Toward a Left Position on Immigration

If all you knew about left-wing positions on immigration was what you read in the mainstream press, you’d have very skewed ideas about a very complicated situation.

Donald Trump has spent millions of taxpayer dollars to “defend” our borders against a nonexistent threat and flooded media with false narratives about people who are in fact fleeing violence and turmoil in their own countries.  Leftists who support the right of people to seek asylum are painted as advocates of “open borders” who would let this country be “overrun” by lawless hordes.

The truth is quite different. Tens of thousands of Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans flee  hunger and terror every year. Usually they go north alone or with their immediate families. Sometimes, they form caravans for protection from crimes, assault, rape, and extortion. The Exodus Caravan from Honduras that has reached our borders is an example of the latter and represents a small fraction of the people who seek asylum.

There is no reason to stop this caravan. Those eligible for refugee status should be admitted, as required by the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1946) and current U.S. law.  DSA’s Immigrants’ Rights Committee is actively involved with several local chapters in support of the migrants in the caravan in Tijuana, Mexico. In other words, yes to open borders for refugees.

The situation becomes more complex when we talk about open borders for economic refugees. Of course, that line is very blurry. There is a wide range of opinions on the left and among labor unions, although everyone on that spectrum agrees that the United States has contributed to the economic conditions that drive people to seek better lives elsewhere.

Let’s look at some history as well as some commonly held assumptions.

It’s Not About Open Borders

There is a longstanding and well-developed movement for immigration reform and connected policy proposals. Few proposals argue for open borders. Progressive policies and practices have emerged from within U.S. communities and the labor movement.  The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 permitted the legalization of some two million farmworkers and over four million others already living in the United States  This program was a hard-fought product of years of struggle by immigrants’ rights activists and their allies.

In addition to providing a path to legalization for many already here, the act required employers to attest to their employees’ immigration status  and made it illegal for employers to hire or recruit undocumented workers. These provisions were known as employer sanctions. The act also contained the program known as H2A, which provides a system of temporary, controlled farm labor “guest workers” with very limited ability to organize, have a union,  and to demand improved wages or working conditions. The law further includes H1B temporary workers in high-skill technical fields. By 2017, some 40,000 agricultural “guest workers” were employed in the fields and some 419,000 mostly high-tech H1B workers were employed in the United States.

Immigrant rights groups opposed employer sanctions, arguing that they would provide the employer with yet another way to exploit and intimidate immigrant workers.  In 1999 the AFL-CIO issued a resolution on organizing immigrant workers, explicitly opposing such sanctions as well as the currently-used E-verify system. In 1994, a Republican-led Congress, with the support of 102  Democrats, passed the North American Free Trade Act, the economic construction that provides for free trade of goods and services but did not change immigration law. The promise made by NAFTA supporters was that the new trade regime would significantly reduce immigration.  Instead, NAFTA impoverished millions of small farmers in Mexico and drove  many of these workers to migrate to the United States.

In 1996, the Republicans passed and Bill Clinton signed the repressive Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which  provided for the construction of fencing along the border and criminalized many factors of immigrant life. Over the decade there were numerous appropriation bills to provide increased funding for the Border Patrol,  militarization, and fencing of the border.

In 2005, when Republicans pushed their  the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act , unions with significant immigrant membership worked with immigrants rights groups to muster over one million people to flood streets around the country on May 1, 2006. These still-influential protests  — see video above — demanded a new amnesty for workers already here, a call that Republican nationalists describe as  a demand for open borders and mass migration.

Neither unions nor everyone on the left have been arguing for open borders or mass immigration.  For the most part, they have been arguing for revised policies that protect the rights of migrant workers, including their right to form unions.

It is true that organized labor has long had two approaches to immigration: one urged restriction of immigration, the second urged recognizing that immigrants were here and sought to organize  them into unions. Certainly there are instances of organized labor being anti immigrant, such as in the Chinese Exclusion Act. But socialists in the labor movement have almost always been on the side of supporting unionizing immigrant workers–not of building walls.

