Globalization and the Struggle for Immigrant Rights in the United States

Keynote Presentation for “El Gran Paro Americano II” Immigrant Rights Conference, Feb 3-4 2007, Los Angeles

It is an honor and a privilege to be here with you today, with the leaders and organizers of one of the most vital, just and cutting edge struggles of our time.  I am very grateful to Javier Rodriguez and the other conveners of this conference for inviting me to participate.  I want to start by highlighting three things that are unprecedented and interconnected, three current “upsurges,” and I am not referring to Bush’s escalation in Iraq.

The first is an upsurge in Latino immigration to the United States.    Officially, there are 34 million immigrants in the U.S., 12-15 million of them undocumented, although we know that these are underestimates.  Migration levels in recent years have surpassed those of the turn of the 19th century.  Of these 24 million, 18-20 million are from Latin America, the majority from Mexico, but also from Central America, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, and elsewhere.

The second is the upsurge of repression, racism, and discrimination against immigrants – the minutemen, the denial of drivers licenses, attacks, evictions, escalating raids, public segregation and anti-immigrant jim crow, and so on.  We are witnessing the criminalization of immigrants and the militarization of their control by the state.

Third is an unprecedented mass immigrant rights movement.  We saw last Spring the largest demonstrations in U.S. history. They had the powers that be quite frightened.  This is what poder popular looks like; what “power of the people” means.

 What is the larger context and backdrop of anti-immigrant politics and immigrant struggle?  In an attempt to answer this question I would like to put forward 10 points for analysis and discussion.

(1) These upsurges are situated in age of globalization; this new system of global capitalism we face.

This system entered a new stage began in late 1970s and 1980s, a transnational phase.  The capitalist system began dramatic expansion worldwide, and that is the structural underpinnings of the immigrant issue and ultimately those are the structures we need to address.  Capital has become truly transnational, with newfound global mobility, and new powers to reorganize the whole world.  In this new phase, the system depends on new methods of control over workers worldwide, and relies much more heavily on migrant workers who can be denied their rights and superexploited.  This denial of rights and superexploitation requires, in turn, new levels of control and repression.

Since the 1980s, global capital has been waging a worldwide offensive against global labor with the objective of capturing natural resources, markets, and labor pools around the world.  There is a new global production and financial system into which every country is being integrated.  There are new levels of global social and economic integration and new webs of interdependence.  A few thousand of the most powerful transnational corporations dominate the process.

Capitalist globalization constitutes in the practice a war of global rich against global poor.  There has been a massive transfer wealth from the poor to rich.  In the United States, relative wages have declined steadily since 1973 and we are witness to unprecedented global inequalities.  Currently just a little more than 10 percent of the world’s population consumes 85 percent of the world’s wealth, while the rest have to make due with just 15 of that wealth – wealth which the world’s workers generate but do not receive.  This is the new global social apartheid.  Hundreds of millions people worldwide have been displaced – turned into workers for global economy and thrown into new global labor market that global elites and transnational capital have been able to shape for their own purposes.

(2) In Latin America every country has been violently integrated into global capitalism through free trade agreements, privatizations, deregulation and neo-liberal social and economic policies.

In Mexico, this process began under De la Madrid in 1982 and accelerated under Salinas de Gortari starting in 1988.  But it really took off when NAFTA went into effect in 1994.  Under Calderon the process will continue and even deepen.  The PAN is now the party of global capital in Mexico.  But this process has taken place all over Latin America.  Throughout the continent millions of campesinos have been displaced, indigenous communities have been broken up, whole countries have become deindustrialized, millions of public sector workers fired, small businesses forced out by the onslaught of transnational corporations, such as Walmart in Mexico (there are over 700 Walmarts now in Mexico and they are the country’s biggest retailer and employer), systematic and ongoing austerity, the dismantling of social welfare programs, and so on.  Hundreds of millions of been thrown in to poverty, unemployment and dispossession.  As a result, political and military conflict has spread.

These policies of neo-liberalism, free trade and capitalist globalization have been imposed by global elites and their local allies, and especially by the U.S. government, against the wishes of the great majority.  They have created social disaster of unprecedented magnitude in Latin America; generated a crises of survival for hundreds of millions.

This is the backdrop for transnational migration.

In more academic terms, we can say that the transnational circulation of capital and the disruption and deprivation it causes, in turn, generates the transnational circulation of labor.  In other words, global capitalism creates immigrant workers.  The wave of outmigration from socially and economically devastated communities in Latin America began in 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s and in new century, coinciding with globalization and neo-liberalism.  In a sense, this must be seen as a coerced or forced migration, since global capitalism exerts a structural violence over whole populations and makes it impossible for them to survive in their homeland.

