After Congress passed NAFTA, six million
displaced people (He means Mexicans. -- Ed) came to the US as a result.
In a little over a month,
hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of people will fill the
streets in city after city, town after town, across the US. This year
these May Day marches of immigrant workers will make an important
demand on the Obama administration: End the draconian enforcement
policies of the Bush administration. Establish a new immigration policy
based on human rights and recognition of the crucial economic and
social contributions of immigrants to US society.
This year's marches will
continue the recovery in the US of the celebration of May Day,
recognized in the rest of the world as the day recognizing the
contributions and achievements of working people. That recovery started
on Monday, May 1, 2006, when over a million people filled the streets
of Los Angeles, with hundreds of thousands more in Chicago, New York
and cities and towns throughout the United States. Again on May Day in
2007 and 2008, immigrants and their supporters demonstrated and
marched, from coast to coast.
One sign found in almost every
march said it all: "We are Workers, not Criminals!" Often it was held
in the calloused hands of men and women who looked as though they'd
just come from work in a factory, cleaning an office building or
picking grapes. The sign stated an obvious truth. Millions of people
have come to the United States to work, not to break its laws. Some
have come with visas, and others without them. But they are all
contributors to the society they've found here.
The protests have seemed
spontaneous, but they come as a result of years of organizing,
educating and agitating - activities that have given immigrants
confidence, and at least some organizations the credibility needed to
mobilize direct mass action. This movement is the legacy of Bert
Corona, immigrant rights pioneer and founder of many national Latino
organizations. He trained thousands of immigrant activists, taught the
value of political independence, and believed that immigrants
themselves must conduct the fight for immigrant rights. Most of the
leaders of the radical wing of today's immigrant rights movement were
students or disciples of Corona.Immigrants, however, feel their
backs are against the wall, and they came out of their homes and
workplaces to show it. In part, their protests respond to a wave of
draconian proposals to criminalize immigration status, and work itself
for undocumented people. But the protests do more than react to a
particular congressional or legislative agenda. They are the cumulative
response to years of bashing and denigrating immigrants generally, and
Mexicans and Latinos in particular.
In 1986, the Immigration Reform
and Control Act made it a crime, for the first time in US history, to
hire people without papers. Defenders argued that if people could not
legally work they would leave. Life was not so simple.
Undocumented people are part of
the communities they live in. They cannot simply go, nor should they.
They seek the same goals of equality and opportunity that working
people in the US have historically fought to achieve. In addition, for
most immigrants, there are no jobs to return to in the countries from
which they've come. Rufino Dominguez, a Oaxacan community leader in
Fresno, California, says, "The North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA) made the price of corn so low that it's not economically
possible to plant a crop anymore. We come to the US to work because
there's no alternative."
Instead of recognizing this
reality, the US government has attempted to make holding a job a
criminal act. Some states and local communities, seeing a green light
from the Department of Homeland Security, have passed measures that go
even further. Last summer, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff
proposed a rule requiring employers to fire any worker who couldn't
correct a mismatch between the Social Security number the worker had
provided an employer and the SSA database. The regulation assumes those
workers have no valid immigration visa, and therefore no valid Social
With 12 million people living in
the US without legal immigration status, the regulation would lead to
massive firings, bringing many industries and businesses to a halt.
Citizens and legal visa holders would be swept up as well, since the
Social Security database is often inaccurate. Under Chertoff, the
Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has conducted sweeping
workplace raids, arresting and deporting thousands of workers. Many
have been charged with an additional crime - identity theft - because
they used a Social Security number belonging to someone else to get a
job. Yet, workers using another number actually deposit money into
Social Security funds, and will never collect benefits their
contributions paid for.
The Arizona legislature has
passed a law requiring employers to verify the immigration status of
every worker through a federal database called E-Verify, which is even
more incomplete and full of errors than Social Security. They must fire
workers whose names get flagged. And Mississippi passed a bill making
it a felony for an undocumented worker to hold a job, with jail time of
1-10 years, fines of up to $10,000, and no bail for anyone arrested.
Employers get immunity.
Many of these punitive measures
were incorporated into proposals for "comprehensive immigration reform"
that were debated in Congress in 2006 and 2007. The comprehensive bills
combined increased enforcement, especially criminalization of work for
the undocumented, with huge guest worker programs under which large
employers would recruit temporary labor under contract outside the US,
bringing workers into the country in a status that would deny them
basic rights and social equality. While those proposals failed in
Congress, the Bush administration implemented some of their most
draconian provisions by executive order and administrative action.
Together, these factors have
produced a huge popular response, which has become most visible in the
annual marches and demonstrations on May Day. Nativo Lopez, president
of both the Mexican American Political Association and the Hermandad
Mexicana Latinoamericana, says "the huge number of immigrants and their
supporters in the streets found these compromises completely
unacceptable. We will only get what we're ready to fight for, but
people are ready and willing to fight for the whole enchilada.
Washington legislators and lobbyists fear the growth of a new civil
rights movement in the streets, because it rejects their compromises
and makes demands that go beyond what they have defined as 'politically
The marches have put forward an
alternative set of demands, which include a real legal status for the
12 million undocumented people in the US, the right to organize to
raise wages and gain workplace rights, increased availability of visas
that give immigrants some degree of social equality, especially visas
based on family reunification, no expansion of guest worker programs,
and a guarantee of human rights to immigrants, especially in
communities along the US/Mexican border.
At the same time, the price of
trying to push people out of the US who've come here for survival is
that the vulnerability of undocumented workers will increase.
Unscrupulous employers use that vulnerability to deny overtime pay or
minimum wage, or fire workers when they protest or organize. Increased
vulnerability ultimately results in cheaper labor and fewer rights for
everyone. After deporting over 1,000 workers at Swift meatpacking
plants, Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff called for linking
"effective interior enforcement and a temporary-worker program.'' The
government's goal is cheap labor for large employers. Deportations,
firings and guest worker programs all make labor cheaper and contribute
to a climate of fear and insecurity for all workers.
The May 1 actions highlight the
economic importance of immigrant labor. Undocumented workers deserve
legal status because of that labor - their inherent contribution to
society. The value they create is never called illegal, and no one
dreams of taking it away from the employers who profit from it. Yet the
people who produce that value are called exactly that - illegal. All
workers create value through their labor, but immigrant workers are
especially profitable, because they are so often denied many of the
union-won benefits accorded to native-born workers. The average
undocumented worker has been in the US for five years. By that time,
these workers have paid a high price for their lack of legal status,
through low wages and lost benefits.
"Undocumented workers deserve immediate legal status, and have already paid for it," Lopez says.
On May 1, the absence of
immigrant workers from workplaces, schools and stores demonstrates
their power in the national immigration debate and sends a powerful
message that they will not be shut out of the debate over their status.
They have rescued from anonymity the struggle for the eight-hour day,
begun in Chicago over a century ago by the immigrants of yesteryear.
They overcame the legacy of the cold war, in which celebrations of May
Day were attacked and banned. They are recovering the traditions of all
working people for the people of the United States.
David Bacon is a writer and photographer. His new book, "Illegal People
- How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants," was
just published by Beacon Press.