Some of us are ’illegal’ and some are not wanted.
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on.
It’s six hundred miles to that Mexican border.
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita.
Adiós mis amigos, Jesús y Maria.
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane.
All they will call you will be
— Woody Guthrie
America’s best-known and best-loved proletarian troubadour penned and sang those words in the late 1940s, chronicling the plight of Mexican workers selling their labour power for a pittance in the fruit orchards, vineyards and lettuce fields of California, all the while hounded as ‘illegals’ by the same capitalist class that was reaping superprofits from their underpaid and back-breaking toil.
In qualitative terms, little has really changed since then, despite a militant, sustained and genuinely heroic organising drive by the United Farm Workers’ union towards the end of the 1960s and into the ’70s. Scores of agricultural workers and union activists were imprisoned, beaten up or lost their lives in that epic class struggle and the farm bosses were ultimately forced to recognise the UFW, but only for those with papers.
US capital has continued to benefit from the fact that the ‘illegals’ – generally referred to in progressive American circles as ‘undocumented workers’ – can be paid well below the minimum wage under threat of expulsion from the country.
At the same time, expulsion is more than just a threat. Despite their thirst for cheap labour, the monopoly capitalists and their state have been prepared to placate the reactionary anti-immigrant prejudices of petit-bourgeois ‘middle America’ by conducting periodic round-ups and deportations of foreign labourers, in the agricultural sector and beyond, who have been found not to have work or residency permits.
After all, with an estimated 12 million undocumented workers living in the United States, there is no dearth of people to replace those slung out of the place. Hypocrisy? Yes. Cynicism? Certainly. The normal and expected behaviour of a class whose very existence depends on sucking the blood of others? Definitely.
The attentive reader will notice that we’ve begun talking of ‘foreign’, rather than just Mexican, undocumented workers here. That’s because the situation also affects Puerto Ricans in New York, the Chinese in San Francisco, Koreans in Los Angeles, Poles in Chicago … and the list goes on. The only group of undocumented workers seemingly immune from state persecution have been the gusanos [worms], the Cubans of Miami, whose treason against their socialist homeland must be seen to be rewarded by a grateful Uncle Sam.
Traditionally, most ‘illegal’ immigrants have, for obvious reasons, been reluctant to stick their heads above the parapet. Why, then, have the last weeks and months seen an unprecedented display of publicly-expressed anger and coordinated struggle involving literally millions of undocumented workers and their allies and supporters?
The answer is to be found in a draconian piece of legislation currently working its way through the US Congress – HR 4437 or, to name it after the quasi-fascist Republican congressman who introduced it, the Sensenbrenner Bill.
As Proletarian went to press it was not yet clear whether this bill, which originated in the [lower] House of Representatives, was going to be ratified by the [upper] Senate. A slightly less all-encompassing alternative was being considered by legislators from the more liberal, East Coast, “old money” sections of the ruling class, led by surviving Kennedy brother Senator Ted.
Both houses of congress, roughly equivalent to the British bourgeoisie’s Commons and Lords, have to vote in favour of any new legislation. Then the president must sign it into law, and no doubt George W Bush (who, in his former role as Texas governor, consigned 20 times more Hispanics than whites to death row – without even broaching the subject of African-Americans!) has been practising how to spell his name just for this auspicious occasion.
If brought into law, HR 4437, officially named the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Bill, will have a number of effects – all of them thoroughly reactionary.
It will make all undocumented workers ‘felons’, the highest category of criminal in the US judicial system, on a par with murderers, kidnappers and rapists — but not the perpetrators of imperialist genocide in Iraq and elsewhere, who somehow seem to have escaped classification by the Justice Department. The bill will accord this same criminal status to any teachers, clergy, trade unionists, social workers and even family members who work with ‘illegals’. Rather than just being chucked out of the US as before, traumatic enough in itself, undocumented workers will do quite a bit of porridge before being ejected, but at least they’ll have the companionship of their friends sharing a cell with them.
The proposed law will call for a wall to be built along the entire 1,800-mile length of the US-Mexico border. There’s already a fence in most places, but wire-cutters are pretty readily available, even in a Mexico that has been kept poor and underdeveloped by the avarice of US imperialism. The US zionist lobby – who needless to say support the bill to a man — are already wetting themselves with joy at the prospect of the Bush regime replicating Israel’s own illegal barrier in occupied Palestine. Vindication and international credibility at last? We think not!
