Why Class Unity Supports Amnesty for All Undocumented Immigrants

En Español

There are nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States who enjoy few social or political rights and face the daily prospect of expulsion. This is an indictment of the necessarily incomplete character of bourgeois equality, an affront to basic notions of human dignity, and an obstacle to the political project of working-class emancipation. Socialists have played an important role in supporting immigrant justice throughout history, but in recent years we have not always distinguished our analysis and political prescriptions from those of liberals and progressives.

The abolitionist impulse so prominent in the immigrant rights movement (IRM) during the early years of the Trump administration has been transformed to the point where it now seems compatible with a Blue Ribbon Commission-endorsed plan for immigrant justice, with the office of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez using proceeds from the sale of an “Abolish ICE” t-shirt to raise awareness about a congressional resolution proposing a set of sensible pro-immigrant actions that have little to do with the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Despite a nominal commitment to building power among immigrants and the stated aim of achieving citizenship for all 11 million who are undocumented, this new strategy is largely centered around pushing politicians to make technocratic reforms that include prioritizing targeted legalization measures for certain groups of immigrants deemed particularly worthy.

In contrast, Class Unity’s Resolution #19 “Amnesty for All, Socialist Internationalism, and the Right to Stay Home” is grounded in a radical universalism that seeks to build strength and solidarity through actively organizing immigrants in their capacities as workers, tenants, and community members, and by rallying around an unapologetic demand for amnesty for all the undocumented.  

Why Amnesty for All?

Immediate and unconditional amnesty for all undocumented immigrants has a long history in the IRM, going back to at least the 1970s. More recently, it was the clarion call of the massive immigrant rights protests of 2006, and the key demand put forward by the organizers of the one-day strike and boycott on May 1st of that year. Democratic politicians, many liberal NGOs, and the leaders from sectors of organized labor did not support the boycott and organized other marches calling for a “path to citizenship.”

The difference between amnesty and a path to citizenship is not a semantic one: an amnesty implies no fines, a minimal application fee at most, and a very short (or nonexistent) period in a temporary status. There are historical precedents for this. While not truly universal, the legalization programs included in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) allowed nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants to achieve legal permanent residency after a period of roughly one year in a temporary status, and are often referred to collectively as an amnesty. A path to citizenship, such as the one considered during the Obama administration, can entail restrictive criteria and thousands of dollars in fines on top of hefty fees, and include decades in legal limbo during which time immigrants would have to meet strict employment and other requirements—and thus remain super-exploitable and vulnerable to deportation. In other words, it is “predominantly neoliberal and punitive in orientation.” 

Of course the politics of immigration reform has shifted greatly in recent years—including in the few months since we drafted our resolution. Even the more moderate foundation-funded NGOs seem less willing to swap more border militarization and increased interior enforcement for legalization, and they talk about the importance of granting citizenship to all 11 million immigrants. The regularization procedures contained in the proposed US Citizenship Act of 2021 might not qualify as an amnesty, but they are far more generous than anything proposed in recent years in terms of eligibility and accessibility. These are important developments.    

At the same time, a blueprint for immigrant justice laid out by activists from various immigrant rights NGOs proposes the “modernization” of “various opportunities” to win citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants, and refers to smaller groups—such as DACA, TPS, and DED holders—as separate constituencies. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 immigration platform reflected this new strategy, calling for a “swift, fair, pathway to citizenship” for all 11 million undocumented immigrants but prioritizing an “expedited” pathway for undocumented youth and making reinstatement of DACA—a measure that is constantly under attack and can never be made permanent—one of its five key demands.

As socialists fighting for universal programs such as Medicare for All and universal childcare, we ought to ask why an expedited pathway for some—let alone the strengthening of a stopgap measure covering roughly 7 percent of the entire undocumented population—would be necessary if the general path to citizenship is truly swift and fair. One of the best arguments for truly universalist demands is that they build solidarity and power among the largest popular constituency, making it more difficult for the ruling class to undermine programs and pit workers against each other. We have seen the resentment that often arises—even in individual families—when only some members are able to benefit from special legalization programs or statuses. Actively pushing for measures that privilege certain populations simultaneously undermines the case for the millions who do not fall into any special category—no matter how many times one insists on the commitment to addressing all 11 million undocumented people.

