Immigration and the Left (University of Houston)
Platypus Review #93 | February 2017
On October 23, 2016, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a panel discussion entitled “Immigration and the Left” at the University of Houston. Moderated by Danny Jacobs of Platypus, the event posed three questions to the panelists: How has the Left approached the question of immigration historically? What opportunities for a renewed emancipatory politics exist in the immigrants’ rights movement today? What role can left-wing civil and political organizations play in immigration politics? Three speakers addressed these questions: Alvaro Rodriguez, from the Communist Party, USA; Henry Cooper, from Proyecto Latino Americano; and Liam Wright, a veteran of Occupy Seattle and other social movements. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.
Neoliberalism, as the current organization of capitalism, promised to overcome the crisis of the Keynesian–Fordist state through the attainment of a free, cosmopolitan society. Yet the weight of national borders continues to be felt. While capital can easily move to a home where it is profitable, workers find their movement stifled. From Brexit to the U.S. presidential elections, immigration has become unavoidable in political discourse: Some politicians have promised comprehensive immigration reform, while others have considered the undocumented responsible for the decline of the nation’s economy and sovereignty. In each case, a crisis of neoliberalism is being registered—but what is the meaning of the question to the Left, and its attempts to change the world?
Famously, the Communist Manifesto says, “The working men have no country.” The incessant drive to realize profit sends capital all over the world, uprooting established relations and dynamizing the global economy. Workers are forced to consider themselves internationally in the fight against capital. Further, immigration might even centralize the gravediggers of capitalism.
However, if this process is not grasped by the workers, it offers an opportunity for the capitalists to secure their position. The precarity of immigrants can be exploited by the ruling class’s attempt to split the proletariat and contain their political struggle—that is, unless there is a Left to lead.
Henry Cooper: The Left is not “the left” that we hear from commercial media—Hillary Clinton and all that stuff. No. We are talking about all those grassroots organizations, political organizations that come from Marxism, and all the derivatives from this ideology; including, outside of Marxism, all our brothers and sisters from anarchism, and popular movements like the Zapatistas. As labor power, we have no country. We believe that we are all entitled to a free movement to work and develop our families where we think it is most convenient for us. Unfortunately, such free movement is not what we see in reality. Mobility is forced by the economic system that strangles the development of the working class, so that they cannot lead a decent life. War likewise displaces refugees, who are most affected and least accepted in European countries as we can see with Syria. From dictatorships like Honduras, hundreds of kids have been separated from their parents in order to survive. When they ask for political asylum in the United States, they are rejected. One of these policies was implemented by what the media in the United States considers “the Left,” Hillary Clinton.
The Left has always been on the side of the free movement of labor and the recognition of labor’s rights and dignity in every country. However, we have to answer specific questions. What opportunities exist in the immigrants’ rights movement today for an emancipatory politics? Opportunities are not going to be given. Immigrants have to organize themselves in the country where they reside, rather than being organized by humanitarian groups that do not help them gain citizenship.
In the 1990s and 2000s, due in part to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), many immigrants came from Mexico—around five to six million in a period of seven to eight years. This generated considerable discussion within the political establishment about how to control the flow. In 1996, when Clinton and Mexico implemented NAFTA, the work of the Republicans and the Democrats, they foresaw the influx of millions of workers. That is why in 1996 Clinton established the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) whereby undocumented immigration was criminalized. They were preparing to crack down on the immigration they intended should come.
For some five to six years the Bush administration did not implement IIRIRA. They deported around 5,000 to 30,000 immigrants a year—not that much compared to when the immigrant community started to organize. But in 2003 they attempted to make changes to existing immigration law further criminalizing undocumented immigrants as well as those that provided services to the undocumented families. Teachers, physicians, employers, and many others were going to be victims of the draconian bill.
The Sensenbrenner Bill, as it was known, prompted the immigrant community in this country to organize as never before, to the point that, by April 2006, even the undocumented—the most vulnerable section of the community—were largely mobilized. Millions of people went to the streets to protest the bill. This demonstrated the power of organized labor, of organized communities, when people take to the streets by the millions. Here in Houston we had never before seen fifty thousand people on the streets of downtown. The police were scared! The police on their horses were afraid of being surrounded by thousands of people. So, when the Left works in conjunction with organized communities, we can rattle the establishment to the point that they withdraw those laws. At that moment they saw the power of the immigrant community and decided to apply what I call the “Terminator” policy. Instead of having one big law, they started enacting laws at the state level, expanding the power of local police over immigrant communities.
