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"Race, Poverty, and Immigration,"

by Arnoldo Garcia November/December 2000 issue of Poverty & Race

A specter haunts the world and it is the specter of migration,” declare Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire, their analysis on the state of global capitalism, stressing by analogy the potential of immigrants as agents of social change. Our struggles for economic and racial justice have no alternative than to include immigrant rights.

Migration reflects the deep transformations and restructuring of national economies and civil society. The displacement of entire communities and segments of social classes is unprecedented in human history: 1 in every 50 persons worldwide is an economic migrant or political refugee. Migration sunders home communities and creates demographic revolution on receiving ones. However, migration has been a natural, if not a defining, aspect of human history and development.

In the Americas, since the arrival of Europeans in 1492, the migration of peoples has been repeatedly forced: from the enslavement and violent displacement of Indians from their lands, first into laborers for systems of private property and economic development for individual profit; to the trans-Atlantic African slave trade and importation of “free” labor from Europe; and the “modern” transnational labor mobility, including agricultural workers and computer engineers. They all have one thing in common: people are forcibly displaced and restructured to meet the labor needs of capital.

Immigrant Rights/
Civil Rights

The specter of immigrants is a fundamental issue all U.S. movements for social justice and equality must grapple with in order to develop a new, inclusive, anti-racist, internationalist, progressive agenda. Our movements need to progress from targeting and even scapegoating immigrants as obstacles to, or weakening, civil rights. They must see immigrants as central to the leadership and goals of extending and strengthening democracy and attaining social and economic justice in the United States.

Immigration in the United States is simultaneously a system of coerced labor pool creation, propelling new forms of racial stratification, and a cornerstone of the new international economy that has created greater subordination of the South countries by the North. According to the Census Bureau, 6 out of every 10 Asian Pacific Islanders and 4 out of 10 Latinos in the U.S. are foreign-born. In 1999, there were about 2 million foreign-born Blacks, 8% of all foreign-born. Some 85% of immigrants are considered “people of color.” Recent increasing immigration into the South, where the majority of African Americans reside, means that the demographic impacts already experienced in California and Texas, where half of all immigrants live, could significantly alter the U.S. political landscape. While the potential for Black-immigrant polarization exists, it is up to the leadership of progressives and people of color from all communities to creatively hone common ground for a different political outcome.

In the post-Cold war setting, migration has become a condition of unprecedented growth as well as a global security issue, giving rise to xenophobia without borders. In the United States, immigrants are scapegoated for a variety of social ills, including environmental degradation, sprawl, unemployment, poverty, and even for the cultural decay of the country.

Set against the backdrop of an increasingly politically conservative climate, these intertwined processes pose historic challenges for communities of color still struggling for social and racial justice. The demand and fight for immigrant rights is not primarily about “legalization” or labor protections — although these are very important and must be fought for. It is not about getting rights at the expense of the right of U.S. citizens or people of color. Immigrant rights are about transforming how our country develops, about how political power and representation is achieved and shared, and, above all, how all humans, regardless of immigration status, have the same rights to person, community, place and culture.

The issues of migration and immigrants have forced open a debate and, in some quarters, a dialogue about who we are as communities of color, as workers, as citizens, and how our country should interact with the rest of the world. Ultimately, the issue of immigrant rights raises the question of how we define civil rights as a global issue, too.

Some Key Issues

Against this backdrop, we are faced with some key issues. First, the demands for equality and civil rights in the context of “free” trade and globalization have to include a burgeoning sector of U.S. society that is nonwhite, nonblack and perceived to be noncitizen. U.S. immigration policies affect civil and labor rights at home and abroad, disrupting our communities without consultation. These demands must propose alternative to U.S. foreign investment and development policies that are displacing millions across borders.

Second, the main U.S. political and economic arenas have been steadily constricting the space for progressive and anti-racist politics since the Reagan Administration. Antiquated class frameworks and racial analyses rooted in previous eras of racial and class struggles still hold sway, hindering the political vision and organizational initiatives of the traditional civil rights movement.