To be clear, we are not arguing that one should never accept partial concessions from the state, such as the inclusion of a real path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers, TPS and DED holders, farmworkers, and certain essential workers in the infrastructural bill Democrats are trying to pass through the budget reconciliation process. We object to the notion that socialists should limit our demands to half measures that do not live up to socialist principles and could still leave millions of workers in a state of extreme precarity, denied even basic protections against their bosses and landlords.

Solidarity and the Regulation of Migrant Labor

Decades of capitalist globalization, corporate trade deals, and rapacious US policies toward Latin America in particular are largely responsible for the most recent wave of mass migration to the United States. Meanwhile, the ongoing destruction of what was already a severely unjust refugee and asylum system has led to brutal treatment at the southern border of the “surplus populations” inexorably produced by the capitalist system, and amounts to rubbing salt into open wounds. We unequivocally oppose all this.

There have been times when organized labor has adopted a decidedly restrictionist position toward immigration, particularly during the beginning of the twentieth century. We understand why this may have been the case, given the deliberate efforts of the capitalist class to weaken working-class organization by increasing the domestic labor supply, using migrants as strikebreakers, and propagating racialist ideology. Idealist explanations denouncing the presence of xenophobia or nativism within unions only benefit the liberal wing of a ruling class that delights in portraying itself as “woke” and the working class as irredeemably racist (and implicitly white).

But facile formulas that equate immigration restriction with working-class power are of little practical use—and particularly so in a globalized capitalist economy in which mobile capital can often pack up shop and seek cheaper labor elsewhere. Plenty of left-wing unions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, consistently opposed alliances with nativist forces, and often faced (literally) murderous repression at the hands of state agents and capital’s own private armies for upholding the principles of proletarian internationalism. Other unions changed their views over time. In the face of sustained criticism from groups such as the Centro de Acción Social Autonoma-Hermandad General de Trabajadores, César Chávez and the United Farm Workers eventually took the position that advocating for amnesty and full bargaining rights for the undocumented was a more shrewd strategy than pressing the state for more enforcement efforts at the border. The AFL-CIO adopted a similar position around the turn of the century, and formally withdrew its support for criminal sanctions on employers who knowingly hire unauthorized workers, since the law’s loopholes were actually been granting capitalists more power to intimidate undocumented workers and disrupt their organizing drives.

Some commentators have taken a different approach. For example, Angela Nagle pushes for a mandatory nationwide implementation of E-Verify to make sanctions work more effectively. She is not wrong to suggest—if only implicitly—that sanctions could function differently in the future. While it may appear at times that ICE is merely a tool for the bosses to instill discipline into undocumented workers through terror, the agency has also increased its auditing of employers and raised the amounts of fines that can be levied for employing unauthorized immigrants. This uncertainty causes headaches for individual businesses who would like to be left alone to super-exploit their undocumented workers, and it has made the former more anxious about their dependence on the latter.

Missing from Nagle’s analysis is E-Verify’s role as the linchpin of ongoing efforts by the state and capital to produce new pools of tightly controlled noncitizen workers. She states that business lobbies—and Big Ag in particular—have spent years “sabotaging” the program, and points to the refusal of the Western Growers Association and the California Farm Bureau to back a 2018 bill that would have made E-Verify mandatory despite the inclusion of “several pro-business concessions.” But if Western Growers is so gung-ho about destroying E-Verify, why does the powerful trade association support the Farm Workforce Modernization Act which, like the “comprehensive immigration reform” bill of 2013 that it helped write, makes a revamped version of E-Verify mandatory for agricultural employers?

The reason is that the current legislation “streamlin[es] the agricultural guest worker program to provide a more accessible, predictable and flexible future flow of labor,” and includes a legalization program for many undocumented farmworkers. The 2018 bill, in contrast, made E-Verify mandatory while neither “properly ensuring a sufficient flow of future guest workers” nor offering any form of legal status for undocumented farmworkers. In other words, capitalists can kick their addiction to undocumented immigrants so long as they can secure access to other sources of “cheap labor,” whether it be so-called guest workers or long-term immigrants nominally on their way to a “path to citizenship.”

