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Immigration and the Left: An Interview with David Wilson

Jeremy Cohan

Platypus Review 39 | September 2011

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]

Jeremy Cohan publicly interviewed David Wilson, coauthor of The Politics of Immigration (2007), on April 19th, 2011 at NYU. The original description of the event reads: “Mass marches on May Day 2006 in the U.S., banning of minarets in Switzerland, pogroms in Libya against blacks from Central Africa feared to be mercenaries: Immigration is a central issue faced by the contemporary Left. But as mobilization has waxed and waned, the question of what constitutes an emancipatory response to the problems of immigration in modern society too often remains unaddressed. This interview sought to consider the limits and potentials of current immigration politics on the Left today, in America and globally. What is the future of internationalism?” What follows is an edited transcript of the interview. A full recording of the event is available by clicking the above link.

Jeremy Cohan: Can you give a telescoped history of the relationship between the Left and immigration in U.S. history? How has immigration figured in Left politics? How have the Left and the labor movement reacted to, been involved in, been led by, opposed, or rejected immigration and immigrants?

David Wilson: To a large extent anything in U.S. history after 1800 is about immigrants. Almost certainly, the wave of immigration from Europe brought a larger contingent of leftists to the U.S. than would have existed natively by the early 1900s without it. Especially in the second half of the 19th century when people from Italy, Eastern Europe, and so on started coming, socialism was very much in the public consciousness in Europe and a lot of it came over through immigration. In Europe there already was this socialist- and anarchist-promoting condition.

The U.S. originally cut off immigration from China and then from most of Asia by 1910. Then, in 1924, they cut off almost all immigration from Europe, except from Northern Europe. This was the period of the “Red Scare,” and there was this image of Emma Goldman and Italian anarchists carrying bombs—most of it was not true, but there was an element of truth in it. There were sections of the Socialist Party on the East Coast that were told that this is the United States, there should be some materials in English, and they would say, “Why? We have materials in Yiddish, in German, in Russian, why would we have them in English?” So that is the level at which immigration was connected to the growth of the Left in America.

When immigration was cut off in 1924, older immigrants still considered themselves to be from immigrant families. And, for the same reason that the general population started getting the idea that immigration was abnormal, the Left did too. The Left pretty much lost any sense of how immigration works. Even in the early nineties I would hear amazing statements from people who were really quite progressive; I can still remember when a bunch of Central American and Haitian solidarity groups were planning an event in 1995 that was to have an immigration component. Somebody on the hard left objected that the topic was controversial. I kept running into that.

I think to a large extent the Left in this country started getting interested in immigration again after 2006, when suddenly there was this large demonstration that, if one wasn’t already involved in the movement, seemed to come out of the blue. Some were interested in it for valid reasons, while some, out of sheer opportunism, felt they had to instantaneously relate to it. I also think a lot of leftists take liberal positions and simply exaggerate them. So a liberal might take up an ethical defense of the repression of immigrants—an attitude that these dark-skinned victims need our help, as the white man’s burden. A lot of the leftists share this view. The idea that leftists had a hundred years ago, with the earlier wave of immigration, is that immigrants were being forced here. They are not coming here because they want to, but because they have been dislodged by global capitalism. Marx directly addresses this in an 1870 letter to Meyer and Vogt in which he talks about Irish immigration. The Irish, he says, are forced into England by English capital. Then they are super-exploited and used as a way of dividing the working class—the English workers against the Irish workers. When the immigrants come here, they’re part of the U.S. working class; they are workers just like anybody else and that’s the way we should think about it—their interests are the same as our interests.

JC: How have you seen, since 2006 especially, changes in the means of organizing and ways of attempting to articulate the immigration issue in the Left and the labor movement? Do these changes warrant all of the excitement about a renewed Left? What do you see as the positive developments that have allowed this movement to thrive, and have these developments been sufficiently articulated in terms of what a leftist movement might look like?

DW: Cirilo Garcia, who briefly worked with UNITE in the late 1990s, wanted a May Day where all the immigrants didn’t go to work. And he started organizing lunchtime rallies on May Day at the Garment Center. (As an aside, there is no Garment Center anymore—that’s how quickly things move.) We all thought that Cirilo was great, but crazy; we thought this would never happen. Then, in 2006, immigrants were upset over the Sensenbrenner Bill, and they actually did it, though this doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to do it every year. One of the fallacies common to leftist organizing is the idea that what happened this year will happen again next year.