When the Left works with the immigrant community you can have a real leftist policy. When the effort is instead directed towards the Democratic Party the Left fails.
Alvaro Rodriguez: I want to thank Platypus for the invitation to speak. The topic is certainly very timely, as we are days away from the presidential election on November 8. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has made immigration the cornerstone of his campaign. It is a typical ploy by Republicans to use racism as a divisive tool to win elections. So Donald Trump is in step with what the Republican Party has done in the past; he’s just cruder. But I am not sure that he is as crude as is possible today, because I just got an email right here from my congressman the title of which is “Safety of U.S. Citizens Must Come Before Criminal Aliens.” This is a Republican establishment politician who ran practically unopposed, except for the Green Party.
Make no mistake: The campaign debate has nothing to do with real immigration policy, and everything to do with racism against people of color. In this forum, we want to address real immigration policy and to gain some clarity about it. The root source of the problems facing our new immigrants is capitalism itself, and its most current variant, neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is really just super-exploitative capitalism.
Henry talked a little bit about NAFTA, which caused a massive export of corn to Mexico. Due to mechanization, seventy-eight thousand Iowa farmers can produce more corn than three million campesinos. U.S. agriculture is dominated by multinational corporations heavily subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer. This placed Mexico at a huge disadvantage. Mexican subsistence farmers were driven from the land by U.S. taxpayer-subsidized exports. One-third of all corn in Mexico is imported from the U.S., rising from two hundred million dollars before NAFTA to three billion after. The campesinos are being forced to immigrate to the United States to perform cheap manual labor. This has resulted in the impoverishment of about ten million Mexicans. Unauthorized immigrants have increased from about three million before NAFTA to about eleven million today. Now, they are made into convenient scapegoats for racist, demagogic election politics by the likes of Donald Trump.
We need to build a movement for political and economic justice in this country. Bernie helped us and gave us a little shove in this direction recently. So what can you do? Certainly, you can join and become active in the Communist Party USA, some other immigrant rights group (there are several), or an organization like the Houston Area Progressives. You just need to get involved. And we all need to go out and vote. As Bernie said, “We need a political revolution.” Bernie came very close to winning even with the ruling class media refusing to afford him publicity. It is a lesson that we must learn: We can win with bold issues and demands, including new demands for a better economic system (socialism). So even as a known and open democratic socialist, he was able to garnish thirteen million votes and raise a tremendous amount of money from small donations.
The popular reaction to the economic devastation caused by neoliberal policy has rendered capitalism itself politically unstable. This provides an opportunity for the Left to take the initiative. Our solution is not to hang a “keep out” sign on the Statue of Liberty’s torch. The solution is not to waste vast amounts of taxpayer money on a useless and environmentally destructive fence. Bush already built five hundred miles of it. Now Trump wants to build the rest of it.
The solution is to carry out comprehensive, worker-friendly immigration reform. We need legalization of all current undocumented immigrants, with as broad inclusion as possible—full labor and civil rights with a clear path to citizenship. We need changes in U.S. visa policies so ordinary working people who want to come here to live and work can do so without violating the laws or risking their lives. We need to avoid guest worker schemes that keep foreign workers in conditions of serfdom denied the right to defend themselves or to integrate into society. We must demand that immigrants have the same rights on the job and in their community that other workers have, so that they can join unions and fight for better wages and working conditions. We need change in the U.S. trade and foreign policies so that the development of the economies of poorer countries are no longer determined by multinational corporations or U.S. government interference. We need to suspend all deportations of undocumented immigrants. We need to cancel the secure communities in 287G programs, which delegate immigration enforcement roles to local police, including the Harris County Sheriff’s Department, as well as the requirement for employers to use E-Verify to check up on legal status of workers. It is cruel and irrational to be deporting people now who may very well qualify for legalization when legislation is passed. We need to revise immigration enforcement procedures to the highest standards of fairness and due process.
Liam Wright: Thanks to Platypus for putting this together. I do not experience the oppression that immigrants all too often experience. What I have to say is based on study and political experience, and it is tentative.
At present we are frustratingly impotent to accomplish the political goals we have before ourselves. We have eleven million undocumented people in this country. And while Trump is a terrifying know-nothing who whips up potentially violent hatred, it is Obama who deported more immigrants than any president in history.
At the same time, the face of immigration is changing. In the 1990s and 2000s, it was mainly Mexican workers who were coming here because they were being displaced by NAFTA. Today, it is largely Central American immigrants fleeing violence.
