Freedom of Movement:
Uniting Immigrants & Native-Born
By Jeannette Gabriel
NJ Civil Rights
The working-class in the United States today is divided up into two different groups - citizens and immigrants - that have been separated more and more over time, both in terms of civil rights and workplace rights; wages and health and safety provisions. While the United States used to be a land of opportunity for immigrants it has developed a two-tiered society. Faced with the threat of detention and deportation, immigrants are afraid to protest sweatshop conditions and wages. Native-born workers are then forced by employers to compete against these US-based sweatshops, forcing all wages and working conditions down.
The only solution to these problems is for citizens and immigrants to unite in a working-class-wide movement to demand freedom of movement. Freedom of movement means the right of all to cross national boundaries and to live where they please, with full rights. Corporations are free to move around the world seeking cheaper wages and more exploitable markets. But when workers try to move across borders to avoid economic catastrophes caused by free market rampages, they are criminalized. People must have the right to cross borders without putting their lives in danger and jeopardizing their future.
The division between citizens and immigrants has widened considerably as the global economy has continued to contract and corporations have struggled to make profits. In response the corporations have driven down the standard of living for all people - both citizens and immigrant. Native born workers have seen steadily rising unemployment and a dramatic decrease in wages and benefits. Too often they blame immigrant workers who are encouraged by private business to enter the country and work in direct competition with native born workers for lower wages. This is the same dynamic as during the Great Depression when the capitalists pitted unemployed and employed workers against each other. Back then workers united across this division and built a class-wide movement of both employed and unemployed workers together. We need a
similar type of class-wide movement today that unites immigrant and native born workers.
The only way to build this movement is to address the ongoing attacks against civil rights. There can be no workplace rights without first securing basic civil rights. Immigrants have been stripped of any type of voice in the political process and have been terrorized with detention and deportation. The 1996 Anti-Immigration Legislation turned civil immigration matters into excuses for detention but without the rights associated with criminal cases. This means immigrants with visa violations are thrown in jail but are not guaranteed access to attorneys or a trial by jury. In addition the 1996 laws implemented a system of double jeopardy where immigrants who are convicted of crimes— which can be minor misdemeanors now redefined as aggravated felonies— can be held for deportation after finishing their sentences. In some cases immigrants are transferred directly from serving their criminal sentence to immigration custody where they are often kept in jail for a period of months or years before deportation. In other cases immigrants are picked up for crimes they served time for decades ago and held in jail pending deportation. Many are detained and deported merely for missing a court appointment - which they often have not been informed of.
These laws, compounded by the Patriot Act provisions which allow the government to set up intrusive surveillance systems, have created an atmosphere of terror in many immigrant communities. People are afraid to speak up and demand basic civil rights afforded to them under the Constitution or to protest against sub-minimum wages or 80-hour work weeks. Tens of thousands of immigrants are today held in conditions of outright slavery both in brothels and on farms, afraid equally of their “owners” and of the US authorities.
The Bush Administration has directly attacked immigrant workers right to organize with the Hoffmann Plastics National Labor Relations Board ruling that denies back wages to immigrant workers who are fired for organizing a union. Though this is a limited ruling it shows the government’s goal of dividing the working class into people who have rights and people who have no rights at all. Once this is accomplished corporations will step in and drive down working conditions even further for both immigrants and native-born.
Fighting to Win
The most effective way to fight the attacks on civil rights against the immigrant communities is not to try to overturn each Congressional Act but instead to focus on the larger picture. The reason that immigrant communities can be terrorized is because people are denied the fundamental right of movement. We must also fight to give all immigrants the right to vote, as has alrady been done in a few communities.
The United States had a policy of Open Borders until 1924, up to that point immigrants could freely enter the country and vote immediately. (The only exception to this policy was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that was similar to Bush’s proposed guest worker program. Chinese men were allowed to come and build the railroads at slave wages but could not bring their families with them and had to go back to China after a set period of time.) This country has always been caught between two different traditions - one of freedom of movement for immigrants and the other of racist exclusion.
Today the United States is upholding its negative tradition of racism instead of its progressive tradition of inclusion. Corporations, with the assistance of national governments, have set up an elaborate free trade system throughout the world affording them rights to move across borders easily. But when workers are affected by these free trade agreements and try to cross borders themselves, like Mexican farmers being thrown off the land, they are criminalized and put in jail without access to due process. The source of the problem is the free trade agreements that are devastated local economies and forcing people to emigrate far away from their families and communities. The best solution is to stop criminalizing working people and organize for an end to the free trade agreements.
Some argue that allowing freedom of movement will only increase the number of immigrants, increase US unemployment and further drive down wages. But the idea that “supply and demand” fix wages is disapproved by history. In the Depression, which unemployment over 20%, unity of employed and unemployed sparked a militant workers movement that drove wages upwards and won major concessions live reduced work weeks, unemployment benefits, and Social Security. In contrast, in the 1980’s, with much lower unemployment rates, real wages plummeted and working hours soared. It is the lack of rights of immigrants, not the numbers of immigrants, that drive down their living standards, and the living standards of all.
The best way we can demand freedom of movement and gain enough rights to fight back against capitalism is to build a class-wide movement made up of native born and immigrant workers. In Freehold, NJ when Mexican day laborers were criminalized for seeking work on the street corner the local Peace and Justice group stepped forward to build a united movement between the native born and immigrant communities. The result has been in six short weeks El Comité de Trabajadores Por el Progreso y el Bienestar Social has set up a day laborers site in a local church and filed a lawsuit that the city’s actions are unconstitutional. The working class must overcome the obstacles of racism and intolerance that keep us divided and weak. Only by building unity between immigrant and native born workers can we maintain our civil rights and keep wages and working standards high for all of us.