One thing was that the unions realized they were not getting anywhere, they were just losing members, and that a lot of the immigrants came from a more militant background. The militant tradition in this country has been forgotten since the McCarthy era. But immigrants coming here from Central America, for example, are part of this tradition. When they get laid off, they know that the owners are not going to pay the severance, so they sit in the factory and the bosses and owners cannot get the machinery out unless they pay. When this happened in Chicago at Republic Windows the public was appalled.

The unions recognized opportunity, whereas previously the unions had this tradition of just fitting into the normal mold—immigrants speak a foreign language and are hard to organize, etc. Then the unions discovered that immigrants are actually not hard to organize. A few years ago, Latino and Polish workers organized in a kosher meat factory in Brooklyn. The Latino workers got together, formed a union, and put the word out asking who would affiliate with them. For the longest time they could not find a union that wanted them until finally United Food and Commercial Workers, one of the locals, decided to take them on. But it is also difficult to organize because they are scattered, generally fragmented into small shops, and there is a really high turnover. Then, of course, there is the legal situation, which is that immigrants coming here are basically forced to be undocumented; they are “illegal workers.” That is the term everyone uses, and with reason. They technically have labor rights, they technically have constitutional rights, but in reality they don’t—they can be thrown in jail for months, and then deported. That is always a threat and it makes organizing difficult.

JC: Those structural limitations—the fact that immigrants often work in super-exploited and heavily subcontracted sectors, face immense legal barriers in terms of being represented, are vulnerable to deportation, and so forth—what do those mean vis-à-vis the prospects for large scale immigrant organizing, for immigration to be the vanguard of some sort of reconstituted leftist movement here in the U.S.? Are these structural barriers so deeply entrenched that it is difficult imagine a better labor movement?

DW: I think the idea that some groups are naturally the vanguard is not really true. Regarding structural limitations, somebody from UNITE who went on to be in charge of the AFL-CIO solidarity centers in the Caribbean once said that it is impossible to organize immigrants in little shops. I responded by asking him, “Do you know your union comes out of organizing little shops, the uprising of the twenty thousand?” He said he did not know that! Garment workers were organized in these tiny shops with the demand for an industry-wide contract, which of course these AFL unions did not want, but were forced by immigrant workers to accept. What I am interested in is the other side of your question: the people who are not immigrants and who do not grasp how the system works. The unions supported the employer sanctions in 1986 to a large extent and now they say they are against employer sanctions.

But do leftists here even know what employer sanctions are? When you get a job you need documents to work. Amnesty for immigrants was passed in 1986 as part of a compromise: The undocumented immigrants were able to apply and have a chance at getting legal residency, but in exchange the anti-immigrant groups were successful in getting employer sanctions instated, meaning that employers are fined if they hire undocumented workers, which was ultimately intended to stop immigration as there would be no jobs. There was a war going on in Central America and a debt crisis in Mexico. Immigrants were not migrating because of nice jobs in the United States; they were migrating because their standard of living had suffered a terrible drop or because their families were being hauled away by death squads and murdered. So they were going to come regardless, but what happens with the imposition of sanctions is that salaries drop, and rights fall by the wayside. It created a situation in which it is easier for employers to exploit immigrant employees. While this legislation was being debated in 1986, no one in the mainstream media mentioned this. It was only after the fact that the New York Times ran an article with the view of a Mexican economist who noted this exact effect—that, while wages would fall, immigration would continue unabated—which is precisely what happened. It was hardly an unintentional effect.

Undocumented workers were making about twice as much in 1985, before the employer sanctions went into effect. In other words, undocumented workers were making about 10 percent less than documented workers with the same job skills, English proficiency, and so on. By 1990 it was 20 percent less. As an employer the choice of which workers to hire is like being up against a firing wall, as some of them are willing to work for 15–20 percent less than others. That is what employer sanctions are and the unions actually supported this as a compromise with the ruling class. Some even rationalized it as establishing greater parity between documented and undocumented workers in competition for jobs. Yet by 1999 the AFL-CIO came out against employer sanctions. Business leaders, of course, want to legalize super-exploitation by implementing a guest-worker program.

