Migrant crisis shows need for working-class unity in Chicago

Feature photo: Neighborhood volunteers donated clothing to migrants staying at a temporary ‘respite center’ at the Leone Beach Park Fieldhouse on the Northside of Chicago. Liberation photo

On May 31, after an intense and contentious debate, Chicago’s City Council voted 34 to 13 to approve $51 million in new funding to provide support for the thousands of migrants that have been sent to the city from Texas by that state’s Governor Gregg Abbott since August 2022. The city is currently failing to meet the basic needs of the 10,000 and growing number of migrants coming into the city. On June 2, one 26-year-old migrant man died in a city-operated shelter in the shuttered Woodlawn Elementary School, highlighting the fact that people’s lives are at stake in this crisis. 

The city of Chicago and the state of Illinois asked FEMA for approximately $191 million, but received a mere $8.6 million, setting up both the city and state to fight over limited resources and ultimately fail to mitigate this crisis. The administration of outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot dragged its feet in preparing for more migrants as it was clear that they would continue to arrive throughout her term. Instead, she declared a state of emergency and passed the buck to the administration of new Mayor Brandon Johnson. 

Several churches, aldermen, grassroots organizations, nonprofits and mutual aid groups have responded to this crisis, but have quickly reached capacity in terms of what they can provide in material aid. This “migrant crisis” is yet again exposing the flaws and the weaknesses of the U.S. capitalist system in solving its own problems. All of the problems that have created this crisis were caused by policies of the U.S. government at the federal, state and municipal levels — but primarily out of consequences of U.S. imperialist foreign policy.

The $51 million that has been approved is set to expire on July 1 and it is unclear where future funding will come from. The city was already spending $20 million every month to house and support the migrants. The costs are only going to increase as a steady flow of busloads of migrants continues to arrive daily.

The Biden administration and the federal government has yet to step in and provide the funding requested by the city. Chicago is being set up to fail, and this system is attempting to pit poor and working people in the Black and Latino community against each other, unnecessarily fighting over the crumbs of capitalism. The city’s poor and working class face the economic fallout from pandemic job loss, maxed-out shelter systems, the end of the statewide eviction moratorium, rising property taxes on small homeowners, rising rents, police brutality, inflation and wage stagnation — all on top of the recent cuts to social services from the debt ceiling deal on a federal level. 

Democrats and Republicans both to blame for migrant crisis

While the Republican Party presents no real solution to the crisis, just more militarization, the Democratic Party fails to deliver on campaign promises to immigrant communities, the Black community and the working class more broadly. The Democrats enable the Republicans by creating the conditions in which our rights are constantly on the chopping block and not permanently protected. 

The political backdrop to this crisis is the Biden administration’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform, grant amnesty and provide a path to citizenship to the millions of migrants in this country, including those detained at the border. The Democratic Party had the power to enact meaningful comprehensive immigration reform, both under Barack Obama’s first two years as president, as well as under Biden’s first two years. Neither administration made it a priority, but the Democrats chose to extend the olive branch to the Republican Party while they continued to wage wars, employ sanctions against the countries that people are migrating from and create the conditions for this crisis. In fact, the Biden administration has betrayed its campaign promises on immigration reform and embraced Trump’s asylum ban.

The Democratic Party seeks to capitalize off the city by holding the 2024 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. However, the lack of federal support from the Democrat-controlled White House regarding the current crisis shows clearly how hollow the Democratic Party’s interest in the city of Chicago really is. The Democratic Party as an institution is completely beholden to corporate interests and are opportunists that cannot be trusted to fight for the rights of migrants, the Black community, or the working class as a whole. 

As the saying goes, whenever America has a cold, Black America has pneumonia. Amidst this crisis, there were and are crisis-like conditions for the Black community of Chicago. The unemployment rate for Black people 20-24 years old was 57% in 2021, up from 44% in 2019, and the unemployment rate for Black women 20-24 rose from 32% in 2019 to almost 60% in 2021.

What city of Chicago could do even without full federal funding

Of course, the federal government should provide the full funding requested by the city, but that won’t stem the steady inflow of migrants. The funding will have to be increased again and again to meet their rising needs. In addition to requesting federal funding, the city government should defund the multi-billion dollar police budget, tax the ultra-rich corporations, which benefit from migrant labor, and expropriate public lands to build housing that is fit for human beings. The failure of the federal government does not mean that the city government is totally powerless to act. Lori Lightfoot’s declaration of a state of emergency grants powers to the Johnson administration to move around emergency funds. 

The Johnson administration was elected with major support from progressive groups and organized labor, most notably the Chicago Teachers Union, of which Johnson was an organizer. The administration faces challenges that can only be solved by making serious inroads against the interests of big capital and the police state. However, Johnson’s administration is backing away from an ambitious and necessary tax plan proposed by members of Johnson’s own transition team, which would raise $12 billion in revenue annually through taxing big business.

Irrespective of the will of those in local government, history has demonstrated that absent a united working-class mass movement, no politician can save us from the compounding crises and contradictions of a decaying U.S. capitalist system. 

Fight racism with solidarity

During the city council session, Chicago residents spoke against and for the approval of this funding. Some in the Black community claimed that the city needed to prioritize the needs of the Black community over the needs of the incoming migrants.

Many of the migrants coming into the city are penniless, barred from working, in need of health care, subject to substandard living conditions, such as sleeping on the floors of police stations, and are living in limbo as they await their asylum cases. Their cases may not be heard for several months, even years. The reason they are here is because of the destructive policies of the U.S. government. They are not to blame and are also victims of U.S. imperialism and racism just like the Black community here in Chicago and across the country. 