Heavily-armed National Guard troops, roughly equivalent to the Territorial Army in Britain, will be deployed by each of the US states facing Mexico to complement the existing government-funded thugs of the US Border Patrol, with the net effect of thoroughly militarising the frontier.
And all local and state police forces in US border areas (ie, in southern parts of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas) will be empowered for the first time to arrest anyone they “have reasonable cause to believe” may be without documents. Quite obviously, this will vastly increase the ‘stop and search’ of anyone with a brown skin and scare immigrants away from reporting crimes committed against them.
The term ‘un-American’ was originally coined as part of the US monopoly bourgeoisie’s attack on progressives of all shades during the McCarthyite anti-Communist witchhunts of the 1940s and ’50s. In the context of the unprecedented and ongoing immigrant-led protests against the Sensenbrenner Bill (of which more in the paragraphs that follow), the perceived meaning of this famous expression has been turned on its head.
“Racism and imperialism are un-American”, read placards carried on a demonstration in San Francisco which was justifiably characterised by organisers as “huge, united and in no mood to back down”. And, quoting the words of poet Emma Lazarus inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, a 20-foot high banner in New York screamed: “Give me your tired, your poor, your hungry, yearning to breathe free!”
The mass protests began in the run-up to May Day 2006, with marches held in all of the main US cities plus a never-before-seen number of smaller towns throughout the country.
‘No to the Bill!’, ‘Equality for all Americans!’, ‘General Amnesty for the Undocumented!’ These were – and are – the key slogans characterising what has become a protest movement of enormous proportions.
One of the many great ironies of life in capitalist America is that 1 May is not officially celebrated there and nobody gets the day off. This despite the fact that International Workers’ Day originated in late 19th-century Chicago as part of the militant struggle for an eight-hour day.
In fact, the American bourgeoisie’s ‘Labor Day’ in September was deliberately established as a sop, as a means of distracting the attention of the US proletariat from the significance of May Day and of establishing a ‘tradition’ of eating hotdogs and corn-on-the-cob, and playing American football in the local park – rather than challenging the existing mode of production and actively organising to get rid of it.
This attempted – and hitherto largely successful – indoctrination and pacification notwithstanding, May Day 2006 in America became a non-working day, declared not by the bourgeois state but by the proletariat itself. For the first time, literally millions of working-class people took to the streets.
Irrespective of race, national background or immigration status, workers participated in genuinely mass demonstrations – the largest in Los Angeles at close to 500,000 people – and militant opposition to HR 4437 was the main focus.
Of equal, if not even greater, significance was the accompanying walkout and boycott organised nationally by a more-or-less ad hoc coalition of mainly Latin American immigrant rights groups. Under the slogan ‘A Day Without Immigrants’, foreign-born workers, their families and their supporters showed the US ruling class how much the country’s economy has come to rely on the contribution of immigrant labour and immigrant purchasing power. (“Somos productores; somos consumidores” – We’re producers; we’re consumers.)
And that power, the cooperation of the wage slave without whom capitalism can no longer hope to exist, was extensively withdrawn on 1 May. Immigrant workers took an unofficial day off, ethnic minority and immigrant consumers chose not to go shopping – for anything – and students at all levels (from primary schools to post-graduate university courses) decided that expressing solidarity and building a united front on the street was more important than remaining in the classroom to learn the dates of presidents or work out how to scam their way to an ultimately meaningless master’s degree.
There has also been a symbolically and directly internationalist aspect to the campaign against this new immigration clampdown. The US-Mexican border has been physically closed down twice – once by a sit-down on the part of US protestors and twice by workers on the other side of the frontier, where the threatened use of Molotov cocktails gave pause even to the US Border Patrol.
Of all the domestic US analyses of these recent upheavals, the following is the most worthy of quotation. It comes from Voice of Revolution, journal of the US Marxist-Leninist Organisation:
“Across the United States, workers in their millions took centre stage on May Day, united as one and fighting for rights. A powerful internationalist spirit was felt in these massive actions, in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City and another 60 cities nationwide. … This cannot help but demonstrate the power of the proletariat – brown, black and white, Latino, European and African-American. Harnessed under the leadership and guidance of a Marxist-Leninist party with genuine and growing links to the masses, that power would be magnified a hundredfold. And the issue would no longer be greater or fewer rights within the framework of capitalism; it would be putting proletarian revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat firmly on the historical – and practical – agenda.”