JC: Do you think it is because of this compromise orientation that some of the more ambitious goals of the immigration movement, most recently identified with the Dream Act, have been scuttled? Or are there other reasons why these initiatives have not seemed to pan out?

DW: What happened in 2006 was a fluke, but I do not think that there has been a descent from 2006. Rather, I think 2006 rose organizing to a higher level. Leftists like the idea of going out and having a demonstration every year. If you are in a country where they give you a holiday on the first of May, as most countries do, then of course there will be marches. It is much harder to march if you have to take a day off. This year May Day falls on a Sunday, so what happens if workers have to give up a Sunday to march?

In 2006 immigrants were really hopeful because there was talk about some sort of legalization, and at the same time some were furious because the Sensenbrenner Bill was a slap in the face. It threatened to allow the arrest of anyone who helped an undocumented worker. On the other hand, I think most of the undocumented immigrants don’t actually follow developments on the political level as much as the middle class leftists do, and they are not really aware of all these ins and outs. What immigrants really want, desperately, is legalization, but I don’t know if they follow all the compromises. Within the immigrant rights movement the compromisers are the liberals. Every time immigration reform has failed the liberals always turn around and blame those who did not compromise. Liberals in the immigrant rights movement always go to Congress and say, “We’ve given up everything, to the point we accept exactly what Congress wants.” And then the right wing says, “No, we want more”—of course they do!

In June I interviewed some of those who were on a hunger strike in front of Senator Schumer‘s office. Although it was reported that they were all undocumented workers, some were actually native New Yorkers, but were there to show solidarity. I asked them if they really liked the Dream Act. They all said no, they did not like it because there is a military component, and because it says those born here are innocent while implying that their parents are criminals. The Dream Act is designed, like so many things in this country, to set workers against each other. Although no one liked it, they thought it was the only option. They were told this is the best deal that could be made, and had indeed been told this since 2003. Schumer wanted a package of limited legalization, an expansive guest-worker program, and more sanctions; that is why they were having the hunger strike in front of Schumer’s office. The hunger strikers wanted the Democrats to hold out for a better package. When it became obvious that they would not get the package they wanted this year, and the elections were over, then Obama and all the Democrats decided they wanted the Dream Act! When there was a possibility it could have an effect earlier in the year, they said no. After it was too late, they claimed to want the Dream Act, which the Republicans would vote against. Then, at no cost to themselves, they can stand up as heroes for the Latino vote in 2012. Nonetheless, many Latinos are perfectly aware that the Democrats did not do anything for them up until December, when it was too late.

JC: So is there any discussion in this movement, or more generally in the labor world, about some sort of politics independent of the Democratic Party? What would that mean? Or are they resigned to the Democrats?

DW: It isn’t just the immigrant rights movement that has this universal idea of democratic rights. The movement is much more focused on workplace issues, much more focused on community issues, rather than thinking about politics as such. When it came to the Dream Act, activists looked at the gay rights movement and sought to use their tactics, getting migrants to come out into the open, to court arrest, by proclaiming their undocumented status, unafraid and unashamed. I think that labor organizing is another key.

JC: You talked about the fetishism of marches and the expectation they would come to be an everyday thing. Obviously, calling for the larger work of organizing is a slower process. Do you feel the way in which labor organizing is happening currently, especially the phenomenon of worker centers, is adequate to the task of enabling the politics that would improve immigrants’ lives? For one thing, worker centers usually focus on turning high-profile, middle class opinion on to helping out illegal immigrants, rather than on structural power exerted by immigrants themselves. For another, worker centers are often organized along ethnic lines. In light of that, do you think these centers are adequate to the slow work of organizing immigration and making it part of the larger labor movement that you are calling for?

