Note: This article previews an argument that will be made at book length in "Illegal – How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants,"
Beacon Press, Fall 2008
Mr. Sensenbrenner’s Family Business
In December 2005, Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner convinced his Republican colleagues (and to their shame, 35 Democrats) to pass one of the most repressive immigration proposals of the last hundred years. His bill, HR 4437, would have made federal felons of all 12 million undocumented immigrants in the
Representative Sensenbrenner is more than just a leader of Congressional xenophobes, however. His family is intimately involved in creating the conditions that cause migration, and then profits from the labor it makes available. In fact, the Sensenbrenner family connections are a microcosm of the political economy of migration itself.
James Sensenbrenner’s grandfather started Kimberley Clark, one of the world’s largest paper companies, and Sensenbrenner and the family trust remain important stockholders. The company’s Mexican counterpart, Kimberley Clark de Mexico, is a close associate of the Mexican mining giant, Grupo
The mines lie just a few dozen miles south of the
In 1998, Grupo
Then last year the mining giant prevailed on the Mexican government to depose the president of the country’s miners union, Napoleon Gomez Urrutia.
Gomez had accused the company of industrial homicide after the terrible Pasta de Conchos disaster, when 68 men died in a coalmine explosion. Grupo
Miners in Cananea and Nacozari stopped work for months to force Gomez’
reinstatement. Finally, last summer, the government gave Grupo
During those very months when workers began to go north, Sensenbrenner organized a series of rump Congressional hearings to defend his bill. He fulminated against undocumented immigrants, claiming they had no place in the
Other voices in Congress criticized the Representative, arguing that the labor of migrants was needed in the
One of these dependent corporations is Mr. Sensenbrenner’s family business.
Every year, Kimberley Clark, a large paper company, . converts tons of wood pulp into leading brands of toilet paper. Deep in
Every year, laborers from
The debts of guest workers are so crushing that in 1998, 14 men drowned as the van carrying them to work careened off a bridge into the
No one gets overtime, regardless of the law. Companies charge for everything from tools to food and housing. Guest workers are routinely cheated of much of their pay. If they protest, they’re put on a blacklist and won’t be hired the following year. Protesting wouldn’t do much good anyway. The U.S. Department of Labor sees no problem with this abuse. It almost never decertifies a guest worker contractor, no matter how many complaints are filed against it.
The paper industry depends on this system. Twenty years ago, it stopped hiring unemployed workers domestically, and began recruiting guest workers.
As a result, labor costs in the forests have remained flat, while paper profits have soared. Mr. Sensenbrenner’s family business didn’t invent this, but the low price of labor allows landowners to sell their trees for less. Kimberley Clark certainly profits from that.
Displaced People – an International Reserve Army of Labor
In this political debate, people like the miners or pine tree planters are called job seekers, rather than political refugees. It would be more accurate to call them migrants, and the process migration.
The miner fired in Cananea or Nacozari is as much a victim of the denial of human and labor rights as he or she is a person needing to find a job in the
This year, teachers and farmers left
Are the fleeing Oaxacans job seekers or refugees? They’re both, of course.
But in the
The key part of that process is displacement, an unmentionable word in the
Whether acknowledged or not, displacement has been indispensable to the growth of capitalism. As early as the 1700s, the English enclosure acts displaced home weavers by fencing off the commons where they raised sheep for wool. Hunger then drove weavers into the new textile mills, where they became some of the world’s first wage workers. The textile mills produced the wealth of the first British capitalists. At the same time, displacement created the beginnings of the British working class.
Not long after, Karl Marx called
Displacement and enslavement produced more than wealth. As slaveowners sought to differentiate slaves from free people, they created the first racial categories. Society was divided into those with greater and fewer rights, using skin color and origin. When Mr. Sensenbrenner called modern migrants "illegals," he used a category inherited and developed from slavery.
Today displacement and inequality are just as deeply ingrained in capitalism today as they were during the slave trade and the enclosure acts of English in the 1700s when the system was born. In the global economy, people are displaced because the economies of their countries of origin are transformed. That transformation enables corporations and elites to transfer value, or wealth, out of those countries. After World War Two, the former colonies of the
In countries like
Foreign investors were kept out, and important industries like oil were nationalized.
The economic reforms that followed the end of the cold war, imposed by rich countries and institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, destroyed those systems of national development. It was a very brutal and chaotic process for those at the bottom of the income scale, but for those at the top, immensely profitable.
Mexican mines like Cananea and Nacozari, along with factories, railroads and other industrial enterprises were sold off to private investors. New owners then increased profits by attacking unions and laying off thousands of workers.
The oil industry, nationalized with the contributions of schoolchildren in the 1930s, no longer produced money for loans to small farmers or enterprises. Instead, in 1994 as the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect,
NAFTA rules required the Mexican government to dissolve the Conasupo stores.
This government enterprise bought corn from small farmers at subsidized prices to enable them to keep farming and stay on the land. Then the stores sold tortillas made from the corn, along with milk and other farm products, to poor urban consumers at subsidized prices. NAFTA rules called this form of social welfare a barrier to the free market.
Without price supports or rural credit, hundreds of thousands of small farmers found it impossible to sell corn or other farm products, even for what it cost to produce them. When NAFTA pulled down customs barriers, large
One company, Gruma, monopolized tortilla production, while the largest retailer in
Where Do Displaced People Go?
Displaced people become an indispensable and growing part of the workforce in this new world order. Not all cross borders. The explosive growth of export processing zones, where maquiladora factories produce for export, depends on migrant labor.
The creation of the original maquiladora program, the Border Industrial Program, on the U.S. Mexico border in 1964, was originally conceived as a way to absorb thousands of unemployed braceros, who had been laboring in the
To supply those jobs, it changed laws that had prohibited direct
ownership of factories in
The maquiladora workforce was drawn from the south, from migrants displaced by the same economic changes – privatization, rural poverty, job elimination
- that permitted construction of the maquiladoras themselves. A new labor regime was put in place to attract foreign investment, including the brutal repression of independent unions or challenges to the low-wage model.
Prior to the economic reforms, the U.S. Mexico border was a remote area, with a very low population, far from
Without the simultaneous dislocation of workers from Mexican factories, and farmers from south
This development model has since been reproduced in developing countries all over the world. In the early 1990s the U.S. Agency for International Development not only financed the construction of industrial parks in rural
Attention has focused on the construction of the factories and industrial parks, while the dislocation that produced the workforce has been much more hidden. Yet maquiladora workers often later become migrants traveling far beyond the nearest export processing zone. When the maquiladoras are located a stone’s throw from the border, crossing it is almost inevitable.
In developed countries migrant labor is even more important.
east coast, migrants come from the
In other industrial countries, a rising percentage of the rural workforce is now made up of migrants. Industrial agriculture based on migrant labor has expanded to developing countries also. Large corporations like Dole and Del Monte draw a workforce from displaced and impoverished rural communities, like those of AfroColombians in
Migrants now dominate the service industry workforce in most developed countries. As the most recent job seekers, they begin in the most marginal and contingent jobs. Day laborers on
But migrant labor doesn’t remain at the fringe of the economy. The world’s oil industry is completely dependent on it. The oil kingdoms of the