Reinvigorating the struggle for immigrant rights

Juan José Gutiérrez speaking at an street rally in downtown Los Angeles to build for the October 16 immigrant rights march and rally

Photo: Bob Morris

On the eve of the tenth anniversary of the October 1994 mass demonstration in Los Angeles against anti-immigrant attacks, Socialism and Liberation’s Ian Thompson interviewed Juan José Gutiérrez of the immigration rights group Latino Movement USA on the situation facing immigrants and their supporters today.

Q: What is the state of rights for immigrants, both residents and undocumented, as opposed to 20 years ago in light of the enactment of laws such as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, and, most recently, the USA Patriot Act?

IRCA provided some tangible benefit—over 3 million undocumented workers were given amnesty. (1) It was not an all-encompassing immigration reform, but it did help in some ways.

When IRCA was passed, many people in the progressive community attacked it violently because it was purported to be a trap for the undocumented. IRCA required those who wanted to become citizens to enroll in classes to familiarize themselves with English and U.S. history.

It forced millions of undocumented immigrants to learn about U.S. politics. That helps explain why in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a massive explosion of civic involvement by the undocumented.

U.S. government motivations behind IRCA were always clear. In the mid-1980s, the U.S. was projecting a major labor deficit. The U.S. needed more workers to help its economy maintain the prominent role it had been playing for years. Through IRCA, they wanted to secure a new workforce. They were not thinking of the well-being of undocumented immigrants.

Despite these motivations, IRCA added strength to the U.S. working class. It allowed previously undocumented workers to join their brothers and sisters in waging battles to gain rights important to working men and women in this country.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, enacted by Clinton, and the USA Patriot Act were very reactionary laws. These laws made it more difficult for immigrants to regularize their status in the U.S. Now, only a very small percentage of the immigrant population is able to achieve citizenship.

Also, the Patriot Act made it possible for law enforcement to do as they please with immigrants. Arabs, Muslims and South Asians have been heavily repressed and terrorized by this law.

The situation right now for immigrants is as bad as it has ever been.

These laws must be defeated and undone. Progressive people are working hard to turn the tide and win some kind of relief. Winning rights for the most exploited sector of the working class is a worthy short term goal.

Q: What is behind recent attacks on immigrants? What is the real agenda?

The fundamental issue is economics. In attacking immigrants, the economic system in this country is aiming to further exploit the labor of undocumented workers. The main reason we have a border between Mexico and the U.S. is purely economical. Immigrants are denied the most basic social and political rights to exacerbate their level of labor exploitation.

Racism is the other factor behind recent attacks on immigrants. U.S. society has thrived by institutionalizing racism. With respect to Mexicans, this began when the U.S. stole 50 percent of Mexico’s land in the Mexican-American war. As conquerors, the U.S. devised a policy of profound discrimination and racism against Mexicans.

The recent raids, arrests and deportations of Latino immigrants are a continuation of U.S. racist policy. By extension, that policy now includes Central Americans, who have come to the U.S. in large numbers. Arabs, Muslims and South Asians have also been targets of intense attacks in the aftermath of 9/11.

Essentially, the U.S. is doing what it has always done—pursuing policies that guarantee the division of the working class. Dividing us is a proven formula to maintain the exploitation of cheap immigrant labor. They try to keep the working class weak and confused into believing that immigrants coming across the U.S./ Mexico border are to blame for job loss and wage decreases. They do not want working people to know their real enemy is the capitalist system itself.

Q: The U.S. promotes the neoliberal economic model for growth in poor and under developed countries all over the world. What economic factors have precipitated mass immigration to the U.S. from Mexico and Central America?

Around 70 percent of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are from Mexico. Therefore, I will discuss Mexico first.

In Mexico, entire segments of the economy that used to be nationalized have been privatized. This has introduced foreign interests in areas of the Mexican economy where they were formerly not allowed to participate. Mexico, a less developed economy, is thus forced to compete with the United States, and that is no contest.

Look at what happened to the agricultural sector in Mexico with the implementation of NAFTA. The U.S. began flooding the Mexican markets with traditional foods that were protected in Mexico, such as corn and beans, selling them at prices lower than Mexican farmers. That forced thousands, if not millions, of farm workers to give up their way of life and either move to the more industrialized cities in Mexico or migrate to the U.S. A majority of the displaced agricultural workers and peasants migrated to the U.S. because it is so difficult to find work in Mexico.

Because of globalization and neoliberal policies, traditional ways of earning a living are vanishing. That helps to explain why so many people are coming to the U.S. from Mexico.

In the case of Central America, there is poverty, unemployment and war. Wars have been raging there for 40 or 50 years. The more intense the wars and attempts at revolution became, the more the people were repressed by U.S.-backed, right-wing governments, and so we saw mass migration to the U.S.

We will continue to see mass migration from these countries and from other countries in South America. We are already seeing this from countries in the Caribbean, like Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and others. The economies of those countries are not sustainable. They cannot take care of the job needs of the population. Neoliberalism and globalization are creating a race to the bottom.

The U.S. forced these harmful economic policies on less developed countries and represented that they would solve all of their economic problems. Instead, the situation has gotten worse.

Photo: Bill Hackwell

Q: What role does organized labor play in the improvement of immigrants’ lives and well-being in the U.S?

My father used to say, “The worst union is better than no union at all.” It is no secret that if you are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement and you are an immigrant in the U.S., the chances of escaping massive exploitation are very little to none.

With a labor union, you have a contractual relationship with an employer that gives you the opportunity to protect yourself better from the greed of the employer, who only is driven by his desire to maximize his profit.

Under a collective bargaining agreement, the likelihood of having health care is much greater than if you are not with a union, although health care is in jeopardy now. It is also very likely that you will get better wages and a better overall working package. Without a union, you simply cannot get those things.