Three broad, intertwined political trends have created this situation: The cutbacks in and privatization of public services; the rolling back and institutionalization of attacks on social, political, civil and human rights — including the severe curtailing of labor and environmental protections — resulting in the expansion of property rights and the market; and third, the de-regulation and/or re-regulation of investments, capital, goods, industries, services and labor across national borders and economic regions, subordinating labor mobility to globalization or capitalist restructuring.

This threefold political program, rising in the early 1960s, took full power with the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan, and has become the framework for the majority of social and fiscal policies that are facing all communities of color, immigrants, labor and the working poor. For example, Proposition 187 (approved by California voters in 1994 but constitutionally checked from implementation), which would have denied health, social and educational services to immigrants, is a corollary of U.S. immigration and trade policies. Although formally directed to immigrants, Prop. 187 was a plebiscite on the rights of citizens to public services and was essentially a “free trade” policy, aimed at privatizing access to education, health and social services. The combination of welfare reform and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act essentially installed Prop. 187 nationally.

The lines between the rights of immigrants — especially between legal and undocumented immigrants — and low-income people of color now are increasingly blurred. This is one of the results of the national debate on the costs and burdens of immigration and who pays. Now the scapegoating of immigrants, by many citizen and legal resident people of color, for the mounting cutbacks of services and curtailment of rights is the natural order of business. This in spite of the fact that immigrants and people of color occupy similar socio-economic space: in 1997-1998, the poverty rate for Latinos was 27.1%; for African Americans, 26.1%; for Asian Pacific Islanders, 12.5%.

“Immigrant” has become a full-fledged member of the racial lexicon of our country, usually referring only to Latinos and Asians; although immigrants hail from Canada, Europe, Africa and places in between. This is not surprising; passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, ending racial quotas, stressed family reunification and job skills, changing the demographics of immigration into the United States. During the 1950s, more than half of all immigrants were from European countries; by the 1970s that proportion had declined to less than 20%. Some 9 million immigrants came from Asian and Latin American countries. Since 1965, the Latino population increased by 141%, Asian Pacific Islanders by 385%.

A 1990 General Accounting Office study found that the employer sanctions provisions of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) were creating new forms of racism when those seeking employment, primarily Latino and Asian legal residents and U.S. citizens who “looked or sounded like” immigrants, were unlawfully asked for documentation or denied work.

How does immigration impact people of color? Various studies, both pro- and anti-immigrant, conclude that immigrants have little or no real economic impact, especially on African Americans and other people of color; their impact is bigger on other, less recent immigrants. But however real or imaginary the burdens of immigration, immigrants are being scapegoated by people of color and whites directly and indirectly. Stephen Steinberg, in his 1995 book Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy, asserts: “The economic fortunes of African Americans have always been linked to immigration.” Steinberg argues that, historically, African American economic and social progress has coincided with ebbs in immigration. Immigrants take jobs that otherwise would have gone to African Americans, and immigration policy is a form of disinvestment in U.S. workers that has especially severe consequences for African Americans and other marginalized communities.

In a different vein, William Julius Wilson, in his 1999 book The Bridge Over the Racial Divide: Rising Inequality and Coalition Politics, shows how immigration is one of several factors contributing to the growing racial inequalities. Immigrants are mainly concentrated in several states (California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey), and while inequality deepened in these states, it also rose in other areas where there are few immigrants. However, Steinberg correctly demands, “[W]hy is policy not directed at addressing the scandalously high rates of black unemployment?” and points out a glaring contradiction: “Although immigration has produced a more racially diverse population, paradoxically this new diversity has reinforced the pre-existing structure of occupational apartheid.”

If the economic lot of African Americans is bound up with immigration, as Steinberg argues, then the political demands of people of color must include immigrant rights. Otherwise, how do we dismantle the racial stratification of labor? By excluding and ultimately deporting immigrants, especially the undocumented and legal residents who have broken U.S. laws, so that opportunities are opened to people of color who occupy the same social and economic segment? Or do we include all immigrants, regardless of status and occupation, as part of the fight to expand the franchise so that all members of communities of color, including immigrants, have equal rights and protections and self-representation?

