By David Bacon
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
OAKLAND, CA (4/4/09) -- In a little less than a month, hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of people will fill the streets in city after city, town after town, across the US. This year May Day marches of immigrant workers will make an important demand on the Obama administration: End the draconian enforcement policies of the Bush administration. Establish a new immigration policy based on human rights and recognition of the crucial economic and social contributions of immigrants to US society.
This year's marches will continue the recovery in the US of the celebration of May Day, the day that celebrates worldwide the contributions of working people. That recovery started on May 1, 2006, when over a million people filled the streets of Los Angeles, with hundreds of thousands more in Chicago, New York and cities and towns throughout the United States. Again on May Day in 2007 and 2008, immigrants and their supporters demonstrated and marched, from coast to coast.
One sign found in almost every march said it all: "We are Workers, not Criminals!" The sign stated an obvious truth. Millions of people have come to the United States to work, not to break its laws. Some have come with visas, and others without them. But they are all contributors to the society they've found here.
The protests are a result of years of organizing, the legacy of Bert Corona, immigrant rights pioneer and founder of many national Latino organizations. He trained thousands of immigrant activists, taught the value of political independence, and believed that immigrants themselves must conduct a struggle for their rights. Most of the leaders of the radical wing of today's immigrant rights movement were his students.
In part, the May Day protests respond to a wave of draconian measures that have criminalized immigration status and work itself for undocumented people. In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act made it a crime, for the first time in US history, to hire people without papers. Defenders argued that if people could not legally work they would leave. Life was not so simple.
Undocumented people are part of the communities they live in. They cannot simply go, nor should they. They seek the same goals of equality and opportunity that working people in the US have historically fought for. In addition, for most immigrants there are no jobs to return to in the countries from which they've come. After Congress passed The North American Free Trade Agreement, six million displaced Mexicans came to the US as a result of the massive displacement the treaty caused. Free trade and free market policies have similarly displaced millions more in poor countries around the world.
Instead of recognizing this reality, the US government has attempted to make holding a job a criminal act. Some states and local communities, seeing a green light from the Department of Homeland Security, have passed measures that go even further. Mississippi passed a bill making it a felony for an undocumented worker to hold a job, with jail time of 1-10 years, fines of up to $10,000, and no bail for anyone arrested. Employers get immunity.
Last summer, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff proposed a rule requiring employers to fire any worker who couldn't correct a mismatch between the Social Security number given to their employer and the SSA database. The regulation assumes those workers have no valid immigration visa, and therefore no valid Social Security number.
With 12 million people living in the US without legal immigration status, the regulation would have led to massive firings, bringing many industries and businesses to a halt. Citizens and legal visa holders would have been swept up as well, since the Social Security database is often inaccurate. While the courts enjoined this particular regulation, the idea of using Social Security numbers to identify and fire millions of workers is still very much alive in Washington, DC.
Under Chertoff, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted sweeping workplace raids, arresting and deporting thousands of workers. Many were charged with an additional crime - identity theft - because they used a Social Security number belonging to someone else to get a job. Yet workers using those numbers actually deposit money into Social Security funds, and will never collect benefits their contributions paid for. The new Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says the big raids need to be reexamined, but she continues to support measures to drive undocumented workers from their jobs, and to keep employers from hiring them.
During her term as governor, the Arizona legislature passed a law requiring employers to verify the immigration status of every worker through a federal database called E-Verify, even more full of errors than Social Security. They must fire workers whose names get flagged. This is now becoming the model for Federal enforcement.
Many of these punitive measures surfaced in proposals for "comprehensive immigration reform" that were debated in Congress in 2006 and 2007. The comprehensive bills combined criminalization of work for the undocumented with huge guest worker programs. While those proposals failed in Congress, the Bush administration implemented some of their most draconian provisions by administrative action. Many fear that new proposals for immigration reform being formulated by Congress and the administration will continue these efforts to criminalize work.
In reality, the labor of 12 million undocumented workers is indispensable to the economy, just as is the labor of 26 million people with visas, and the many millions of workers who were born in the U.S. The wealth created by undocumented workers is never called illegal. No one dreams of taking that wealth from the employers who profited from it. Yet the people who produce this wealth are called exactly that - illegal.
All workers need jobs and a way to support their families, not just some. And in a country with schools behind the rest of the industrialized world, with bridges that fall into rivers and people living in tent cities for lack of housing, there is clearly no shortage of work to be done. If the trillion dollars showered on banks were used instead to put people to work, there would be plenty of jobs and a better quality of life for everyone.
Nativo Lopez, president of the Mexican American Political Association and the Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana, says, "Washington legislators and lobbyists fear a new civil rights movement in the streets, because it rejects their compromises and makes demands that go beyond what they have defined as 'politically possible.'"
The price of trying to push people out of the US who've come here for survival is increased vulnerability for undocumented workers, which ultimately results in cheaper labor and fewer rights for everyone. Under Bush, that was the government's goal -- cheap labor for large employers, enforced by deportations, firings and guest worker programs. This is what millions of people want to change. And the Obama administration was elected because it promised "change we can believe in."
In past May Day marches many participants have put forward an alternative set of demands, which includes tying legalization for 12 million undocumented people in the US with jobs programs for communities with high unemployment. All workers need the right to organize to raise wages and gain workplace rights, including the 12 million people for whom work is a crime. More green cards, especially visas based on family reunification, would enable people to cross the border legally, instead of dying in the desert. Ending guest worker programs would help stop the use of our immigration system as a supply of cheap labor for employers. And on the border, communities want human rights, not more guns, walls, soldiers and prisons for immigrants.
This May Day, immigrants will again send this powerful message. Their marches have already rescued from obscurity our own holiday, which began in the struggle for the eight-hour day in Chicago over a century ago. Today they are giving May Day a new meaning, putting forward ideas that will not only benefit immigrant communities, but all working families.