I moved to Houston to help develop a southern left political strategy, and I started doing research in the Rio Grande Valley. The Rio Grande Valley is sort of an anomaly in the United States not because it is majority Latino, but because it flows in the shadow of the border, and the wall, and all the contradictions that come with that; including massive poverty, a police state, and the need to resist as a matter of course if you are an immigrant.
We volunteered at a church called Sacred Heart Church, a Catholic church that does a lot of work with the undocumented. It helps them get food, clothes, get where they are going, etc. Working with them, I had the opportunity to interview some people coming through.
A Salvadoran immigrant who had just arrived that day said he had traveled from San Salvador to Guatemala, from Guatemala across the river, and then through Mexico. He and his family had to stay in a storage container, a giant metal box, with dozens of other people fainting from malnutrition and heat exhaustion. At one point in his journey, his sister-in-law got separated because she wanted to keep on moving. Later he heard that her guide tried to rape her. Think about the desperation and necessity drives people to go through this ordeal. Toward the end of his journey, he got separated from his wife and one of his sons. When I spoke to him, he was exhausted, he began crying because he did not know where they were, and they were the whole reason why he came to the U.S. He told us that, “The gangs in El Salvador are out in the street. They do not care if they see police or someone from the government; they just go out and kill people. They’re everywhere.” He told us that his son decided to become a part of one of these gangs, that people joined gangs to keep themselves and their family safe.
Trump says that the people being sent here are rapists and criminals. In fact, they are desperate people whose governments have been destabilized, in part by U.S. intervention. Their right to inclusion, to respect and full rights, should be a given.
This country was founded upon the twin crimes of the genocide of indigenous people and the kidnapping of Africans from their homeland to use for slave labor. Ever since that time, there has always been a population that has been legally excluded, and that exclusion has been backed up with violence.
Full rights and inclusion can be accomplished for everyone without the dissolution of what it means to be “American”; without the deconstruction, the dismantling of political, economic, and state institutions and the reconstitution of what it means to have a polity that includes everyone currently within our borders. I suspect we will need a contemporary constituent assembly, to redefine what it means to be included on the basis of the most oppressed and exploited, to have a democracy and economy that serves the goal of universal equality—for everyone. We need to not be afraid to forcibly assert universalism on the basis of the most oppressed.
I was in Seattle when a state of emergency was declared and riots shut down the city. I am relatively proud of that. At the same time, the most successful socialist projects combine electoral efforts with the work of the social movements. This is true in Greece with SYRIZA, in Spain with Podemos, and in Venezuela with the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela and Chavismo. Even the Zapatistas are running a presidential candidate. This is from a quasi-anarchist revolutionary group in Mexico. The shape and form of revolutionary politics are changing. We need to embrace these explosive political aspirations and not shy away from the raw or violent potential of people saying, “No, I will not be oppressed anymore.” When people riot in Baltimore and Ferguson, we need to say that it’s right to rebel.
If we go looking to support the “lesser of two evil” candidates, if we just try to touch things up around the edges or pose micro-reforms, we’re going to fall prey to inertia. Our mission right now is to figure out how to get rid of the situation whereby we have to decide between Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, or some other Democratic congressman or senator that is really fundamentally opposed to our interests. It is this situation that produces the fascist sentiments that are at the base of Donald Trump.
Young people have a particular role to play. I would like to see us get much more organized here on campus. You can see who people are voting for, whether Jill Stein or Bernie Sanders. The questions of how we will structure our society and who should be included are being rethought by our generation. We must engage that and work actively to build movements among a broad spectrum of young people who want to work to change the world.
HC: Obama’s voter turnout declined from 2008 to 2012 and, after what happened with Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton is not going to have a more votes than Obama. We need a candidate that we can trust. I believe that candidate is Jill Stein. But the Green Party has to change its attitude and aim to win this election, because we have, according to the numbers, all the possibility to be the majority on the Electoral College. But this is not going to be the answer for immigrants. They still have to independently mobilize all the grassroots organizations, like they did in 2006.
AR: We have to be able to get out of the false dilemma posed by the institutionalized, two-party system of capitalism. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are not wrong when they say the system is rigged. But an independent approach to policy is not something you can come up with in the middle of the night, it has to be developed working with people since people only learn from their own experience. A lot of people found out from their own experience what kind of party the Democratic Party actually is by being inside at the national and state conventions. The labor movement is still important: the oil workers here in Houston could shut down the whole country. The civil rights movement is extremely important because racism is still the most divisive of all the tactics used by capitalism. To build unity on the Left, we have to recognize that not everybody is going to come to the same place at the same time.