Addressing the
Main Arguments

In summary, the immigrant rights struggle faces several monumental challenges to build a cross-class and multiracial/multinational coalition that advocates for equality, civil rights and labor protections of all communities, regardless of immigration status. These include addressing:

• Racial arguments against immigration and immigrant rights. Under this scenario, immigrants are perceived to worsen the conditions and opportunities of legal resident and citizen people of color, especially African Americans. This argument lets whites off the hook and ignores the pattern of economic development, where jobs, services, housing and investment have fled the urban centers into the suburbs and overseas. Furthermore, it pits the rights of people of color against marginalized communities which are perceived to have no rights under U.S. law. Nobel Laureate novelist Toni Morrison, addressing the complexity that immigration adds to the black-white paradigm, points out, “Although U.S. history is awash in labor battles, political fights, and property wars among all religious and ethnic groups, their struggles are persistently framed as struggles between recent arrivals and blacks.”

• Cultural arguments against immigration and immigrant communities. Anti-immigrant forces allege that immigrants pollute and mongrelize “American” culture. This argument disdains the multicultural/multiracial/multinational nature of the U.S., exaggerates the role of whites, and diminishes the contributions of African Americans, Indians, Asians and Latinos to the development of our country and the significance of multi-racial community to forging a political agenda that integrates citizens and non-citizens on the basis of equality. María Jíménez, director of American Friends Service Committee’s Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project, asserts in this regard, “[I]t is important for various cultures to interact and engage in political projects together because these become laboratories for breaking down barriers and finding strategic unity. . . . The disparate experiences of immigrant and refugee communities must be integrated to craft a long-term strategy based on this analysis.”

• Labor arguments against immigration and the rights of immigrant workers. Immigrant workers are characterized as low-skilled, unorganizable and driving down wages of U.S. workers. This argument ignores the public subsidies and benefits given to corporations and certain sectors of industry that depend on immigrant labor. Also, special anti-immigrant labor laws and enforcement — especially employer sanctions and the use of the Border Patrol, a special anti-immigrant labor police force — are in effect, which make immigrants more vulnerable to exploitative wage and labor conditions, isolating them from their natural allies in communities of color and the social justice and labor movements. While immigrants are perceived to have few or no rights, they are seen — especially the undocumented — as undermining labor and other social rights, depriving citizens of jobs, especially low-income and people of color communities. In truth, working-class immigrants, documented and undocumented, are revitalizing the labor movement. Immigrants are made to appear invisible, and their role and contributions beyond the economy are ignored and/or minimalized. For example, Mae M. Ngai writes, in Audacious Democracy: Labor, Intellectuals, and the Social Reconstruction of America, edited by Steven Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman: “Historically and today, Asian immigrants have carried the twin burdens of race and foreign birth, both barriers to being considered ‘American workers’ in the fullest meaning of that concept.” According to racist and anti-immigrant logic, American (i.e., white) workers unquestioningly have full rights and powers; immigrants (i.e., people of color) do not. Only by recognizing that immigrants are part of and not the cause of the racial stratification of labor and its accompanying wealth and income gaps can our historical demands for civil and labor rights and social justice address migration with dignity and integrity.

We are again at the ending and beginning of a new cycle of development, where labor needs in a booming economy demand a re-ordering of rights and responsibilities. The AFL-CIO in February 2000, recognizing the revitalizing force of immigrants to union organizing, changed its long-held positions and called for repeal of employer sanctions and demanded amnesty for all undocumented workers. In addition to racial stratification, immigraton status creates a two-tiered workforce that undermines labor organizing. This deepens the impoverishment of immigrant workers, denying them living wages, job security and benefits. The last legalization under IRCA granted some 3 million undocumented residents legal status. This time, however, the demand for amnesty must be accompanied by the demand for full rights for the undocumented. Short of this, amnesty or legalization will only lead to creation of a new form of apartheid, where immigrant workers will increasingly be subject to indentured servitude. Take away the “immigrant” classification and you have another worker of color, exploited, many times marginalized, but one with dignity and capacity to transform the nation and the people in a multicultural, socially just direction.

Immigrant rights are key to racial and social justice. Misunderstood and under-appreciated, the fight for immigrant rights is also a fight against racism and deepens the substance of racial equality in the United States.

Arnoldo Garcia is on the staff of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, 310 8th St., #307, Oakland, CA 94607, 510/465-1984. He formerly was Regional Coalition Building Director of the Urban Habitat Program.

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