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Building the immigrants’ rights movement — What are the next steps?

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Over the past few months, we have seen a new mass movement for immigrant rights explode. Starting in March, there have been a series of “mega marches,” some of the largest in U.S. history, culminating with the historic day of action on May 1.

May 1 stood out for the radical new tactic employed – a nationwide immigrant worker boycott and strike. This was the first national political strike in the U.S. in many decades. Hundreds of thousands of workers refused to work, shutting down important sections of the economy.

The strength of the May 1 protests and boycott was all the more significant given the divisions that opened up within the movement around whether or not to even go ahead with May 1. Many of the leaders of the largest immigrant rights organizations, Democratic politicians, the leadership of the Catholic Church, Latino business organizations, and sections of the Spanish-language media waged a campaign to stop the walkouts from going ahead.

They feared a strike would alienate their “allies” in Congress and could embolden Latino workers to make more radical demands, threatening the profits of Latino business owners.

This conservative wing of the movement has tried to dress up the Senate “compromise” bill and President Bush’s immigration plan as positive steps forward for immigrants. They argue that the movement should concentrate its energies on lobbying Congress to adopt the Senate bill, and oppose calling for full legalization of undocumented immigrants, which they contend will not get support from the politicians.

On the other hand, the left wing of the movement found a ready response for the idea of mass protests and an economic boycott and strike on May 1; millions of immigrant workers and youth joined the action. This left wing has correctly explained that the Senate bill and the Bush plan, while less repressive than the hated HR 4437, would also be a disaster for immigrant workers. They have instead insisted the movement remain focused on demanding papers for all and on building a powerful movement from below to force big business and their politicians to meet our demands.

Since May 1, the movement has been somewhat paralyzed. The conservative leaders, alarmed by the radical nature of the protests and worried that they were losing control of the situation, worked to stop further mass mobilizations, focusing instead on lobbying Congress. Their policy of supporting the Senate bill has also led to widespread political confusion within the immigrant community.

This experience shows that one of the key tasks in the next period is to build genuine, democratic, mass organizations of the immigrant rights movement that are open and accessible to the hundreds of thousands of workers and youth who are looking to get active. At the same time, there is a need for the left wing of the movement to come together in a more organized way to provide a clear alternative lead to the establishment-oriented groups opposed to militant actions or working-class demands.

It is urgent that these steps are taken to place the movement on a stronger organizational footing given the impending attacks coming down in the next period. These attacks will create major opportunities to continue building a massive immigrant rights movement. But the degree to which this is realized will depend on how well organized the movement is, particularly its left-wing, and the political positions it adopts.

Working-class Strategy
Across the country, the right wing is stepping up its attacks on immigrants. Its strategy is based on demagogically appealing to workers’ growing anger at deteriorating living conditions by scapegoating immigrants, diverting anger away from the real problems, like Corporate America’s attacks on working people and the war in Iraq. The Democratic Party, which is tied by a thousand strings to the same big business establishment as the Republicans, has proven itself totally incapable of effectively answering this offensive.

It is the lack of a viable working-class or left-wing political alternative that allows the right wing to partly tap into the growing anger of a section of white workers and exploit it for their reactionary purposes. This sharply underlines the need for a new political force that can unite all working people – immigrant, Latino, black, and white – in a common struggle against our real enemy, the corporate oligarchy that arrogantly rules over this country.

A mass party of working people and the oppressed could play a vital role by taking up the campaign for papers for all and explaining to U.S.-born workers that Corporate America wants to keep immigrants in a second-class status so they can pay them poverty wages and bust up union drives, which pushes down the wages and conditions of all workers.

It is also essential that the immigrant rights movement consciously and systematically try to appeal to all working people in order to counter the racist divide-and-rule tactics of the right wing. This requires linking the struggle for immigrant rights with demanding living-wage jobs, healthcare, and union rights for all workers, immigrant and U.S.-born. This is because the only way racism, and the capitalist system that breeds it, can be successfully defeated is by building a united workers’ movement.

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