New racist legislation attacks immigrants

Congress seeks to further militarize the border with Mexico.

Photo: Earl Cryer

In December 2005, one of the most comprehensive and racist legislative attacks on immigrants was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. The so-called “Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005,” passed by a vote of 239 to 182, includes attempts to criminalize the more than 12 million undocumented workers, to militarize the U.S.-Mexico border and to block most of the already insufficient aid that immigrants receive once on U.S. soil. It will come to the Senate floor in February or March 2006.

The bill calls for a significant amount of military support and the addition of nearly 2,000 K-9 dog units to patrol the border. It mandates that the Department of Homeland Security work in conjunction with the Department of Defense to make the border technologically superior to what it is today.

Also included is the call for increased border surveillance, such as unmanned aerial vehicles currently in use in Iraq, and even a radar system that would locate crossings as they happen. One provision, in particular, endorses the building of 700 miles of additional fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. This would force people into higher risk areas and likely increase the death toll at the border.

The harshest provision in the bill makes it a federal crime to offer assistance or services to undocumented immigrants. This provision has become a rallying point for many progressive organizations that are fighting against racism and for workers rights, as well as charity-based groups, like churches and social service agencies. It is hidden within immigrant-smuggling clauses, but labor centers and even spouses or colleagues could be prosecuted for helping undocumented workers survive.

The sponsors of the bill hope to pit one section of the working class against the most vulnerable sector, undocumented immigrant workers, through appeals to racism and bigotry. This is typical of the divide-and-conquer strategies employed by the bosses and capitalist politicians.

The ruling class and immigration

Immigrant rights activists are fighting back against government and white supremacist attacks.

Photo: Bill Hackwell

The situation for people currently in the United States without legal documentation is already very precarious. For example, at the Houston Astrodome following the tragic events in the Gulf Coast, authorities checked every refugee for Social Security numbers. This repressive practice kept untold numbers of people from seeking state or federal assistance. And some of those that attempted to get help were deported.

This latest anti-immigrant legislation was spearheaded by Tom Tancredo, a Republican from Colorado who has an extensive history of bigoted attacks against immigrants and other people of color. Tancredo has not only praised the neo-fascist vigilante group called the “Minuteman Project,” but also campaigned heavily for its founder Jim Gilchrist for Congress in Orange County, California. Tancredo, who talks about “Western civilization” being threatened by a “cult of multiculturalism,” made sure that Bush’s guest worker program was not included in the border security bill.

For blatantly racist, ultra-right politicians like Tancredo, the guest worker program does not attack people of color enough. From the Bush administration’s point of view, sections of the border security bill would not realistically sustain a cheap labor source. Republican politicians are the most outspoken on the immigration issue, but the Democratic Party is not excluded from making racist attacks. Democrats have been among the leading forces pushing right-wing immigration legislation under the guise of “border protection.”

No significant portion of the U.S. ruling class wants to end immigration. The capitalists need a consistent influx of cheap labor to keep the unstable economy running. All of the legislative attacks on immigrants are attempts to increase the insecurity of the labor force to keep wages as low as possible.

Perceived differences within the ruling class over its approach to immigration are not substantive. Politicians—especially around election time—whip up anti-immigrant hysteria and racism to divert attention from the billionaires and banks that are taking in massive profits. But the other representatives of the capitalist class understand that immigrants are a necessary feature of the capitalist system.

The capitalist masters in big business say this openly. The president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donohue, opposed the Immigration Control Act. “We have no problem with increased border enforcement in a reasonable way, or with reasonable requirements that employers verify the work status of who they hire, but we strongly oppose the House bill, as does much of the business community, because it is simply unworkable, unreasonable and fundamentally unfair.”

The Chamber of Commerce is a federation consisting of millions of businesses, including transnational corporations. It pressed Congress hard to pass the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement last year. Modeled after NAFTA, the new agreement will result in a rise in immigration to the United States.

The Chamber’s opposition to the anti-immigrant legislation was not based on morals or ethics but profit. If the flow of undocumented workers is cut off, businesses will have to pay citizens and residents higher wages to work. Undocumented workers can be exploited as cheap labor, because they have no legal status in U.S. capitalist society.

Bush’s proposed guest worker program is another type of attack on immigrant workers. Under the program, the status of undocumented workers would rest almost exclusively in the hands of their employers. Immigrants could be denied citizenship if bosses refuse to rehire them.

This new “Border Protection” bill is no more or less a threat to immigrant workers than the guest worker program. Although there is little chance the bill will pass the Senate in its current form, attacks on immigrants in either the direct economic sense or in the sense of pushing the debate further to the right are both meant to keep immigrants as one of the lowest rungs of society because of the vulnerability of being undocumented.

Heightened attacks

Aggression against immigrants certainly is not limited to federal legislation. It is increasingly being employed by all levels of government.

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger characterized the racist “Minuteman Project” as “honorable citizens.” His open praise of white supremacists opened the door for physical violence against immigrants.

On the local level, the city council in Costa Mesa, California, recently approved a measure that will train local city police to enforce federal immigration law. In many cities like Los Angeles, activists have challenged this practice, and it has been deemed illegal. This repressive measure will make Costa Mesa the first city in the United States to merge city policing with federal immigration authorities, guaranteeing racial profiling sweeps in Latino neighborhoods. This law will allow cops to act as immigration agents and aid in the deportation of undocumented workers. Latinos and other people of color undoubtedly will be targeted for harassment and suspected of being “illegal.”

On Dec. 31, 2005, a U.S. Border Patrol agent murdered Guillermo Martinez, an 18-year-old from Mexico. Martinez was shot in the back after he and his brother had tried to enter the United States to look for work. (La Jornada, Jan. 2) The incident has sparked outrage on both sides of the border. In Los Angeles and Tijuana, pro-immigrant groups organized coordinated demonstrations to demand justice for Martinez, drawing hundreds.

The intimidation of immigrants by killing members of their ranks is a crime that bourgeois forces are not willing to give up. By demonizing immigrants as illegal or terrorists, immigration laws are passed that force people to do things that cost them their lives—and make it more dangerous to fight for better working conditions in the United States. Building fences or walls resembling the Israeli apartheid wall in the West Bank guarantees an upsurge in deaths at the border. Border walls also intensify the insecurity of those immigrants who make it into the United States safely.

Solidarity with immigrant workers

The scapegoating and violence against immigrants serve the capitalists’ needs. Immigrants should not be treated as “illegal” or less-than-human. People are abandoning their native lands and coming to the United States because of neo-liberal policies promoted by capitalist governments, led by the imperialists in Washington. Instead of blaming immigrants for society’s ills, all workers should embrace them and join them to struggle for equal rights and against exploitation. Immigrants bring to the U.S. working class a range of experience in working-class and revolutionary struggles throughout the world.

The character of the workers’ struggle is as multinational as ever and workers’ interests do not pertain to any one nation. Under capitalism, so long as a section of the workforce is deemed “illegal,” the degeneration of wages and benefits is certain. Solidarity around the demand of amnesty for immigrants is crucial as an initial step toward unifying workers and building class consciousness in the United States.

Articles may be reprinted with credit to Socialism and Liberation magazine.

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