DW: Formal labor organizing isn’t the biggest problem. I am a Luxemburgist on this, in that labor organizing is the rock of Sisyphus: You roll it up the hill and it rolls back down. You need to organize labor, because it is the only way workers can defend their lives—their salaries, their working conditions, and their pensions. However organizing happens, whether it is through worker centers or regular unions, there is always the danger of compromise. The Wobblies used to say that the problem with unions is that they sign contracts. But then when Wobblies started to organize locals they had to sign contracts. You might think that was a hundred years ago, but I had friends who were syndicalist Haitian exiles who, on their return to Haiti in 1999, objected to the idea of signing a contract, but were forced to do so when they organized their own local. And they ultimately lost control of that local when workers objected to the bad contract they had signed. The form of unions that now exists in Haiti is the same as that of the AFL-CIO, except that leftist politics still exists in Haiti—there is still a belief in the class fight. As for worker centers, there are some who believe in them only or primarily because they are ethnically centered and they don’t want to organize with people who are not in their own ethnic group, which is unfortunate. On the other hand, they are often successful when they work with each other and unions, as sometimes happens.

In 1999 Jerry Dominguez, who is now a union organizer in California, set up what was basically a little worker center where he attempted and failed to organize the workers of greengrocers. He ended up talking to Ernesto Jofre from UNITE 169, which no longer exists. Ernesto Jofre, a Chilean unionist who had been tortured, and a solid leftist, gave his support and invited Dominguez into UNITE. For various reasons UNITE, which doesn’t normally support things like this, looked the other way. So, before long there were picket lines in front of five different grocery stores on the Lower East Side, a middle class neighborhood with a lot of yuppies moving in but also a lot of leftists and liberals. There we were, appealing to the middle class, and I recall one woman who exclaimed she had to shop at the store we were picketing, as it was the only convenient place with baguettes. I retorted, “For the sake of the working class, can you go without a baguette for a few days?”

At first it worked—these little greengrocer shops actually signed contracts, and so on. Then the whole thing fell apart. Ernesto died of cancer, there is high turnover, and it is hard to maintain a union in these domains. One result was that, after Steven Greenhouse of theNew York Times wrote an article on the greengrocers in early 2000, the Central Labor Council, which had been ignoring our strike, suddenly got interested in immigrant rights. Still, no one is allowed to say that immigrant workers are workers, and when their wages fall it lowers the floor for everyone else.

JC: For Luxemburg a union, in some ways, is only as good as the left wing that is achieving consciousness through the activity of that union, only as good as the Left that is there to tell workers that there are limits to union politics, to point out compromises for what they are, and to demonstrate the necessity of a larger political goal, socialism. You have been talking about the earlier, more militant moment in America during which socialists were organizing workers as part of a large-scale working class movement to overcome capitalism, whereas the vast majority of the politicized youth today support immigrant organization in order to increase a minority population’s share in the American pie. Do you agree that the element of political consciousness of a working class movement working towards a political goal of overcoming capitalism is missing in the present?

DW: If you ask a lot of Mexicans about the PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática), their responses frequently will be, “It compromises too much.” So there is that problem with the immigrant rights movement, a problem of organizing on an ethnic basis, of course, which is dividing the working class against other parts of the working class. Straight white men aren’t going to do anything for women in the absence of the women’s movement, for African-Americans in the absence of the Civil Rights Movement, for gays in the absence of the gay movement. Immigrants need to be involved in the immigrants’ movement as they are the ones directly impacted.

JC: The African-American movement is a good example, actually, because wages for black workers are on average lower than they were before the 1960s. There have been great advancements in certain cultural respects, and in civil rights for African-Americans. But in terms of labor, the African-American movement has not really achieved success in a meaningful way.

DW: That is true, and what is also interesting is that those who are most directly impacted by competition for wages with undocumented immigrants are in fact African-Americans and native-born Latinos. Those who say, “Well, they take our jobs,” interestingly enough, are from the segments of workers that are least impacted by immigration. Everybody who is actually in the working class is impacted by it because it lowers wages a little bit. There are workers forced off the construction site to work at McDonalds where, despite the worse wages, there is no competition from undocumented immigrants. Based on experience, generally, African-Americans will say that we fought to be able to get into construction sites, for example, and have largely overcome the racism of the building trade unions, but now all sites are filled with immigrants. But if you put it in class terms, that this is dividing the class against itself, then the issue is quickly recognized as analogous to life in the South, where white and black workers were pitted against each other. African-Americans have a better sense of how to deal with immigration, even though they are the ones who are directly impacted. They are a minority, and they had that experience. After the immigrants, they, along with native-born Latinos, are the ones who suffer the most.

