Immigrants in the U.S. Take to the Streets
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release April 17, 2006
Immigrants in the U.S. Take to the Streets to Demand Equality
Interview with David Bacon, labor journalist, conducted by Scott Harris
As immigration reform legislation was debated in Congress, hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters have marched in cities from coast to coast across America. Their large numbers -- half a million in Chicago and estimates of a million in Los Angeles -- illustrated what'sat stake for the immigrant community if proposed laws are passed that criminalize undocumented workers living in the United States.
The leading legislative proposals now before Congress deal with two main paths to reform. The version passed by the House, sponsored by Ohio GOP Rep. Sensenbrenner, takes a punitive approach by making undocumented immigrants and those who assist them felons -- increasing employer sanctions and border security -- but offers no provisions for legalization. The Senate is considering a less draconian measure sponsored by Senators John McCain of Arizona and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts that proposes a guest worker program and a process for legalization.
Within this often emotional debate, strains of xenophobia can be seen in groups like the Minutemen, whose volunteers -- criticized by many as vigilantes -- patrol border areas without government sanction. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with labor journalist David Bacon, who takes a look at the U.S. immigration debate and the winners and losers among corporations and workers if provisions of some proposed reform legislation are signed into law.
DAVID BACON: Since the late 1990s, large U.S. corporations got together in a quite formal coalition called the "Central Worker Immigration Coalition" and began advocating the creation of guest worker programs. These are programs that are kind of like the old "Bracero" program that existed in the U.S. between 1942 and 1964, and what these programs would allow companies to do is to go to countries like Mexico, or Central America, or the Philippines or the Caribbean, and recruit workers who would then come to the U.S. under temporary visas and who would be subject to a great deal of control by their employers, and consequently, would essentially be forced to work as a much cheaper source of labor than companies might be able to get if they had to depend on the domestic labor supply.
And they have been advocating this in Congress, quite consistently over a period of years. So that's sort of been one of the dynamics pushing this debate forward, and I think that on the one hand, big companies, big corporations see that their time has come, in essence, that this is a good moment for them to push for them, because of the extreme xenophobic nature of some of the proposals in Congress, they've been able to put forward their guest worker plans and pretend that these are somehow "liberal" alternatives to proposals like the one by Congressman Sensenbrenner that passed through the House last December, that would essentially turn all 12 million undocumented people in the United States into federal felons.
And I think that they're also nervous about Bush' s declining political capital, and the fact that the administration has only a little over two years to go and if they're going to get what they want, they have to kind of make their move.
BETWEEN THE LINES: David, I'd like to get your comment on the massive mobilization of immigrants and their supporters all across this country in these giant demonstrations that I think really shocked the country to some extent. What affect, if any, will these demonstrations of opposition to the most draconian bills being proposed in Congress -- what affect, if any, do you think it'll have?
DAVID BACON: These were demonstrations of ordinary working people and families who came out of their homes and came into the street, in most cases, for the first time in their lives. And what is causing this on the one hand, is, as you say, these draconian proposals, especially the proposals that would turn 12 million people without papers into federal felons. That one has been like an electric shock for people's families, because there are so many families in the U.S. now, that have family members who would become criminals were this to pass.
But, I think there is also a positive demand that's being made by these marches and that is, these are marches overwhelmingly for equality. People are saying, "we want equal rights, we want to be part of the community, just like everybody else. We don't want a second-class status. We don't want to be looked as inferior, as just simply people whose only function in life is to work and make other people rich. We want equality." And I think that puts them very squarely in the middle of the tradition of civil rights movements historically in this country. This is the same demand that was made by African American people when they went into the streets in Selma, Alabama in the 1950s and the early 1960s.
When you take those demands for equality and you measure them up against what Congress has in mind, you can see how far from reality our congressional members are. These are hopefully going to produce the mode of power to defeat both of these approaches in Congress, both the criminalization and the guest worker approaches. These are hundreds of thousands of people who, when they get organized and mobilized, can vote, can organize unions, can exercise political and economic power and are going to do that.
BETWEEN THE LINES: We did leave out an important element of this conversation and maybe we can devote the last minute or so if you have another moment to spare here. The situation in Mexico is such that many people feel they are forced to come to the U.S. to look for work to support their families.
DAVID BACON: The North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA increased the pressure on Mexicans to come here. Corn exports, privatization of Mexican businesses with the layoffs of tens of thousands of workers, maintaining a low-wage economy for the convenience of U.S. corporations that wanted to go to Mexico and build factories in order to cut their labor costs. All of these things produce economic pressure on people and how people respond to it.
Mexico's a big country and people respond in a variety of different ways. But one big response is people come here. In fact, in Mexico, the kind of common and accepted wisdom is that every family in Mexico now has somebody, some member of it living on the other side of the border in the U.S. That’s how common its become. So, if we don't like that, we should stop negotiating treaties like that. We should stop negotiating a world order for the convenience of corporations and their ability to cut their labor costs.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the left-wing candidate for president of Mexico basically has said that his solution to the migration question is not like the current President Fox's support for this guest worker plan of Bush's. But what he proposes to do is to raise income, especially in the Mexican countryside, and make it possible for people to stay in their towns of origin, rather than being forced to leave for economic reasons.
Read Bacon's articles online at his website http://dbacon.igc.org
Related links on our website at http://www.btlonline.org#1hed:
* "Immigration Reform
In Living Color"
* "'Si Se Puede!' On Chicago's Streets"
* "Thousands Rally Across The Country For Immigrants' Rights,"
* "More Than 500,000 Rally In Los Angeles For Immigrants' Rights,"
* People for the American Way at www.pfaw.org
* The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights at www.nnirr.org
* Coalition for Justice in
the Maquiladoras at www.coalitionforjustice.net
* Mexican Labor News and Analysis at www.ueinternational.org/Mexico_info/mlna.php
* Jobs With Justice www.jwj.org/corepage.htm
* United Farm Workers www.ufw.org
* AFL-CIO Home Page www.aflcio.org
* Change to Win Labor Coalition www.calaborfed.org
Scott Harris is
executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard
on more than 40 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on
our website at http://www.btlonline.org. This
interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning,
syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for
the week ending April 17, 2006. This Between The Lines Q&A
was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.