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Open to capital but not to labor
“We oppose all immigration controls.”
— From the ISO “Where We Stand”
The starting point of our approach to the question of immigration is Marx’s dictum that the working class has no country.
Socialists support the right of all people to move across national borders without fear of discrimination, and oppose all attempts by governments to constrict and control that movement, or to treat immigrants as second-or third-class citizens (or non-citizens). Any other position would make a mockery of our call for the international solidarity of the working class.
Capitalist commerce has created a world market, and by doing so, has acted to break down all barriers to the free movement of money and investment. Capital moves relatively freely throughout the world, chasing after the most profitable investments. Labor, on the other hand, does not have the same freedom as capital to move across borders.
The history of human migration under capitalism is one where people, fleeing hardship and poverty in one region or country, are forced to move to another, where they find themselves treated as social pariahs, even as their labor is freely exploited by the capitalists of the nation to which they were forced to move.
The myth of the “melting pot”
The United States has long promoted a myth about being a “melting pot” that welcomes the poor and oppressed from all over the world as they look for a better life. The reality is far different. The new nation was built upon the genocide and displacement of American Indians, the enslavement of Africans and the ruthless exploitation of immigrant workers. The question of immigration for the U.S. ruling class has never been a humanitarian question, but a question of finding a plentiful and cheap labor supply. Slavery supplied it to the Southern plantations; indentured servitude and later the migration of “free labor” to the north.
The “free labor” provided by immigrants to this country has always been hemmed in and controlled by various legal restrictions in order to ensure its status as cheap and pliant. The only way immigrant workers can be used as cheaper labor is because immigration laws impose a second-class status on them.
Politicians and employers use anti-immigrant laws not so much to prevent the entry of all immigrant labor as to control it. The threat of imprisonment and deportation is a strong incentive not to organize for higher wages and better conditions.
The list of victims of anti-immigrant discrimination throughout this country’s history is long: Catholics, Irish, Germans and Swedes, Jews, Southern Italians, Eastern Europeans, Asians, Mexicans and Central Americans, Muslims and so on, up to the present day.
The pattern of immigration and exclusion has often followed the needs of industry—workers welcomed in times of boom, then scapegoated and deported in times of depression. Chinese immigrants worked for low wages and suffered terrible hardship building the railroads in the American West, only to find themselves the victims of racist pogroms and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which wasn’t repealed for 60 years.
As U.S. capitalism began to take off in the late 1900s, the United States welcomed millions of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe—up until 1917, when the Immigration Exclusion Act was passed. During the 1920s, as Mexicans were encouraged to come and take railroad and agricultural jobs—a million came to this country, only to be victimized and deported once the Great Depression hit.
Divide and rule
We have already spoken about how capitalism both unites and divides workers. The system compels workers to unite in order to defend their interests, but it also forces them to compete individually for jobs. This competition forms the basis on which the ruling class creates animosity between workers of different races, regions and nations, and tries to bind the workers of one nation to the idea that they have a common bond with the exploiters of “their” nation.
Wherever the employers can get away with paying lower wages, compelling longer hours and denying basic benefits, they will do it. One way to accomplish this is by pitting lower-paid immigrant workers against higher-paid native-born workers. As historian Philip Foner writes, “All too frequently, newly arrived immigrants of every nationality made their first entrance into American industry as strikebreakers.”
Writing in the late 1880s, Frederick Engels noted how the U.S. ruling class was masterful at pitting immigrant workers against each other, and native-born workers against immigrants. As he wrote in a letter to an American colleague:
“Your bourgeoisie knows how to play off one nationality against the other: Jews, Italians, Bohemians, etc., against Germans and Irish, and each one against the other, so that differences in the living standard of the workers exist, I believe, in New York to an extent unheard-of elsewhere.
“And added to this is the total indifference of a society which has grown up on a purely capitalist basis, without any genial feudal background, towards the human beings who succumb to the competitive struggle: “There will be plenty more, and more than we want, of these damned Dutchmen, Irishmen, Italians, Jews and Hungarians”; and to cap it all, John Chinamen stands in the background, who far surpasses them all in his ability to live on next to nothing.”
There is also a political component to anti-immigrant hysteria. During the Second World War, German immigrants faced harassment and discrimination, as did Japanese immigrants. In the late 1910s, anti-immigrant racism was whipped up against leftists in the labor movement. Thousands of radical immigrants were arrested and deported during the famous Palmer Raids of 1919-1921. More recently, Arab and Muslim immigrants have faced harassment and deportation as a result of the xenophobia whipped up after September 11th.
These policies, though directed at sections of the working class, open up the possibility for them to be used more widely. The function of such discrimination is to neutralize the left—the promoters of solidarity and struggle against oppression—by creating a climate of hatred, mistrust and fear.
Over the past several years, millions of undocumented immigrants who have made the wheels of industry and commerce turn have faced one of the most vicious and draconian dragnets in U.S. history, at the hands of the aptly named ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Families are being broken up, tens of thousands imprisoned and many more deported, all for the “crime” of working hard for substandard wages. Meanwhile, employers face little more than an occasional fine. Immigrants had high hopes in the Obama administration implementing immigration reform that would make the system of border control and enforcement less draconian and would provide a means for immigrants to work in security and, if they wished, obtain US citizenship. No reform was forthcoming. Obama earned the tag “deporter in chief” from immigration rights organizations for surpassing the previous Bush administration in the number of undocumented immigrants it has deported.
The only way to overcome the divisions that capital deliberately fosters among workers is to work practically for the solidarity of all workers, regardless of their nationality, race or language. The slogan “No one is illegal” is not merely a moral imperative, but one based on the idea that so long as workers allow themselves to be pitted against each other, so long will they remain weak, exploited victims of capitalism.
Native-born workers may think that exclusion and discrimination against immigrant workers will help them. But the reality is that when the bosses can hurt one portion of the working class, it becomes easier to hurt the other. Anti-immigrant laws help the employers impose low wages on all workers. The old IWW slogan was “an injury to one is an injury to all.” The only way the labor movement can improve the conditions for all is by raising the conditions of the most oppressed and exploited sections, not by scapegoating them.
“In this attitude” of support for the rights of immigrant workers, socialist Eugene Debs once wrote,
“There is nothing of maudlin sentimentality, but simply a rigid adherence to the fundamental principles of the International proletarian movement. If socialism, international, revolutionary socialism, does not stand staunchly, unflinchingly and uncompromisingly for the working class, and for the exploited and oppressed masses of all lands, then it stands for none, and its claim is a false pretense, and its profession a delusion and a snare.”