Immigration Doesn’t Have to Be a Zero Sum Game Pitting Natives Against Newcomers

My visiting-professorial year in and around in one of the nation’s many academic islands of indfference (and confusion) was a little demoralizing, but the Spring semester ended on a wonderful and inspiring note. A much-shortened version of the following speech (see below)was given to a rally called by the Organization of Latin American Students at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois on May 1, 06.

It was exciting to speak at a demonstration where the crowd was in the many hundreds, not just the usual little circle of anti-imperialists who made it to the campus antiwar rallies I attended over the last year at NIU:

The crowd included many students but there were also lots of local working people, some of them “illegals,” from DeKalb’s increasingly Latino East Side

The (expanded) oration:


Buenos Tardes – Good Afternoon!

Si Se Puede – Yes We Can.

Driving over here I punched up WBBM on my car radio- the Chicago news radio station to see what it would be like to try to drive into downtown Chicago right now.

You know what they said? “Don’t Bother.”

“Don’t bother” because the Loop is all “tied up” with “immigrant rights marchers.”

Those immigrants rights marchers are also human rights marchers, social justice marchers, and democracy marchers.

According to one traffic reporter in a helicopter, it’s nothing but “a sea of humanity” downtown.

The same democratic human rights sea is surging all over the country today: here in DeKalb, where I see we are in the many hundreds; over in Aurora; up in Rockford; hundreds of thousands out in Los Angeles, down in Dallas and San Antonio and out east in New York……you name the place.


It’s really fitting that we are starting off this march in a place named after Martin Luther King, Jr., the greatest civil rights leader of the 20th century. Immigrant rights have emerged as the civil rights movement of the early 21st century!

And it’s neat that this is May First – May Day. May Day is the workers’ holiday – the day when working people, who historically in the U.S. have included many immigrants, stand up and march for social justice within and beyond the workplace.

“Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Sleep, and Eight Hours for What we Will” said the immigrants and workers who marched in Chicago on May Day in 1886.

“We Shall Overcome” said the people who marched with Martin King in Chicago and all over the country in the 1960s.

“Si Se Puede” – Yes We Can – said Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in the 1960s and still today.


I am obviously not Latino; you could tell that from my accent I’m sure. But I am the great grandchild of once alien newcomers – Finnish immigrants who came here to DeKalb, Illinois a century ago. Those immigrant ancestors of mine worked in manufacturing jobs and lived a little more than a mile away from here out on the southeast Side of DeKalb, which is now a predominantly Latino neighborhood. They made it into America’s factories, neighborhoods, schools, and political system with practically NO QUESTIONS ASKED before Congress passed any quotas on European immigration. They got in easily because they were white Europeans.

Why are there 11 or 12 million so-called “illegal aliens,” most of them from Central America and Mexico, in the U.S. today? Here are four reasons you don’t hear much about in our so-called “mainstream” media:

First, the U.S. has a long history of working to keep millions of people desperately poor in Central and Latin America by training, funding, equipping, and otherwise sponsoring vicious authoritarian state terrorism in that and other parts of the world. People from the region can tell you all about the long record of U.S.- sponsored repression of workers and farmers and intellectuals who dare to struggle for justice and decent living standards in Central America.

Some of my fellow Euro-Americans like to tell me…they say, “well shucks, I’m sorry all those folks are so damn poor down there…it’s a shame but it’s got nothing to do with me.”

They need to examine what their tax dollars and elected officials are doing to the Latin Americas.

Second, Uncle Sam’s so-called “free trade” policy, and here I’m talking especially about NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, is flooding the Mexico with heavily subsidized U.S. agricultural exports. Millions of Mexican farmers can’t compete with those North American imports. They have no choice but to abandon their land and seek better lives through emigration, legal and otherwise.

Third, Uncle Sam’s so-called Latin American “development” policy, conducted through such powerful neoliberal financial institutions as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, has long insisted that poor countries abandon efforts to improve and social conditions.

Fourth, and let’s please be honest about this, the U.S. capitalist “business community” loves stateless workers. It loves them to death.

Capitalists love stateless workers because workers who don’t have citizenship or recognized international rights have to live in the shadows. They can be mercilessly exploited because they are too afraid of deportation and the stigma associated with being an “illegal” to fight back against low wages or unsafe workplace conditions or environmental violations or the unfair funding of schools or police misbehavior or business control of the political system and the media …or against any of the many things that citizens have to oppose to keep this country a “democracy.” Workers and families who have to hide in darkness are useful for those who work constantly to reduce North American living standards and roll back our democracy.


One terrible and reactionary response is to try to cleanse the White Nation of all its “undocumented” labor by criminalizing them and anyone who assists them. That’s what this crazy Sensenbrenner bill that passed the House of Representatives would do. Besides being oppressive and terrorist, the Sensebrenner bill is impractical: the business community, for one, will never stand for it.

A second response, and this is what you are hearing from moderate Republicans and many Democrats, is a so-called compromise Senate bill, better called a “surrender bill,” that will sacrifice 7 or 8 million “illegals” to save 3 or 4 million. This is nothing but a devil’s bargain that would help refine an immigrant system of caste and apartheid while dividing up immigrant families.

A third response, and it’s the one we support up here, is to grant basic human rights to the so-called “illegals.” Give them political rights. Citizenship rights. Educational rights. Workplace rights. Union organizing and contract rights. National and transnational human rights. The whole enchilada.

That’s the deal my great grandparents got here in DeKalb one hundred years ago.

“Legal” U.S. citizens should extend the same deal to so-called “illegals” today. We should do this out of the goodness of our hearts but we should also do it out of our own self-interest.

Immigration doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game pitting natives against newcomers. Immigrants don’t have to be frightened pawns in the war of the rich and powerful against justice and democracy in the U.S. Immigrant workers who have political, legal, socioeconomic, educational, financial, workplace, union, cultural, and social rights – human rights – can add to our social and civic health. When stateless workers are allowed to come out of the shadows, they can become comrades, colleagues, companeros: fellow citizens in the ongoing struggles for justice in the North American workplace, for fairness in North American schools, for strong environmental protections, and for democracy and an end to racism and empire and inequality at home and abroad.

Thank you very much

Rally photos (not terribly confident about this link): http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/hillmanwolve/album?.dir=6b4dre2&.src=ph&store=&prodid=&.done=http%3a//photos.yahoo.com/ph//my_photos

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