The Struggle for Immigrants’ Rights


Although May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, has traditionally been a celebration of labor movements worldwide, it acquired a unique character in the United States in 2006 when millions of immigrants took to the streets in over 150 cities. This culminated in the largest strikes, boycotts, and protests in decades for immigrants’ rights. Immigrants have continued to reinvigorate the May 1 tradition since, and we should expect no different this year.

May Day demonstrators have fought against deportation and anti-immigration legislation such as Arizona’s SB 1070 and Alabama’s HB 46, but the question of what we should be fighting for has been far less clear in the political discourse of the movement. Both the left and the right, as well as past May Day demonstrators, have called for “immigration reform,” but what does this really mean?

A division exists in the Republican Party over immigration policy. There are those who advocate for a full-scale militarization of the border, no legalization, crackdowns on employers who hire undocumented workers, and mass deportations. Others seek to regulate and even legalize what they see as a necessary flow of immigrant labor. The latter view predominates among the ruling elite and Congress.

During the 2008 elections, Obama championed the cause of immigration reform, which was one reason why he obtained 67% of the Latino vote (Pew Research Center, 12/2011). But as he has since demonstrated, the liberal agenda of immigration reform is sometimes indistinguishable from right-wing views. Obama has deported more immigrants in a two-year period than any other president (Reuters, 9/2011), averaging to about 1,100 deportations per day (Huffington Post, 8/2011). The notorious E-Verify system started under Bush’s administration has been expanded under Obama (Committee on the Judiciary, 8/2011). Obama further militarized the U.S.-Mexican border by tripling the number of intelligence analysts working there and sending 1,200 National Guard troops, which resulted in increased deaths (NY Times, 5/2010). Obama deployed drones to patrol the skies (, 5/2011) and continued to fund the War on Drugs (, 2/2012).

Free Trade Policies

Obama also enacted a free trade treaty with Colombia (Boston Globe, 4/2012), continuing the disastrous policies of trade liberalization which have overwhelmingly benefited U.S. big businesses and increased poverty throughout Latin America: for example, by putting small-scale farmers out of work and propelling them to migrate into urban slums.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was passed by another Democratic president, Bill Clinton. This legislation has accelerated immigration from Mexico to the U.S. due to the halving of Mexico’s real wages and the loss of millions of Mexican jobs as businesses collapsed from being unable to compete with less expensive U.S. goods. This became possible when NAFTA ended subsidies for farmers in Mexico but not for agribusinesses in the U.S.

Where jobs along the border were created in the “maquiladoras,” assembly plants, workers endured sweatshop conditions and their job security was tied to the U.S. market, which would plummet during recessions (Charlip & Burns, 2011). The two million workers who have been driven out of agriculture and the countless others who live in dire poverty from low wages are among those who cross the border hoping to feed their families (

The Politics of Immigration “Reform”

“Immigration reform” as promoted by both Republicans and Democrats has served the purpose of maintaining tight control over the activity and activism of immigrants and solidifying the second-class status of immigrant workers. For example, a deal was made between Democrat and Republican senators under George W. Bush to grant work visas to undocumented immigrants if they met strict requirements. It also barred undocumented workers from obtaining jobs, increased border security and, most telling of all, it created restrictions on visa eligibility for relatives outside of the immediate family unless they had advanced skills and education (USA Today, 5/2007).

Thus, immigration was transformed from a family-based system to a merit-based system designed to meet the needs of U.S. employers by limiting immigration to those who could help America compete in the global economy. The provision for a guest-worker program creates a large semi-permanent pool of exploitable immigrant labor and allows the ruling elite to summon and dismiss these workers at will. This makes unionization almost impossible and justifies their horrific working conditions.

Other proposed paths to citizenship for undocumented persons as a result of the “reform” process will end up benefiting the U.S. corporate war machine more than they do immigrant communities. Many immigrants’ rights activists are increasingly recognizing the limits of the Dream Act, which promises citizenship to undocumented youth in return for military service or completion of a college degree ( Given the extreme educational inequalities confronted by young people of color, increasing tuition costs, cuts to federal grants for students, record levels of youth unemployment, and generally higher levels of poverty among undocumented families, the ability to afford a college education is out of the question.

Survey and research studies show that Latino youth are much more likely to serve in active military duty than white youth ( and much more likely to drop out of college than white youth (Pew Research Center, 6/2004). The military option becomes the most plausible path to citizenship for the majority of undocumented youth, turning the Dream Act into a de facto military draft.

Full Legalization for All!

We should reject the immigration reform policies of the Democrats and Republicans and, instead, call for full legalization and citizenship rights for all undocumented persons. Otherwise, U.S. society will continue to reap the benefits of undocumented labor while denying these workers legal protections and basic human rights.

Not only do undocumented workers hold jobs essential to the U.S. economy, but they also pay, on average, $80,000 more in taxes over their lifetimes than they consume through government services. Between 1996 and 2003, undocumented workers paid over $90 billion in taxes (USA Today, 4/2008). They contribute $8.5 billion in Social Security and Medicare taxes each year, most of which they will never be able to claim (NY Times, 5/2011). In 2010, undocumented immigrants paid $11.2 billion in taxes, more than top-profiting U.S. banks and corporations that even received bailouts from our pockets (, 4/2011). Although the right wing scapegoats immigrants for the economic recession, the real blame lies with Wall Street, enabled as it was by the unjust economic, political, and social structures under capitalism.

Because undocumented workers work for lower wages and in worse conditions than other workers, real protection for immigrants via full legal rights – leading to less low-level competition to drive down wages overall – would raise working standards for everyone.

Giving immigrants full legal rights is now off the political agenda for the two major parties. Yet, in 1986, Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act into law, granting amnesty to three million immigrants who had entered the U.S. before 1982 (, 7/2010). Despite certain reactionary provisions in the bill, the fact that the amnesty component was agreed upon by a conservative Republican president shows, today, how far both parties have moved to the right.

Building a United Movement

Immigrants’ rights movements have won significant reforms over past decades. But the movement today must build a united movement for full legal rights among wider layers of the working class and other social movements, or else it will have to continue to rely on the two major parties to negotiate and renegotiate the terms of immigrants’ indentured servitude. This strategy is needed today more than ever due to the deep crisis of the economy and the capitalist system, which drives both parties to exploit immigrants for cheap labor.

A movement of immigrants united with the broader working class can also combat the ruling elite’s attempts to fractionalize workers via arbitrary competition along racial or immigration lines. Fighting for immigrants’ rights should take place in the context of fighting for workers’ rights and ending the oppressive power structures of capitalism, a system built on racism and the exploitation of certain social groups in order to increase profits. A movement united toward this end will ensure that one social group will not be left behind as another is favored in the workplace or gains more rights in the wider society, and that victories secured by political movements will be sustainable.

Unions have a crucial role to play in a united movement, as seen in the effectiveness of campaigns by Unite HERE, SEIU, and UFCW to recruit and mobilize immigrant workers over the past few years. However, immigrant workers can play a much larger role than just increasing union membership. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, immigrants were at the forefront of building trade unions and bringing socialist ideas and traditions of radical struggle into the American labor movement. Today, their radical ideas and militancy can, as seen during May Day, help revive the labor movement, redevelop the activist layer of workers, combat union bureaucratization, and build independent working-class parties that represent people of all colors.