Canadian border,” National Journal’s Technology Daily, May 29, 2007. For a discussion of the number of daily border crossers, see “International trade: Mexico’s maquiladora decline affects U.S.-Mexico border communities and trade; recovery depends in part on Mexico’s actions,” U.S. General Accounting Office, July 2003,


76 See “Life and death on the border,” Socialist Worker,

77 Spencer S. Hsu, “Immigration arrests down 8 percent for year,” Washington Post, October 31, 2006.

78 Deepa Fernandes, Targeted: Homeland Security and the Business of Immigration (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007), 174.

79 Ibid., 179.

80 Seattle Times news services, “Illegal crossings echo U.S. economic health,” May 29, 2007.

81 See Department of Homeland Security, “An assessment of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s fugitive operations teams,” March 5, 2007,


82 An estimated one-third of arrests are “collateral.” See Sandra Dibble, “Religious leaders want end to raids’ ‘collateral arrests,’” San Diego Union Tribune, April 6, 2007.

83 For an interesting analysis of terrorism, see “The definition of terrorism,” Guardian, May 7, 2001.

84 “Close to slavery: Guest worker programs in the United States,” Southern Poverty Law Center,, 20.

85 Ibid., 3.

86 David Moberg, “The road to citizenship: Immigrants and unions get on the same bus,” In These Times, September 9, 2003.

87 See Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, For white-collar workers, see

88 Dean Calbreath, “Undocumented workers carry big stick,” San Diego Union Tribune, September 5, 2006.

89 See Sharon Smith, “Why an injury to one is an injury to all,” Socialist Worker, May 4, 2007.

90 “Used and abused: The treatment of undocumented victims of labor law violations since Hoffman Plastic Compounds v. NLRB,” Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, January 2003.

91 “UFCW condemns immigration raid,” Press Associates, December 22, 2006.

92 Ernesto Galarza, Merchants of Labor: The Mexican Bracero Story (Santa Barbara: McNally and Lofton, 1964), 24.

93 Davis and Akers Chacón,143.

94 John J. Sweeney and Pablo Alvarado, “Guest workers: a worn-out labor idea,” Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2007.

95 Brown.

96 “Bush’s proposal encouraging but falls short,” Farm Labor Organizing Committee, May 17, 006,


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