Since 2000 , the AFL-CIO has explicitly supported efforts to organize immigrant workers rather than to limit the number entering the country.  For the most part, the left and unions are not promoting open borders; they are defending workers– some of whom are undocumented.  Workers without  legal status are a product of the biases in current immigration law including per country caps on granting visas.  

Some corporations and most workers are harmed by the  current exploitation of undocumented migration, especially in such areas as farm labor, construction and domestic work.  The winning corporations externalize their own costs to the entire society and take little responsibility for their actions, including the destructions of entire communities.  Under CAFTA, (Central American Free Trade Agreement) for example, the U.S. military is active in Honduras and other parts of Central America at U.S. taxpayer expense.

Getting at Root Causes

Most labor and left advocates of immigration reform agree on the need to address the root causes of migration.   See for example, Bacon,  The Right to Stay Home: How U.S. Policy Drives Mexican Migration (Beacon Press, 2013).

There were 27.4 million foreign-born persons working in the U.S. labor force in 2017. This is 17.1 percent of the total labor force.  Latinos accounted for 47.9 percent of the total and Asians 25.2 percent, As of 2016, roughly 10.6 million of  all the 16.3 million workers covered by a union contract were women and/or people of color.  More than a third (35.8 percent) are black, Latino, or Asian.  

These are the workers discussing the future of immigration and how it will affect their work lives, their unions, and their families.  

Neoliberal corporate capitalism and the global markets produce a few winners and millions of losers, including millions of migrants.

The actual alternative to the current existing  immigration policy is not “ open borders.” It is enforcement of existing employment laws, followed by the development of new employment and immigration laws, leading to a fair, pro-worker  system of immigration.

The U.S. does need to develop a new immigration policy. (N.B.:Asylum policy is different from immigration policy.)   In the last 50 years, immigration policy was shaped by what could be passed through Congress, not what ought to be policy.  A policy that the left might favor such as the control of capital is not likely to pass the Congress.

An enlightened policy on immigration is more likely to emerge from  including leaders and activists from the multi-racial (and significantly immigrant) working class in conversations and  cooperation with left forces in other countries, each of which also has its own labor movement.

For example, in July Mexico elected a new left president, Manuel Lopez Obrador.  After the vote, and prior to his inauguration on Dec.1, progressive independent labor unions have emerged after decades of repression.  These unions will represent Mexican workers.

Trump, in his arrogance, has told Mexico to enforce U.S. immigration policy at the border in Tijuana, and  on November 24, he claimed that he had an agreement with the new Obrador government. He did not. Readers should understand that current U.S. immigration policy and drug policy depend significantly upon the continuing  cooperation of the Mexican Army. The Obrador government responded to Trump’s demand by offering to cooperate if the United States provided $20 billion in development aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. We have not heard of a response.

We on the left  should engage with the newly insurgent labor movement and the new government of Mexico and the peoples of Central America in designing  an immigration policy that serves working people on both sides of the border.

David Bacon describes  the conflict well in The Right to Migrate, the Right to Stay Home:

“Without changing U.S. trade policy and ending structural adjustment programs and neoliberal economic reforms, millions of displaced people will continue to migrate, no matter how many walls are built on the border.

Changing corporate trade policy and stopping neoliberal reforms is as central to immigration reform as gaining legal status for undocumented immigrants.  There is a fundamental contradiction in the bipartisan policies in Congress that promote more free trade agreements, and then criminalize the migration of the people they displace.  Instead, Congress could end the use of the free trade system as a mechanism for producing displaced workers.  That would mean delinking immigration status and employment.  If employers are allowed to recruit contract labor abroad, and those workers can only stay if they are continuously employed (the two essential characteristics of guest worker programs), then they will never have enforceable rights.”

The DSA Immigrants’ Rights Committee has worked toward defining a socialist approach to immigration that respects working people. Working with the national office we are actively engaged in supporting efforts by several DSA chapters and individuals to provide support for the migrants in Tijuana, Mexico.

We oppose the efforts of both Trump nationalists and neoliberal advocates to  avoid discussion of the neoliberal economic system that produces migration.