JC: In addressing these issues, what forms of political consciousness work? What kinds of educational work have you seen that have contributed to transforming the movement?

DW: There is a type of dialogue we have had on a picket line that starts as discouraging passersby from shopping at this or that store. Before long people drop their objections to unions and are brought around to the unpopular realization that real wages have dropped or stagnated over the last 20 years. I very much support a model that strives to educate. We can argue over certain matters—whether to support the military intervention in Libya, for example—but in doing so, we cannot afford to be distracted or to lose sight of the day-to-day issues.

What do you think of larger demographic trends in the United States? What impact might they have in all the various struggles that you have noted? For instance, what will be the significance for immigration and labor organizing of the fact that, in the coming decades, Hispanics will be the largest minority in the United States?

DW: On demographics, the advantage that early European immigrants had, despite all the talk of the Jewish, Slavic, and Italian races as being inferior, was that they could assimilate into the white middle class. Skin color really does make a difference today because, for example, Puerto Ricans, who were encouraged to emigrate in the 1940s and 1950s, and who were U.S. citizens, are still second-class citizens. The new immigrants do assimilate but are assimilated into the so-called minority class and they do not get the advantages of being second-generation immigrants. And if they live in Arizona…

What message would you suggest to unify Hispanics who are completely fragmented, whether it is white Cubans who are anti-Castro, Mexicans, or Chinese immigrants who have experience with so-called Communism? How is one to address migrants who have experience with leftist movements that have failed in every way imaginable?

DW: I really do not know. I have several friends who are Yugoslavs and they are now more tolerant of Tito’s form of socialism because of what happened after Tito. However, you cannot say “worker’s control” around them because they think “worker’s control” as it was in Yugoslavia, which means you had to go to endless talks about how to manage the furnace and the plants. They think a situation where workers actually have control is a hoax, and it was a hoax in certain instances. With China perhaps the problem is even less obvious. China subcontracts and streamlines a lot of small and large businesses, and in many important economic aspects one does not get the sense that China really differs from the United States.

JC: But this raises the question, why is it that a minority rights banner is so much more palatable than, say, a renewed socialist banner? Some of it obviously has to be the negative perception on the part of American anti-Communists. But even the failure of the Left has deep ramifications for the people coming here to escape terrible regimes abroad.

DW: Well, for one thing you can start with the critique of capitalism, which is not impossible. It’s right in your face. Look at what happened last fall in France, for instance, with all these strikes against pension reform. It turned out that a high percentage, on the order of 60 percent of the population, supported the strikes, but only 49 percent were opposed to the pension reforms. The same people who supported the strikes but were nebulous on the pension reforms totally supported taking away the niqab (veil) from the two thousand Muslim women in the country who actually wear it, and were violently racist against Muslims and Arabs. So it is a very complicated mixture, but there is this way that people’s consciousness changes when you take away their pensions. In this country, people don’t even know that the social security age keeps rising, because they are watching reality television!

JC: On the issue of internationalism, there would have to be some sort of organization between workers in Mexico and workers here and elsewhere that are constantly raising consciousness of the idea that capitalism here is capitalism there, and everywhere. Does the absence of such an organization contribute to American anti-immigrant sentiments? What would lead towards a more general emergence of class politics that could articulate real opposition to capitalism?

DW: To me one of the things that I think is so interesting about what happened in Wisconsin is that whenever someone expresses a sense of class consciousness, of any sort of solidarity, one stands in wonder. The level of propaganda we are confronted with is staggering. But, for example, when the cops, who fit the stereotype of classic racist white cops with their Long Island accents, were called in to handle a dispute in the greengrocer strikers, they instead issued tickets to the owner of the shop for violations that they found on site. Let me also emphasize the Dignity Campaign, which underscores the right to organize, the right to work, and includes the right to full legalization. A large percentage of the people in this country would support this if they understood that it is for their benefit. One’s class interest is a way of opening minds against racism. |P

Transcribed by Ana Lilia Torres.

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