Yet, while transnational capital is free to move about world, to reshape world in its interests – transnational labor is subject to every tighter and more repressive controls.  9/11 gave the Bush regime the pretext to step up the war against immigrant rights, side by side with its war in Iraq, and to militarize society and create the beginnings of a police state that is wielded against immigrants. The war in Iraq reflects the war on immigrants.
We should acknowledge that borders are not in our interest.  Borders are instruments of dominant groups, of powerful economic groups, of capital, not labor.  They are functional to the system as mechanisms of transnational control.

(3) In this system, the U.S. and the global are economy increasingly dependent on immigrant labor that can be super-exploited and super-controlled.

We have the following data for the percentage of the workforce in different categories in in California that were immigrants in 1980 and in 1990s:

                     1980   1990
Construction    20       64
Janitor            26       49
Farm worker     58       91
Maid               34       76
Electronics       37       60
Child care         20      58
Restaurant        29      69
Gardener          37       66
Drywall install    9        48

Since 1990 there has been, further tremendous increase in employer dependence on immigrant labor.  The U.S. and global economy would grind to halt without immigrant labor.  Employers don’t want expensive labor, labor with citizenship rights.  They are seeking cheap, super-exploited labor, super-controllable labor.  Moreover, that 20 percent of the population that is affluent or well off want cheap “throw-away labor.”  They want to be able to maintain their privileges by drawing on an army of maids, nannies, gardeners, jornaleros, and so on.  Elites, employers, and the more affluent wish to maintain a reserve army of immigrant labor

(4) Sustaining such an immigrant labor force means creating – and reproducing – the division of workers into immigrants and citizens.

This is a new axis of inequality worldwide, between citizen and non-citizen.  This axis is racialized.  We are talking about racialized class relations world-wide, meaning that these are class relations of exploitation, but but they are also racist relations of racial/ethnic oppression and discrimination against latinos/as and other immigrants.

(5) The phenomenon of a super-exploited and super-controlled latino/a immigrant workforce is part of larger global phenomenon, that of transnational migration flows worldwide and the creation of immigrant labor pools.  We have:

• latinos/as and other immigrants in North America;
• Turkish, Eastern European, North African and Asian labor in Europe;
• Indian and Pakistani workers in Middle East oil producing countries;
• Central and Southern African immigrants in South Africa.
• Nicaraguans in Costa Rica, Peruvians in Chile, Bolivians in Argentina;
• Asian immigrants in Australia;
• Thai, Korean, and others in Japan, etc…..

In all these cases, repressive state controls over transnational labor creates conditions for “immigrant labor” as a distinct category of workers in relation to capital.  The creation of these distinct categories – “immigrant labor” groups all over the world -becomes central to whole global capitalist economy.  What we are seeing is rise of a transnational capitalist class that draws on immigrant labor pools around world for its own use.  And alongside this transnational capitalist class we see the rise of a transnational, or global, working class, but one split between immigrant and native workers.  In this situation, borders and nationality are used by capital, the powerful, and the privileged, to exploit, control, and dominate this global working class.

(6) In all these cases – but returning the focus to the United States – the system needs this immigrant labor; it can’t function without it!; without this reserve army of immigrant labor.

But – and this is the crux of the matter:  the system needs it to remain just that – immigrant labor:  vulnerable, undocumented, without citizenship and civil, political, and labor rights, deportable…in a word – controllable.  The aim of powers that be is not to do away with latino/a (and other) immigrants, but to exercise repressive control over immigrants.  It is this condition of deportable that they wish to create or preserve since that condition assures the ability to super-exploit with impunity, and dispose of without consequences should this labor organize, demand its rights and its dignity.
Latino/a immigrant labor is the new super-exploited sector of the labor force.  We need here to focus on black-brown unity.  African Americans used to constitute the super-exploited segment of the working class outside of the Southwest (where Chicanos/as played this role).  But in the 1960s and 1970s African Americans organized to win their civil rights.  They fought also for full social and labor rights, launched the movement for black liberation and also became the most militant group within the trade unions.  Since they have citizenship rights they cannot be deported.  So capital decided that African Americans were not desirable workers since they were not as vulnerable and were too militant and organized.  Employers turned massively in the 1980s and on to shifting to immigrant workers and to structurally marginalizing black workers.
So while African Americans are increasingly the structurally unemployed and marginalized sector of the working class – subject to hostility, neglect, and incarceration – Latinosas are now increasingly the super-exploited sector.  Black-brown unity is crucial.  We cannot let the system pit African Americans and immigrants against each other.

(7) This is therefore a contradictory situation:

From viewpoint of dominant groups, this situation presens a dilemma:  how to have their cake and eat it too?  How to super-exploit a latino/a immigrant population, yet how to simultaneously assure it is super-controllable and super-controlled?  Hence the dual emphasis on guest-worker programs alongside heightened criminalization, enforcement and militarization.


