Revolution #92, June 17, 2007
Senate Immigration Bill:
The Clash in the Halls of Power…and the Real Interests of the People
On June 7, the immigration bill that was being considered in the Senate hit a major roadblock—and may have been stopped for good--when the bill's backers failed to close off the debate and move toward a final vote. Democratic majority leader Harry Reid withdrew the bill, and it is unclear at this point what will happen. The bill may or may not be taken up by the Senate again later.
The Senate bill was put together by ruling class "wise men"—a small group of Democrat and Republican senators, working with Bush. In the media, the bill has been portrayed as a “grand compromise” that “balances” the calls for “stricter border enforcement” with a means to provide “a path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants. But this is a distortion of what this proposed law is actually about.
This is not a clash pitting anti-immigrant, “pro-enforcement” forces against more “moderate,” “pragmatic,” and “pro-immigrant” forces. At the heart of this Senate proposal are: (1) further militarization of the border and expansion of immigrant detention camps; (2) a “guest worker” program that keeps immigrants in slave-like conditions; (3) a “legalization” scheme to force undocumented immigrants to register with the government in exchange for a temporary visa allowing them to work legally and a promise—with many conditions attached—of official permanent residency years down the road; (4) major restrictions in the ability of U.S. citizens and permanent residents to bring family members legally into the U.S., which would result in splitting families apart. Amendments added to the bill before it was withdrawn made the provisions even more repressive—like the one by Texas Republican Senator Cornyn calling for rejected applications for the temporary visas to be turned over to law enforcement agencies, so that immigrants who didn't meet the requirements could be deported right away.
The Senate bill, if it became law, would not represent anything good for immigrants. (For more on the proposal, see "Senate Immigration Bill: A Program for Increased Repression and Legalized Slavery" by Travis Morales, in Revolution #90, online at revcom.us.)
Those behind the bill had apparently hoped to push it through "under the radar" and get quick approval. But the bill touched off major opposition—mainly from forces within Bush's own party (including all the Republican presidential candidates except John McCain) who declared that the bill was not tough enough on "unlawful aliens" and "border security."
The way the bill's high-level backers tried to rush it into law after writing it in secret points to the urgent necessities that are driving the capitalist-imperialist rulers to drastically change the situation around immigration. And the fact that the bill has now stalled—and perhaps died—reveals divisions among different forces in the ruling class as they push for what they believe to be in the best interests of their system. As this article will get into, those ruling class interests are not the interests of the people.
The Capitalists’ "Immigration Problem"
Both the proponents and opponents of the Senate bill in the halls of power agree that their immigration system is "broken." By this, they are NOT talking about the intolerable situation where many people in countries dominated and ruined by the U.S. and other imperialists are forced to migrate across borders in a desperate search for survival. They are NOT talking about the hundreds of immigrants who die each year trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border through remote deserts and mountains, as more and more walls, troops, and military equipment line the border. They are NOT talking about the living hell endured by millions of undocumented people in the U.S.—slaving at low-paid and dangerous jobs while in constant terror of being grabbed in gestapo immigration raids and suddenly separated from their family and friends.
What the ruling class voices mean by a "broken" immigration system is that the current situation threatens the strategic aims of their empire—around the world and here in the "homeland"—and their ability to control and profitably exploit immigrant labor.
It is true that the outlawing and suppression of undocumented immigrants have given the U.S. rulers huge power to super-exploit this section of the proletariat. Immigrant workers have become the backbone of industries like meatpacking and construction and essential to agriculture, various services, and other parts of the economy.
Undocumented immigrants have also been made into scapegoats for the insecurities and problems arising out of the workings of the capitalist system itself that are hitting the majority of people. Through the reactionary media, native-born people—proletarians and those in the middle-class—are bombarded with the message that “illegal” immigrants are to blame for low wages, messed-up schools, cuts in social services, and so on. This is an ugly game, meant to keep people from standing together against their common oppressor—it has to be seen for what it is and opposed.
But there are some acute ways in which the situation where 12 to 20 million people are living "in the shadows" within the U.S. borders has come in conflict with some other strategic interests of the imperialists.
First, it is a big problem from their class standpoint that there are millions within the "homeland" who, by necessity, have become adept at living "outside the law," avoiding the eyes and reach of the authorities. This includes those who come to the aid of immigrants targeted by the state—doctors and nurses who treat immigrants without asking for IDs, churches that give sanctuary to people threatened with deportation, etc. This comes directly into conflict with the whole repressive agenda concentrated in the Patriot Act, widespread wiretapping, and the gutting of basic rights.
Second, the very presence of the large and growing immigrant population brings a diversity of political and cultural experiences into American society. The strategic interests of the proletariat lie in breaking down national divisions among the people, and from that viewpoint this is an overwhelmingly positive development. But the rulers of this country insist that U.S. culture and politics be founded on white American chauvinism—even more so in a time of global war and aggression being carried out by the U.S. In their view, the inflow of immigrants undermines the uniformity and "cohesiveness" of American culture and politics. So they demonize the immigrants, stir people up against them, and demand severe repression against them.
Third, there is the question of Mexico. Just last year Mexico went through a major legitimacy crisis around the presidential elections; Mexican society remains extremely volatile and polarized. The U.S. fears the potential for things to “get out of hand” in Mexico, including the possibility of forces who oppose U.S. imperialism—even perhaps genuinely revolutionary forces—coming to power. They fear the possible social chaos and they also fear the possible political contagion between both sides of the border in the event of a revolutionary situation, and they want to prevent that from happening. This forms part of the reason for the extreme militarization of the border.
