Thursday, April 06, 2006

AFL-CIO and the Immigration Debate

As the immigration debate has heated up over the last few weeks, I thought it might be a good idea to post the following article I wrote in 2002 which appeared in “Workers Democracy,” a publication of Workers Democracy Network.

Freedom of Movement, Not Just Amnesty
by Mahmood Ketabchi
January 20, 2002

Among the many resolutions passed at AFL-CIO convention, the resolution on immigration is supposedly an indication of visionary policy of the Sweeney administration. The resolution renews AFL-CIO call, first announced in February 2000, for: a) “legalization of the undocumented workers,” b) “full protection of workplace rights,” c) “reform, not expansion, of guest worker programs,” and d) “repeal and replacement of the sanctions/I-9 immigration enforcement scheme” that requires the employers verify work permission.

Even though we are to believe that current AFL-CIO position on immigration is a groundbreaking policy, it is not significantly much different from the one held by previous labor leadership, Kirklane-Donghue. AFL-CIO was a major proponent of 1986 immigration law that legalized millions of undocumented workers in the US. The only significant difference this time around is that AFL-CIO has reversed its position regarding the legal requirement that the employers verify the eligibility of people to work in the US. In part, labor leadership previously hoped that the requirement to verify work permission would deter what they called “illegal entry” to the US. Nonetheless immigrants continued to come to the US and many of them worked without work permission, with the only difference that the requirement pushed by AFL-CIO made undocumented workers extremely vulnerable and exploitable.

Even though a general amnesty for all undocumented immigrants is an urgent and immediate demand, in no way it would solve the problem faced by workers. Granted such demand is met, in a decade or so there will be millions of other immigrants living in US without any documentation and many other will be kept out of the US forcibly. There will be no end to this cycle of inhumanity, violence, brutal exploitation, and union busting. Immigration barriers only intensify competition among workers and create a downward pressure to the bottom. Workers need a different and real solution to their problem. They need immigration barriers removed and thrown away.

If capital can move freely in the world in search of higher profit, workers too must have the right to move to wherever they can sell their labor power to the highest not the lowest bidder. Freedom of movement must be regarded as a fundamental right for worker and people around the world. Freedom of movement can empower workers, strengthen their solidarity, and increase their living standards. Working class and struggle for better life cannot be defined on the national basis. Only an international perspective can make workers a real and serious social force to reckon with. Failure to understand and promote the freedom of movement for workers only indicates the deeply rooted national prejudice in labor establishment.

Moreover, the resolution is silent about 1996 illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act which labor supported many of its provisions that targeted illegal entry to the US. The Act authorized doubling the size of Border Patrol by 2001 and increased significantly the funding to investigate employer sanction violations, false documentation and finding visa overstayers. It toughened the punishment against undocumented immigrants apprehended by the INS and mandated an aggressive enforcement of immigration laws. Moreover, it provided an increase in INS detention facilities to 9,000 beds by the end of 1997.

As result of this Act, and increasing number of people each year die at the border and many more are detained and brutally treated by border patrols and fascist vigilante groups and thousands are incarcerated by INS for immigrations violations and live in inhumane conditions in US prisons and jails across the country- many remain incarcerated for years. It is not quite clear why the AFL-CIO resolution on immigration did not condemn the callous treatment and imprisonment of many immigrants who entry the country illegally. Is it simply negligence, or labor officialdom still thinks they are necessary to deter illegal immigration to the US?

AFL-CIO position on temporary workers is even more problematic. They oppose temporary workers programs not because temporary status is harmful for the working class bad but because temporary workers take US workers jobs away from them. While labor attacks "corporate efforts to pit worker against worker," it resorts to the same divisive argument in opposing temporary workers program. Arguing against temporary immigration from a nativist view is nothing but inciting anti-immigrant sentiment and feeding into racist hysteria that immigrants steal the U.S. jobs. In addition, AFL-CIO has consistently demanded that current annual limit of 140,000 permanent job related visas be reduced to 90,000 presenting the same argument that US job must be protected against foreign workers. Defending immigration barriers is a short sighted and narrow-minded policy that expends one group of worker in the interests of another group. Even though the US official labor movement has set aside its openly racist immigration policy, it has steadfastly stuck with its original nationalism and xenophobic view of non-white immigrants workers.

“US workers” and “foreign workers” is a reactionary, racist, and divisive dichotomy that breaks down working class solidarity. According to this view, American workers come first; they are the first class and privileged workers who have the first claim to everything that is nice and to all the goodies. Their lives are more important than that of non-Americans. They have more rights to a better life than other people do. Then, there is the second class and underdog foreigners who must, in the best situation, wait at the end of the line to pick the crumbs that are thrown at them. They are the non-deserving workers and human beings born in foreign soil. Their lives are expandable for it does not worth a whole lot. They have lived in poverty and are used to a brutal life so they’d better learn to live with it rather than coming to the US.

To build strong labor solidarity among workers around the world and enhance our living standard, we workers should oppose nationalism and all its derivatives for they are shameful sentiments that separate us from our common human character. As workers, labor activists and leaders we must build a movement around following demands:

  • Defending worker’s rights and granting equal protection for all U.S. citizens and residents irrespective of their nationality.
  • Free movement of labor, similar to the one in European Union, among United States, Canada, and Mexico.
  • An immediate general amnesty for all undocumented workers in the U.S.
  • Opposing all kinds of temporary residency.
  • Issuing permanent residency and citizenship for all those who want to come to the U.S. for reasons such as, humanitarian, family reunification, and work.
  • Repeal 1996 Immigration Act and free all immigrants held in INS detention center for violating immigration laws such as, working without permission, illegal entry, and etc.

These demands do not remove national boundaries, but they would greatly enhance our freedom of movement and our power to confront capital for a better future. We are not slave who were bought and sold. We are not serfs who were bound to land. We are workers and we must be free to move and live wherever we can make a better living. Freedom of movement is a human right that we workers should fight for.

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