(8) We need to deepen a working-class focus!  The immigrant issue is a labor issue, one in which we see how race and class come together.

Let us recall that this is about transnational immigrants as workers for global capitalism, and Latino/a immigrants as immigrant workers.  Transnational capital wants a class of workers and the twin instruments in this endeavor become:

1: division of the working class into immigrant and citizen, and;

2:   racialization of the former.

The struggle of immigrant labor is the struggle of all working and poor people.  Any improvement of status of immigrant labor, any advance immigrant rights, is in interests of all workers.

But there is a technical point we need to stress because it is so important.  Global elites and dominant groups around world have imposed new capital-labor relations on all workers based on oppressive new systems of labor control and cheapening of labor.  This involves diverse contingent categories of devalued labor:  including:  subcontracted, outsourced, and flexibilized work, deunionization, casualization, informalization, part-time, temp, and contract work replacing steady full-time jobs, the loss of benefits, the erosion of wages, longer hours, and so on.  This is what we could call the “Walmartization” of labor.  It is not just immigrant workers – but all workers, immigrant and citizen alike – who are increasingly subject to these new capital-labor relations, in the Unites States and all around the world.

Here’s the key point: an immigrant workforce reflects these new global class relations; from the viewpoint of dominant groups, they are the perfect workforce for global capitalism.  Latino/immigrant workers are reduced to nothing but a commodity, a flexiblized and expendable input into the global capitalist economy, a transnationally-mobile commodity deployed when and where capital need them throughout North America and utterly dehumanized in process.

(9) Why increasingly hostility and oppression against latino/a community, not just from the state and the right-wing, but in the mass media, among the general public, and so on?

This system needs Latino/a immigrant labor, yet the presence of that labor scares both dominant groups and privileged – generally white/native – strata.  Dominant groups and privileged strata fear a rising tide of Latino immigrants will lead to a loss of cultural and political control, so the dynamic becomes racialized hostility towards latinos/as, and the problematic becomes how to control them.  Thus we have a rising tide of xenophobia and nativism, escalating racism, the Minutemen.

Really, what this amounts to is the beginnings of fascism, of a 21st century fascism.  The neo-fascist movement is led and manipulated by elites, but its base is drawn from those displaced from previously privileged positions.  White working and middle class sectors who face downward mobility and insecurities brought about by capitalist globalization are particularly prone to being organized into racist anti-immigrant politics by right-wing forces.  The loss of caste privileges for these white sectors of the working class is problematic for political elites and state, since legitimation and domination in the United States have historically been constructed through white racial hegemonic bloc.  Therefore, anti-immigrant forces try to draw in white workers with appeals to racial solidarity and to xenephobia, and by scapegoating immigrant communities.

(10) Conclusions.

Some have called this the “new civil rights movement.”  It is, but this is about much more than “civil rights.”  This is fundamentally about human rights, about what kind of a world we are going to live in.  No one can be left out in this struggle.  There is no room for compromise – full legalization for all.  But also: freedom from all forms of repression and persecution, and full labor, social, cultural and human rights for all.

The immigrant rights movement is the leading edge of popular struggle in the United States.  In the larger picture, beyond its immediate demands, the movement for immigrant rights challenges the oppressive and exploitative class relations that are at very core of global capitalism.  Bound up with immigrant debate in United States is the entire political economy of global capitalism, with all its injustices and inequalities.  This is the same the same political economy that is now being sharply contested throughout Latin America by the upsurge in mass, popular, and democratic struggles.

The movement for immigrant rights in the United States is part and parcel of this larger Latin American – and worldwide – struggle for social justice and human dignity.  We are integral to that worldwide struggle, on its cutting edge.  We need to see our struggle as part of a broader transnational movement, to develop transnational links with other immigrant movements around world and also with social movements of poor, indigenous, and workers in Latin America and elsewhere.

Please allow me by way of conclusion to humbly express my opinion on one matter:

The powers that be in the United States were terrified by the mass mobilizations of Spring 2006 and as we know they tried to intimidate movement by unleashing a wave of shameless repression that is still continuing.  Sme have pointed out that we don’t have the organizational capacity to defend all the victims of this repression.  That is very true.  But it is also true that the only real defense from this repression is not to back off, but to push forward, to step up and intensify, the mass struggle.  Unfortunately, there is no change without sacrifice.  Backing down or holding back only make it easier for the state and the right-wing to retake the initiative and carry out repression.  When you have seized the initiative – as we did last Spring – when your enemy is on the defensive, it is not the time to back down or demobilize but to sustain and deepen the offensive.

Let me close by quoted from Che Guevara, from something he said that is written on a poster that I saw on my way in here, and that is fitting for the moment:  “Seamos realistas; sonamos lo imposible.”

Thank you.

William Robinson is a professor of sociology at UCSB.

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