At the same time, they need to keep the border clamped down but “moving smoothly”: the military buildup on the border and crackdown on immigrants in the Southwest are threatening to tear apart the economies and people on the two sides of the border that are very intertwined. Capitalists in parts of the economy heavily dependent on immigrant labor are worried that the “guest worker” provisions in the Senate bill are too restrictive and disruptive—especially after an amendment cut the number of workers in the program in half to 200,000.
When all is said and done, the capitalists need the immigrants—both to keep the U.S. economy profitable and because the money they send home helps to maintain stability within Mexico. But they are trying to hammer out a way to maintain the immigrants in this suppressed condition while containing the contradictions it brings. (For a fuller explanation of all this, see “The ‘Border Crisis’ and Revolution: Stepping Back on Some Strategic Dimensions,” Revolution #48, online at revcom.us.)
Their Fascist "Solution"…And the Need to Resist
The government and its armed forces are not moving, at this point, to immediately round up millions of "illegal" immigrants and kick them out. Such a move could cause massive upheaval, even rebellion, within the U.S. as well as in Mexico.
Some key forces in the ruling class are moving to “regulate” immigrants in some different ways—and that is what is represented by the Senate bill. The “legalization” provisions of the bill are, in reality, a scheme to lure millions of undocumented people “out of the shadows” so that the government and law enforcement agencies can more readily identify and track them. Immigrants deemed “undesirable” by the authorities would be quickly deported. The rest would be kept in a highly vulnerable and exploitable position (after they pay thousands of dollars in “fines”). They would basically be placed on parole, instantly saddled with a “criminal” history (for crossing the border “illegally” and using fake documents), and with the threat over their heads of their visas being revoked if they don’t keep to the program—which could mean anything from running afoul of the law in some way to not holding a steady job to not learning English quickly enough. Along with this, the Senate bill’s provisions for a “guest worker” program would create a caste of contract workers who are brought into the U.S. under tight control, exploited for a few years, and then packed off back to their home countries.
All this is in the context of the border being further fortified with more troops and armed agents, walls, and high-tech surveillance equipment, and in the context of other measures like expansion of detention centers to that they can hold 27,500 immigrants each day.
At the same time, they have launched a very fascistic crackdown on immigrant communities—with widespread raids, detentions, and breaking up of families—in order to spread terror among the people. (See, for example, "Chicago: Armed Raids in the Heart of Mexican Community," "San Diego: Fascist Raids and Vigilantes Terrorize Immigrant Communities," "Resistance to ICE Raids in San Rafael, CA," and other recent articles in Revolution, available online at revcom.us.)
But the clampdown on immigrants is stirring up much anger and protest, among immigrants as well as those born here. Last spring, millions of politically awakened people poured into the streets seemingly out of nowhere, in opposition to the fascist Sensenbrenner bill passed by the House which, among other things, called for making all undocumented immigrants into felons. And in the face of the massive raids and roundups of immigrants this Spring, hundreds of thousands marched across the U.S. on May 1 this year—including in L.A., where people went up against a brutal attack by the LAPD.
The fascist anti-immigrant offensive is raising the question: what kind of society are we living in, where people are hunted down, separated from their kids, and deported…just because they have no official documents? A movement has arisen among religious people to give sanctuary to immigrants targeted by the government. Some cities and towns have declared themselves immigrant sanctuaries. The city of New Haven, CT, recently announced an “immigrant-friendly” policy of giving municipal ID cards to all who request them, no questions asked. (Two days later, in a clearly retaliatory move, immigration agents raided houses in a Latino community in New Haven and took away 31 people.) All this points to the potential for even greater resistance to grow quickly and spread further—which would have a tremendous impact broadly within the U.S., as well as in Mexico and other countries.
In short, there are huge contradictions facing the imperialists, and various ways that the moves they are making could backfire on them. Yet they are compelled to move to transform the current situation, and this is giving rise to some sharp divisions.
Left to itself, this current trajectory is not going anywhere good, for immigrants and for the masses of people overall. The situation today is already intolerable for millions. The raids at workplaces and in communities across the country have spread a blanket of terror. This intensifying fascist crackdown is part of the rulers’ efforts to “keep it all together” and put a lid on the politically volatile immigration situation, even if Bush and Congress are unable to hammer together a law at this point. Some reactionary forces envision a nightmarish scenario—where such terror tactics combined with a bristling militarized border will eventually lead to the elimination of “illegal” immigrants within the U.S. And any “solution” or “compromise” that the political representatives of this capitalist-imperialist system may bludgeon through can only bring even more horrors.
All this underscores the urgency for immigrants and those who stand with them to resist this fascist offensive. The demonizing of and attacks against immigrants are the kind of reactionary dynamics that have historically led to death camps. But things are not static and one-sided. In a situation, as described above, where the rulers at the top are being driven by pressing necessities to act on a major question but are sharply divided on how to move forward, the divisions and sharp struggle at the top can create fissures where mass protest and resistance can burst through and change the whole political equation.
A glimpse of such potential could be seen in the aftermath of the LAPD assault on the May 1 immigrant rally, which provoked widespread outrage when people saw images of police shooting rubber bullets into the crowd and beating journalists and others. In the face of this brutality, a determined core of people pressed forward with the just demands of the immigrants, forged new allies, and forced city officials onto the defensive politically. Such developments show the possibility of uniting people far beyond the immigrant communities, and relying on people’s own efforts to taken on and defeat the anti-immigrant attacks and the overall fascist offensive.
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