Nagle argues that it is nearly impossible for unions to organize “if an entire workforce can be easily and cheaply replaced,” but then proceeds to advocate for a policy that is opposed by unions and almost always linked to capital’s efforts to enlarge the low-wage labor pool with captive workers who are dependent on employers for housing and the few rights afforded to them under the law, as is the case with the rapidly-expanding and hyper-exploitative H2-A system of temporary contract labor. She characterizes undocumented immigrants as impossible to organize, but refuses to take a position on amnesty for the eleven million already here, while simultaneously conceding that leftists should “vigorously defend migrants against inhumane treatment.”

We reject the implicit notion that “leftists” and “migrants” constitute two mutually exclusive categories, and are worried that this view has come to dominate much thinking within the IRM as well.

NGOs and Immigrant Rights

The IRM has been heavily dependent on foundation-funded nonprofits since at least the 1980s. On the one hand, immigrant rights NGOs have played an important role in achieving real material gains over the years, whether it be in winning back pay for immigrant workers, achieving better enforcement of labor law at the local level, rolling back some of the worst excesses of the nationwide attack on immigrant rights, providing important services to those facing the brunt of it, and even engaging in a certain amount of political education and consciousness raising. We are neither attacking individual NGOs nor the people who work for them. In fact, we have plenty of experience working and volunteering with immigrant rights NGOs of various political persuasions over the past dozen years.

On the other hand, the hegemony of NGOism within the IRM serves as a bulwark against the development of more radical politics and a socialist horizon. It is simply naïve to believe that accepting millions of dollars of funding from foundations with their own strategic objectives will not influence an organization’s trajectory—regardless of the individual backgrounds of its leaders. This does not mean that DSA should rule out all collaboration with NGOs, but that we should be discerning when forming alliances, and only do so when it is tactically and strategically appropriate. We are skeptical of those who claim to represent the authentic voice of the “migrant grassroots,” and of socialists who adopt a deferential posture to immigrant rights NGOs due to a blind faith in the “self organization of the oppressed.” 

Immigrants need to be at the forefront of their struggle for equal rights, but the strikes and marches of February 16, 2017 were a reminder that their fighting capacities sometimes outpace those who seek to organize them, whether it be local workers centers or bureaucratic labor unions. Let’s stop pretending that real class divisions and strategic debates somehow don’t exist in a “community” encompassing tens of millions of people from diverse backgrounds. And let’s start appreciating that immigrants—like black people and other oppressed groups—engage in class struggle against the boss, the landlord, and all forms of capitalist exploitation. Our resolution calls on socialists to support these efforts.

Consider the experience of a Class Unity member organizing within his local tenants union, who was approached by an undocumented immigrant who came to the US from Mexico with his family five years ago, and likely would not qualify for any of the legalization measures included in the infrastructure bill currently under consideration for passage via budget reconciliation. The tenant understands very well that the violence he had fled in his home country was in part due to the US government’s longstanding efforts to combat left-wing forces in Mexico and make its territory safe for the expansion of transnational capital, and he was eager to mount a campaign against his landlord for illegally renting out an adjacent unit on Airbnb during the height of the pandemic, posing serious health risks and leading to late-night noises constantly waking up his toddler.

This was quickly derailed, however, when the landlord threatened to call ICE on the tenant to have him deported, and to even hire a local gang to kill him. The city police were uninterested, the nonprofit law firm that had initially shown interest was unable to help, and the local immigrant rights group provided virtually no assistance. These types of stories are all too commonplace across the US, but those who would essentialize immigrants and even Spanish-speaking Latinos as some sort of homogenous group sharing the same interests might be surprised to learn the landlord is also a Latino immigrant. The tenant has since been elected to a leadership position in the union, which has provided much-needed solidarity and is currently weighing the options for potentially going public with his case, and for providing other types of material support. 

This simple anecdote demonstrates why amnesty for all is such an important working-class demand, and it calls into question the myth that immigrants only ever engage in the fight for immigrant rights, narrowly conceived. It was this episode—and the years of experience a number of Class Unity members have had in organizing workplaces, housing complexes, and neighborhoods with large immigrant populations—that ultimately led to the drafting of our resolution.

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