LW: We have to race to catch up to with the struggle of immigrants, like the strikes of people in immigration detention centers or the recent prisoner strikes. These are the most precarious people and they are putting their lives on the line for basic rights. We can identify sections of the people that are the most disenfranchised and oppressed like this and we effectively catch up to them, acting similarly to what Lenin recommends in What is to be Done?, where he talks about bringing social democratic politics into the economic struggle. Electoral strategies need to grow out of these movements. The Greens increasingly seem like they might be able to do this. This is opposed to what is often the case right now with the major unions in this country serving as the shock troops of the Democratic Party rather than fighting for their members’ interests.
All of you have expressed that there’s this ideal that you should be able to go where you want, but we do not see this in society. And yet, this should be some sort of contradiction that could be mobilized or expressed politically, as a route for breaking through the inertia. This seemed to be an idea that you were converging on.
HC: This refers to what Alvaro was saying about the capitalist system. What they promote is that you are free to travel and go wherever you want, but the actual conditions are limited by the borders of the nation-state. But you have the privilege if you are a capitalist with a lot of money. That opposes directly the spirit of internationalism and solidarity of the working class. The mobility that we see, by the hundreds of thousands or the millions, is a forced mobility. Now, they invented this drug war, but we know the drug dealers colluded with governments in order to create this state violence.
AR: We do not have a crisis of immigration in this country. We do have a human rights crisis, but the issue is mainly a political football in the electoral arena. In Europe, it is the same thing: a huge migration of people from Syria, and other areas of the Middle East, that has created a political crisis, a crisis exploited by the nationalist Right. Whether it is in France, or in Britain with Brexit, or elsewhere in Europe, racism is used by the political right. Donald Trump uses immigrants as scapegoats for why workers in this country are losing their jobs, why the country has not progressed, why the middle-class is dwindling. Immigrants are the scapegoat for ills that ought be laid at the feet of the neoliberalism that has prevailed since Reagan and Thatcher. Neoliberalism was basically a shift from the New Deal that was created back in the 1930s and 40s towards super-exploitation and deregulation. Now Hillary and others are talking a new game: they call it “inclusive capitalism.” They recognize how unstable the present order actually is. The Bernie and Trump phenomena go against the political stability that the capitalist system wishes to have. So there is an opportunity, because they are going to try to scale back neoliberalism. They say they want to increase wages. The ruling class at this point is more willing to accept that. In fact, even multinational corporations have been pressured into it, including Wal-Mart, McDonalds, and so forth. Where do you think a lot of the undocumented workers are working? At McDonalds and Wal-Mart where they receive low pay and endure terrible working conditions. We need to continue to be involved in those economic struggles.
LW: I suspect that nowhere has this ideal of a mobile and cosmopolitan worker ever existed. With the forcing of the peasants off the land to work in the factories and workshops in the cities, compelled migration existed at the very birth of capitalism. Look at the most exploited people today: It is not just immigrants, but poor African-Americans, people in prison, even students increasingly enslaved to debt that restricts their mobility. There’s an entire layer of society affected by the questions of immobility. This is not a new problem.
What implications would the guest worker program have on your organizing efforts? Would it divide the working class even further?
HC: It has already been done with the Bracero Program from 1942 to 1964. It was implemented because during World War II there was a need for labor, but it was extended all the way to 1964. It used guest workers as scabs. They did not receive the minimum wage, Social Security, or other retirement benefits that they were promised. It was a scam. With the situation in Mexico—the killings and disappearances—it is likely that workers would come under a guest worker program.
AR: We are definitely opposed to guest worker schemes. So is the labor movement, because that keeps foreign workers in conditions of serfdom without the right to defend themselves or integrate themselves into society. Guest workers are here but without rights.
LW: Capitalism finds ways to mitigate problems without solving them, creating further and further fractions among working class people, granting some minor privileges over others. This is one of those cases. It will not touch the fundamentals of the problem.
This came up in Trump and Hillary’s debate. Can the challenge of immigration be solved through democratic means? Thinking about Germany and Merkel letting refugees in, if she had put that decision to a vote, it would have been voted down in Germany. What do you think about super-national forms of political union as necessary for resolving these kinds of issues? Should we be imagining forms of power that are larger than nation-states, or are we just in Alex Jones’s nightmare? Does the problem necessitate super-national organizing?