Anti-immigrant sentiment only helps the capitalist ruling class divide the people so we can be better and more easily conquered. It wasn’t the migrants who shut down 50 Chicago public schools largely in working-class Black and Latino neighborhoods. It wasn’t because of the migrants that Black and Latino people are overpoliced and subject to horizontal and intra-community violence at proportions similar to war zones. The migrants and asylum seekers did not declare war on Black America or deny them reparations. They are victims of war and their nations are owed restitution as well.

The city of Chicago has a history of racial divisions and tensions, and not just between the Black and white communities, but with the Latino community as well. The intense segregation that has been historically enforced is a deliberate policy of the city government to keep poor and working-class communities divided and weak. However, there is also a rich history of working-class unity across race and nationality, from the civil rights movement and Dr. King’s work in Chicago, to the original Rainbow Coalition of the Black Panther Party under the leadership of Chairman Fred Hampton, the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign, the Harold Washington campaign, and the Black and Brown unity demonstrations that took place in La Villita in summer of 2020.

Capitalism produces artificial scarcity and creates the conditions for some poor people to fight over supposedly limited resources with other poor people. This artificially imposed scarcity engenders a “rat race” framework of a scarcity of rights that can only be afforded to some and not all. This bolsters divisive sentiment because each respective “community” is seen as fighting for a limited piece of the same pie. If someone else gets a bigger piece, then you necessarily get a smaller piece. These conditions generate the basis for divisions and antagonisms within the working class and bolster racism.

Fred Hampton struggled around the very same issues we are struggling around today and against the same system. He provided some valuable wisdom that the ruling class sought to stamp out. Hampton taught us that working-class unity is what can defeat racism and national oppression, not exclusivity and replicating capitalist mentalities towards other members of our class. He said, “We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.”

When we overcome the false idea that there is scarcity and not enough for all of us, that this myth is an obstacle imposed because the wealth is hoarded by a tiny elite, we can build a powerful, united working-class movement. This movement will have more than enough power through solidarity that we can win more than just reforms, but transformation of this rotten system. 

Roots of today’s migrant crisis

The wealth of this country was built on the backs of enslaved Africans, on the land of Indigenous peoples targeted for genocide and from the labor of migrants and working-class people from all over the world. The ruling class must be seriously challenged and forced to pass comprehensive immigration reform to bring the 11 million and growing undocumented immigrants out from the shadows and welcomed into society. The struggle for reparations cannot become a cynical retort to the cry for humane treatment from victims of U.S. imperialism. It has historically been a demand on the U.S. ruling class and has strengthened the entire working class and socialist struggle. African Americans, Venezuelans, Cubans, Nicaraguans, the U.S. working class and the people of the Global South all have a common enemy: imperialism. 

Neither the capitalist politicians in Texas nor Illinois can solve this crisis. The crisis we face isn’t one of migration, the U.S. immigration policy has always been founded in racism, but is shaped by the struggles of migrants themselves and the larger working class. The U.S. government and cities across the country rolled out the red carpet for Ukrainian migrants fleeing war. They’ve also allocated tens of billions of public dollars that are unaccounted for to fuel the war, thus creating the conditions for more and more migration. In order to combat the root causes of the migration crisis we need to fight for peace and end the scourge of imperialist war.

The United States has historically privileged some migrants over others because of their national origin and the political relationship it has with that country’s government. During the period of the Cold War from 1984 to 1990, the United States gave priority to Cubans and Nicaraguans who left after popular revolutions of the poor and working class as a way to discredit those revolutions and governments, while they challenged their sovereignty in every way possible. The U.S. granted asylum to 25% of the 48,000 Nicaraguans who applied, but when it came to El Salvador and Guatemala, two countries where the United States was promoting brutal right-wing forces and fueling civil war, only 2.6% and 1.8% of the 45,000 Salvadorans and 9,500 Guatemalans respectively won asylum. The United States uses migrants as political pawns in a cynical game between the two major parties.

If it were not for U.S. imperialism’s interventions, sanctions, coups and blockades across Latin America and the Caribbean as well as the entire Global South, this crisis would not exist. People are fleeing the conditions that are the consequence of decades of U.S.-induced destabilization campaigns and they are seeking refuge and asylum here, which is protected under international law. This “migrant crisis” cannot be completely resolved, irrespective of the reforms and services provided in this or that “sanctuary” city. 

Until we work together to end imperialism, the crises will not only continue, but will compound, extend and deepen. Both major capitalist parties have proven that they are only interested in using the issue of migration and asylum as a political football to garner votes and fearmonger while they support the militarization of the border, which will only result in more deaths of people seeking a better life. Only a united working-class movement can challenge the power of the capitalists’ utter lack of compassion and humanity and win a just resolution for all of us.

We cannot win what we all deserve if we are divided and fighting amongst ourselves. The only victors in that fight would be the ruling class. To solve this crisis we have to organize ourselves on a national level and demand a just federal solution to the so-called migrant crisis. We call on all the people of Chicago to join in a united front to build a movement that can bring justice to all our communities: immigrants, African Americans, the unhoused/homeless and most fundamentally the entire working class.

A socialist program to address the crisis:

  • Respect the legal and human rights of asylum seekers and allow them to enter the United States to pursue their claim.
  • Grant legal status and full rights to all immigrants currently in the United States.
  • End the sanctions and all other forms of intervention against Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and all targeted countries, including the corporate pillaging of nations’ wealth by U.S. imperialism.
  • Dignified housing for all. House the migrants and the homeless/unhoused. Housing is a human right. Seize vacant property and build free public housing.
  • Seize the stolen wealth of the big banks and pay reparations for the Black community in Chicago and all across the United States!
  • Cut the bloated multi-billion dollar police and military budget. Fund the people. Employment and living wages for all.

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