You also get the opportunity to gain insight into U.S. politics. Union members usually get involved with political campaigns. For someone who hasn’t ever had the opportunity to participate at that level, such exposure might open their eyes to the farce of our political system. It could compel an immigrant to begin searching for a more serious type of political struggle, rather than just participating in the union and fighting for limited economic reform. With all their limitations, labor unions are still better for all workers than not having them.

But organized labor is in serious decline. Unless and until labor rethinks its political program, union membership will drop. Unions will continue to be subject to the whims of bourgeois politicians, who don’t feel they have to be accountable to labor because it is much weaker now than it used to be.

Q: What role do you see for the mass movement in the struggle for immigrants’ rights?

The role of the mass progressive movement ought to be one of complete solidarity with the struggle of immigrants for full rights. Immigrants should integrated into the mass movement.

We want everybody to join the mass movement. In order for that to happen, the movement must be supportive of the progressive struggles of all segments of the population. Likewise, immigrants need to be supportive of all other progressive struggles, like the antiwar movement, the fight against racism, and the Palestinian struggle for freedom. I have great empathy for the Palestinians because, as an immigrant, I know how it feels to be called illegal in your own land.

Many positive steps to unite the movement have been made. When I was a child, the mass movement did not give much solidarity to undocumented immigrants. Today, there are few progressive people in the U.S. who do not identify with the struggle of immigrants. But we must go further than that. The mass movement needs to take up the issue of full rights for all immigrants as a vital part of its overall political platform.

The progressive mass movement also needs to play a leadership role in the struggle for immigrants’ rights. People should be entitled to play the role that they earn. The investment and commitment they give to advance a particular struggle are decisive.

Some people put forward the notion that only Latinos can help to lead the struggle for immigrants’ rights. In my view, non-Latinos do not have to be mere passive observers. Whether you are Arab, Black, white, Asian or Latino, we must struggle together. It is erroneous to think that only Latinos can lead the fight for immigrants’ rights. We must move past this idea and propel the movement for immigrants’ rights forward with full engagement from all progressive sectors of society.

It is important to be sensitive and aware of who people are and where they come from. But where progressive or revolutionary people are involved, it is very important that we deal with one another as equals. Otherwise we will not achieve the changes we seek.

Q: You are the director of Latino Movement U.S.A. What is the general outlook of your organization and what are its goals?

We are part of the overall working-class political struggle to change U.S. society for the better.

We have a contradiction in our society—a minority of wealthy individuals exploits the majority. Within that majority, immigrants are more easily exploitable than the rest of the working class because a large portion lacks proper legal documentation. This fact is used by the state to exacerbate that exploitation.

We do everything we can to raise awareness about the struggle of undocumented workers. To the extent that undocumented immigrants receive solidarity and support for their political struggle, the entire progressive movement gains in strength. It is better able to wage battles against the exploiters in this country.

We also have a political program to organize the segment we work with: we call for amnesty for all undocumented workers in the U.S. That means that we want progressive, comprehensive immigration reform that grants legalization to the millions of undocumented workers who are living, working and exploited in the U.S.

There are anywhere from 8 to 14 million undocumented workers in the U.S. The working class will never have the cohesion it needs for future political battles until it forges a bond with all the undocumented.

The second demand in our program is access to quality health care for all people, including immigrants. We are 100 percent in favor of affirmative action programs to remedy handicaps inherited from hundreds of years of U.S. racism and discrimination. We want access to quality education for all people from grammar school through college. We don’t see why workers who want education have to pay for it when society is perfectly capable of doing so. We advocate protection and preservation of our environment.

The final political demand in our program is to end the economic and political blockade of Cuba. Immigrants and working people in the U.S. and throughout the world look to Cuba as a beacon of hope. We recognize the importance of the example set by Cuba as we struggle for a more just society in the U.S.

In 1994, tens of thousands of immigrants and antiracist activists protested California’s Proposition 187, which was aimed at denying undocumented workers basic human rights.

Photo: Bill Hackwell

Q: What is the significance of the upcoming October 16 march and rally in downtown Los Angeles for immigrants’ rights?

It commemorates a historic achievement in the struggle for immigrants’ rights. On Oct. 16, 1994, massive numbers of immigrants came out to reject California’s racist Proposition 187. The vast majority of people who participated in that struggle were immigrants, mostly undocumented. We announced to the world that new immigrants are an integral portion of society that is ready and willing to exercise their political voices.

The Oct. 16, 2004, mobilization is also important due to the dangerous levels of repression that immigrants face in the U.S. What we face now is more dangerous than Proposition 187. Immigrants need to participate in far greater numbers than we have in recent years.

It is important that all people who made possible the mobilization ten years ago analyze what we are doing now. The present circumstances tell us that there is a vacuum of leadership within the immigrant community in the U.S.

We are not in a situation where immigrants do not want to participate and affirm themselves. Quite the contrary, people are clamoring for that, but we are failing them because we do not have the sort of structure or organization that would allow us to work together and once again bring masses of oppressed people to the streets.

We need to actively engage immigrants as we have in the past. When immigrants begin to see that the problems affecting working people who are not immigrants—unemployment, a lack of health care, and war—also affect them, they will realize that the only way to solve them is to unite in struggle. We are ultimately all on the same side; immigrants are beginning to see this.

Oct. 16 must keep the flame going so that we can continue the organizing required. We are attempting to reengage the immigrant community in the progressive mass movement and we are confident that we will succeed.


1. IRCACA granted undocumented workers residency if they could prove continuous residency in the United States since before January 1, 1982. The application deadline for amnesty was May 4, 1988 for urban undocumented workers and December 1, 1988 for rural undocumented workers.

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