HC: In Baja, California we have ninety-six thousand workers under slavery conditions farming the products that Driscoll sells in the United States. Everybody would get scared if you had open borders suddenly in the state of California.
AR: Talking about open borders is basically just giving a weapon to the ultra-right. It is not a practical question for the Left at this time.
LW: Are we talking about the European Union, the Soviet Federation, or a post-capitalist state that would deal with these questions? Are we suggesting it as a reform to the U.S. system? It is interesting, but has little bearing on what we are doing. Right now, talk of open borders is just speculation, dreaming.
Hillary Clinton is not going to guarantee a better situation for us. She refers to blacks as “superpredators” and we all saw what she did with the Middle East, Benghazi, and Honduras. So, as leftist organizations, why would you ask or tell people to vote for Hillary?
AR: Hillary is not going to be using the immigration issue in a similar way to Trump. She’s looking for a different agenda. We can persuade her into some kind of comprehensive immigration reform irrespective of what you think about her as far as Syria goes, or her being a neoliberal, or her being in the pocket of Wall Street. Wall Street also wants comprehensive immigration reform since they do not want to see major disruptions to the supply of cheap labor. Whether that reform happens or not depends on the composition of Congress. We do not want to witness the rise of the alt-right, which carries a whiff of fascism. Right here in Houston we saw armed white supremacists come out against the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League.
It has to be an anti-Trump vote. But it is up to your own conscience. Hillary’s a very defective candidate, obviously. I was very favorable to Bernie Sanders in the primaries, but he did not get to be the candidate. Capitalism does not offer us “good” alternatives.
LW: As far as Hillary Clinton goes, her particular brand of politics—corporatist neoliberalism—is part of what creates the white hatred and the virulent proto-fascism we see among Trump’s social base. You can go back and look at the Weimar Republic: It was very much the same. This is completely counterintuitive. Of course, I find Trump a violent, disturbing, disgusting figure, but I do not believe in voting for the Democratic establishment.
I will be voting for Jill Stein. Sanders clearly has a strategy of trying to create a Left current within the Democratic Party and has shown that there is more possibility for that than I expected a year ago. The Green Party is offering a different answer. By voting for Stein, we help open up more room for discussion in the national discourse. She’s got a program that is further to the left than some Marxist parties’. She calls for an end to deportations and the disbanding of the immigration detention centers. And she’s reaching millions of people with it.
HC: In its last national convention the Green Party decided that it has to move more to the left by declaring itself to be anti-capitalist. They see socialism as one of the options for the American people and determined that Jill Stein was the best candidate. We realize that this is an opportunity to present the American people with a set of ideas that started with Bernie Sanders. It can help without creating false expectations that the election of Jill Stein is going to be the solution to all our problems. If there were some other candidate from a coalition of socialist organizations with the possibility to raise awareness, I would be working there—with the Socialist Worker’s Party, the Communist Party, the Socialist Alternative, whomever. But there’s not. It is Jill Stein that is the one that has created this opportunity, and I am calling on people to vote for her.
HC: Yes. The situation with immigration today is this: The owners of all these companies are happy with the system, with eleven million undocumented people they can exploit. Consequently, regardless of electoral politics, it is necessary to organize among all these undocumented workers in order to gain their rights. One example of this is the workers of the Immokalee area in Florida, living under slavery conditions. They have been able to organize a union of about fifty thousand people. That is the situation. We have to fight against the system, regardless of the electoral calendar.
AR: You need to get involved, whether it’s with the Left, like the Communist Party, or with the organizations that are fighting for immigrant rights, or civil rights, and so forth. Immigration is a common thing that we can move on together. We just do not have enough people engaged. So, we certainly encourage you become engaged, in this issue and other issues of the Left, because there are plenty of problems.
LW: I want to end with a note of possibility, not necessarily optimism, but possibility. Folks are getting “woke”, you know? In the US and around the world, if you look at if you look at the different political struggles against oppression and for equality, people will not accept the same answers that they have for a long time. They are demanding other options. I think that by us entering into this assertively and aggressively—again, especially the young people—we can help to shape that discussion in a way that creates better possibilities for the future. Anyone who wants to work on that project, I want to talk with you. Let’s change the world.
HC: I have one solicitation: We brought a letter that we are going to present to the Mexican Consulate demanding any answers about the forty-three students who disappeared two years ago. They have killed two more students over the last three weeks on the anniversary of the forceful disappearance of these students. We have the letter over there. If you want to sign it, that would be great.
Transcribed by Matt Cavagrotti