Frontline volume 2, issue 1.
Hispanic America Stands Up
Alister Black looks at the new mass movement of immigrant workers that has taken to the streets in the USA this year.
May Day was born in the USA with the sacrifice of the Haymarket martyrs. For the past few decades May 1st has not been associated with struggle or with the radical movement. But something changed on May 1st 2006. A new movement took to the streets in a nationwide action that involved millions of the most oppressed Americans, both from the USA and the rest of the continent.
That movement consisted of immigrants and their families, legal and illegal, and overwhelmingly Hispanic. It consisted of their friends, neighbours and workmates. It consisted of churches, unions and community organisations. Amongst those on the streets it was an overwhelmingly working class movement.
The movement came together to oppose a new piece of legislation emanating from the Republican Party. Under this legislation all illegal immigrants would be declared felons. Those employing illegal immigrants would face stiff fines. Those (like many community groups, charities and churches in the US) who offer shelter or humanitarian aid could face up to five years in jail.1 In addition border security would be radically stepped up. It was a reactionary piece of legislation (actually it took a more progressive proposal from the Democrats and amended it into its opposite.) It sought to appeal to the most right-wing sector of Republican support. People like the ‘minutemen’ a group of armed volunteers who patrol the US border with Mexico hoping to catch poor Mexicans trying to illegally enter the US.
For millions of Hispanics in the US this legislation was the final insult. Illegal immigrants into the USA are the backbone of the economy. They do the jobs that most US citizens simply don’t want to do for wages they would not get out of bed for. It is estimated the eleven million illegal immigrants live and work in the US. In many sectors of the economy they are indispensable. Around a quarter of agricultural workers are illegal immigrants. The cleaning, construction and food services industries also employ very large numbers of immigrant workers. They are estimated to generate up to $1.2 billion PER DAY for the US economy.
Bosses organisation the American Farm Bureau Federation said a crackdown on illegal immigrant labor could cause production losses in U.S. agriculture of $5 billion to $9 billion in the first one to three years and up to $12 billion over four or more years.2
To get to those jobs, poor Latino workers take big risks. Rights groups say that 500 people died making the border crossing in 2005.
Illegal immigrants cannot send their children to state schools. They cannot obtain driving licenses or any kind of basic health care or welfare services. Of course, they cannot vote. They are essential to the US economy but are treated as invisible. They generate enormous wealth and profits, yet they are persecuted.
Organisers had held a series of protests. The first demos had taken everyone by surprise when half a million marched through Chicago. The movement took hold throughout the areas in the US where immigration is highest, not coincidentally these are also the most important areas for the economy.
Grassroots groups, against the wishes of some protest leaders, called for an immigrant strike – termed ‘a day without immigrants’. It would show the power of the immigrant community. Workers were to stay away from work, businesses were to close, students were to walk out of class. That day was May 1st.
And so on Mayday in the USA millions took to the streets. In Los Angeles a huge throng of a million demonstrators protested. I watched in San Jose California as 100, 000 marched through the streets. Restaurants and businesses were closed. Demonstrators waved placards and many waved the flags of their home nations. But overwhelmingly they waved the stars and stripes, a symbol of their desire for citizenship, for equality and for civil rights.
Indeed the mood evoked for many the spirit of the black civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Demonstrators chanted “La Raza Unido, jamás será vencido!’” and “Sí Se Puede – yes we can. For the first time on a mass scale Hispanic people in the US were feeling their power. Crucially they were feeling their collective economic power as workers.
Banners and placards read “I’m a worker, not a criminal” and “today we march, tomorrow we vote”. Major meat packing plants closed and agricultural sites were idle as workers joined the action. The LA Times reported that normally busy Hispanic business and shopping areas resembled ghost-towns.
Unsurprisingly, many sectors of big business are also not too happy about the proposed reforms. Economist Mark Zandi told the San Jose Mercury News “If illegal immigration came to a standstill it would disrupt the economy. It would lead to higher prices for many goods and services, and some things literally would not get done. It would be a major adjustment for our economy, for sure.”3
Big sections of the Republican Party are also getting cold feet about the reforms. Hispanic people in the US are looked to as a potentially powerful base for the ‘grand old party’. With most coming from a catholic faith background they are seen as being naturally socially conservative. Some Republicans are seeing votes trickling away before their eyes. This was reflected in Bush’s address to the nation on May 16th where he described immigrants as “decent people who work hard, support their families, practise their faith, and lead responsible lives”.
Bush also announced a crackdown on the borders, with thousands of national guards to be deployed to improve security. He balanced that with new solutions to enable immigrants to get citizenship. The crackdown is an easy step to take. It makes Bush look tough, plays up to the ‘minuteman’ constituency, but is also likely to be completely ineffective. As long as there are jobs in the USA, and employers willing to employ illegal immigrants, poor latino’s will risk their lives to get to them.
It also failed to make much impact on the voters with President Bush hitting his lowest poll ratings yet. Polls following his speech on immigration suggested that Bush had become a ‘lame duck’ President. The issues that voters were concerned about were Iraq and immigration. The issue is splitting the Republicans between big business who favour relaxing immigration rules to keep the flow of cheap labour coming, and the right-wing rank and file who raise the spectre of wages for native (white) workers being pushed down, job losses and crime.
Although support for the immigrants campaign has begun to pick up among the black population, there are also those who see the influx of Hispanic workers as a threat. A few black activists have complained that using the imagery of slavery and raising the memory of their civil rights struggle, trivialises that struggle. Some black politicians fear the erosion of their electoral base. More significantly some black workers also fear being out-competed on wages and ending up on the bottom of the social heap once again. Despite this, a Californian poll showed 82% of blacks backing the right of immigrants to become citizens.4
Race remains a major dividing factor amongst the US working class. Up to 60 percent of rank and file union members still perceive immigrants as a threat to their jobs and a drag on wages.5
The labour movement has played a key role in some areas organising the protests. The challenge it has now is to fight for unity between immigrant workers and native workers. It needs to clearly explain that the only way to make wages and conditions better for everyone is to build unity. Hispanic, white and black workers need to see that unity and militancy can mean a better future for all.
Yanira Merino is an immigrant worker from El Salvador and the National Coordinator for Immigration with the Laborers union. Speaking at a recent Labor Notes conference she noted that the biggest influx into the trades unions has come from immigrant workers. Strong unions are good for all workers. She told the conference “No brothers and sisters, we’re not poor immigrants sneaking across the border, we’re fighters! And if you will be with us, we will be with you fighting for the rights of workers, the rights of immigrants and the rights of human beings!”6
Some components of the movement have now begun to talk sympathetically about a compromise deal in the Senate that would split immigrant workers into 3 categories. The deal would mean that illegal immigrants would not be classed as felons, and that big business would still have a pool of ‘guest workers’ to draw on. Citizenship would come for some after a lengthy process. This is a long way short of the amnesty that the movement had fought for and would still mean big increases in funding for the inspectors of ‘la migra’ hunting for illegals. Additionally the proposals play up to the ‘law and order’ fears of the right, with anyone believed to be in a gang being deported, even if not convicted of any crime.
If the movement can maintain a united and militant strategy it can win a lot more than this compromise. The immigrant movement has shown the way with an imaginative campaign that has mobilised millions. They need to be the lead for the entire class in the USA. P
- Time Magazine, April 10th 2006
- Reuters, April 26th 2006
- San Jose Mercury News, May 2nd 2006
- Socialist Worker (US), May 19th 2006
- Labor Notes conference May 10th 2006