Immigration reform must address social inequality

Macrina Cárdenas

Photo: Sarah Sloan
Macrina Cárdenas is a leader of Mexicanos Sin Fronteras (Mexicans Without Borders), a Washington, D.C.-based immigrant rights group. Her organization has been active in fighting against growing harassment of immigrant workers, at the same time addressing the broader social and political roots of immigration. She serves on the steering committee of the anti-war coalition ANSWER. In this interview with Socialism and Liberation’s Brian Becker, Cárdenas explains her group’s perspective on the growing debate over immigration reform.

Can you explain the origin of the organization Mexicans Without Borders and Trabajadores de Woodbridge?

Mexicans Without Borders (Mexicanos Sin Fronteras) is an organization that arose out of the need for migrant workers to struggle against the various injustices that they face in their daily lives. It is for immigrant workers who cannot cash a check, obtain a driver’s license, rent a house, travel, or obtain higher education because they lack the proper documents. We believe it’s necessary to struggle for permanent residency, which would give immigrants access to all those basic rights.

The committees of immigrants that now form Mexicans Without Borders began to take shape in 2001, when we participated in La Carrera de la Antocha Guadalupana, an annual politico-religious event. Our central objectives are permanent residency for all undocumented workers residing in the country and the establishment of legal channels for future waves of immigrants.

With those demands, we began to organize local committees in Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland. When the police arrested day laborers seeking work on the street corners in Woodbridge, Virginia, for vagrancy, the workers were already organized in a committee. It wasn’t so easy to repress them, since they immediately went for support from lawyers and other organizations. The police were forced to drop the charges, and the workers bargained for the creation of a Center for Day Laborers. This is how the Woodbridge Committee of Day Laborers was formed.

In the media coverage of the immigration reforms, the debate is presented as if amnesty is at stake. But do the reforms have anything to do with amnesty?
For the groups that want to restrict immigration, any demand favorable to immigrants seems to be aimed at achieving amnesty. For this reason, some immigrant rights groups prefer to struggle for small reforms so as not to frighten those right-wing elements. In Mexicans Without Borders, we support every reform favorable to immigrants, but our struggle is centered on achieving permanent residency and creating more suitable channels for immigration so that future immigrants will not have to risk their lives crossing the border into the United States. Those two demands would enable immigrants to gain access to drivers’ licenses, education, health services, and labor rights.
Perhaps one of the reasons that the migrant workers’ struggle remains divided is the U.S. government’s differential treatment for immigrants of different countries. For example in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was approved prohibiting immigration from China. Although the Chinese population only represented 0.2 percent of the national population, the law declared that the Chinese were responsible for the country’s economic problems of low wages and job scarcity. The Exclusion Act has served as the basis for the future restriction of other immigrant groups.

Why does your group focus on the business interests behind Bush’s reforms, and not just on the debate inside the Republican Party?

To focus on the immigration reform debate as a purely administrative problem only feeds into the partisan manipulations of the major parties, and hides the true causes for immigration. The U.S. government, in collaboration with the ruling classes in the immigrants’ home countries, is in large part responsible for the phenomenon of immigration.

In the case of Mexico, this process is rooted in the Porfiriato, a period from 1876 to 1910 in which economic developments created conditions favorable for migration. Communal lands were destroyed, farmers were forced to modernize their lands, and the consumption-based economy shifted to one based on trade. Those changes created a rural population without land and without work. At the same time, the western United States had been expanding economically—mostly in agriculture and mining, requiring a greater and more intensive workforce. Congress’s approval of the Chinese Exclusion Act had suspended Asian immigration, so labor recruiters turned their eyes to Mexico.

Another intensive stage of labor recruitment took place with the Bracero Program from 1942 to 1964. At the time, the U.S. demand for labor was greater than the number of available workers. By the end of the program, more than 400,000 braceros entered the United States each year.

In 1964 the United States unilaterally decided to end the program. Since then, the uncontrolled immigration of undocumented workers has increased. Immigration has especially increased in recent years, despite restrictive legislation and heightened monitoring of the borders.

How will the lives of undocumented workers be changed by the passage of a reform for permanent residency?

Giving permanent residency to the 11 million undocumented workers would greatly benefit all workers. The immigrant workers would no longer have to live in obscurity, with the stigma of being “illegals.” They would be able to travel to see their families when they wanted to. Their children would have better access to education and health care. It would eliminate human trafficking on the borders, and many unnecessary deaths would be avoided. It would save the country the millions of dollars senselessly spent on monitoring the borders. That money could be invested in other, more useful projects. The highways would be safer since everyone would have proper driver’s licenses.

What are the social implications of the formation of a caste of workers with secondary status?

To us, it is unjust to divide the working class. Our hope is that all workers will enjoy the same rights. A caste of second-class workers will only serve to divide the U.S. working class and cut back the labor rights of U.S.-born workers.

How have immigrant rights groups such as yours responded to the reforms?

We support all reforms that benefit immigrants. But we are looking for a more thorough reform that provides solutions to the phenomenon of immigration at a structural level, not just at the level of legality. It is clear that the number of immigrants coming to the United States is directly proportional to growing social inequality in the dependent, underdeveloped countries. The U.S. government is behind the policies which foster those very inequalities—the free trade agreements like NAFTA, CAFTA, and the FTAA. Changes in immigration law will have to be accompanied by political changes from the United States and the rest of the world.

The majority of immigrants do not come to the United States attracted by liberty and democracy. Rather, they are fleeing from hunger and misery. As long as the U.S. government implements unequal neoliberal policies that only benefit the big corporations, immigration to the United States will continue to grow, regardless of how many legal reforms are put into place.

Bush recently reiterated his commitment to the “guest-worker program” in a meeting with President Vicente Fox of Mexico. How would this program serve the Mexican bourgeoisie?

Some are promoting this type of program as one that would diminish the impact of unemployment in Mexico, which has worsened in the years since the implementation of NAFTA. Many Mexicans benefit from the remittances sent from the United States, which after oil, represent the country’s second-leading source of income.

These guest worker programs have also caused social movements to become disjointed, since they are implemented primarily where social discontent is highest. During the Bracero Program, the Mexican government funneled its labor contracts into areas most upset by agrarian conflicts. In the early 1970s, a guest worker program was established with Canada and the state of Tlaxcala, where a strong movement had emerged of farmers demanding land.

Immigrants send money to their communities of origin for the construction of schools, hospitals, and highways. In the business of immigration, the losers are the weak, the immigrants.

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