As progressives and workers march once again on May Day, it is important to reflect on the workers’ movement in this country. How can the working class move forward in this period?
This question cannot be answered without taking into consideration three important components: migrant workers, low-wage workers and the struggle against racism, which must be wholly embraced.
“We do not often look to prisons and detention centers to understand the social and political needs of our generation. But we should. Some of the most passionate advocates for fairness, justice and human rights are incarcerated.” These profound words were written by two activist professors in Washington state, Dan Berger and Angélica Cházaro. (Seattle Times op-ed, March 19)
They were writing about a hunger strike by over 700 immigrants in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., in early March. The hunger strikers were protesting unjust and inhumane prison conditions as well as mass deportation of migrant workers.
When you consider the effect that beloved political prisoners have on the movement — Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Cuban 5, Oscar Lopez and Leonard Peltier, to name a few — the professors’ words resonate intensely true.
The status of migrant workers
Thanks to the migrant upsurge of May Day 2006, International Workers Day was enthusiastically revived in states around the country, after decades of dormancy.
Since 2006, however, the struggle to win legalization for the over 12 million undocumented has, at least for the time being, been all but lost, despite a massive fightback. Instead, over 2 million workers have been inhumanely and unjustly deported, most of them under the Obama administration.
The mass deportations have led some in the immigrant rights movement, even those historically loyal not only to the Democratic Party but to the capitalist system, to unfortunately label President Barack Obama “Deporter-in-Chief.” But it’s a fact that the Obama administration has carried out more deportations than any other administration in U.S. history.
Deportations and the detention of migrant workers, along with the human toll of forced migration, have become a significant human and civil rights issue of our time.
The brutal tearing apart of families; the forced detention, primarily for profit, of blameless workers; the desperation and death at the militarized borders have all worsened. It is an all-out war against workers, a heartless, cruel and brutal crime committed by the capitalist class. It is a crime they must be punished for.
Recently the media reported that a 12-year-old girl from Ecuador allegedly committed suicide while in detention in a shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. She had been traveling alone with “smugglers” who were bringing her to the U.S. to be with her parents. She committed suicide after her smuggler was caught and she was put in the “shelter.”
This heartbreaking incident reflects a sobering reality: Children and teenagers are coming into the U.S. in record numbers, often alone. “Up to 120 unaccompanied youths are arriving each day, officials say, a number that has tripled over the last five years and that by some estimates could soon reach 60,000 a year.” More than 21,000 minors traveling without families were captured last year. “That was more than half the total of 38,833 detained nationwide. More than 90 percent of the youngsters detained are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.” (Los Angeles Times, Feb. 21)
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Almost half of the world’s forcibly displaced people are children and many spend their entire childhood far from home.” Children are at greater risk of abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation and trafficking.
No wonder, then, that in the U.S. the most vibrant sector of the migrant rights movement is led by young immigrants.
And no wonder that so many women are organizers and leaders of this movement.
The fear of rape while traveling to the U.S. is so real that women migrants often take contraceptive pills before they leave in case they are raped while on their journey, reports Professor Anna Ochoa O’Leary of the University of Arizona. Rape is part of the everyday experience of a woman migrant.
These horrible conditions of forced migration are mirrored not just by the catastrophic number of deportations by the U.S., but by the increasing detention of immigrant workers.
Detention for profit
The migrant movement repeatedly points out that the detention of immigrants is driven by profit, which also applies to the mass incarceration of workers of color and poor people.
Cold-hearted lobbyists working for corporations like the GEO Group, Inc. have fixed federal immigration policy to require that at least 35,000 beds in their detention centers be filled every night in order for the Department of Homeland Security to get its appropriations. It is called the “bed mandate.”
The fiscal 2015 federal budget contains a whopping $1.3 billion for 30,000 detention beds, according to a Bipartisan Policy Center report. This money should be used for people’s needs, not for incarceration!
If they are thought to be undocumented, people caught up in the justice system for as minor an infraction as broken tail lights are held in mandatory detention indefinitely without bail until their deportation is reviewed.
Brutal conditions in detention led to the recent hunger strikes, not only in Washington but in Texas as well. Among the grievances are terrible overcrowding: 48 prisoners in one cell block with only two toilets; detainees with untreated open wounds or infections.
Such horrible conditions are found throughout the U.S. prison system. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25 percent of the global prison population. Over 80,000 people now spend 23 to 24 hours a day in solitary confinement.
No wonder last year witnessed the heroic prisoners’ hunger strike in California, where at one point 30,000 inmates courageously refused prison food.
It has been well documented that the judicial system is racist, anti-poor and anti-worker. The jails are filled due to what can only be described as a policy of control and containment.
The same U.S. imperialist government that is rounding up, detaining and deporting workers created the conditions for their migration.
Whether it is trade agreements like the so-called North American Free Trade Agreement, which destroyed Mexico to benefit the multinational corporations, or earlier U.S.-sponsored wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, stolen elections in Haiti and Honduras, or U.S. troops in Somalia and the Philippines, it is the drive for profits of the U.S. ruling class that has created the conditions forcing the emigration of tens of millions of workers from their homelands.
The same ruling class that criminalizes immigrants here — the impoverished campesino, the unemployed teacher and the persecuted labor activist — reaps huge profits from its economic hold over these workers’ home countries.
Which way forward?
Immigrant workers today are fighting back like never before. Washington’s inability to make any progressive, real change for immigrants has resulted not in total demoralization but in growing anger among large sectors.
Those sectors who have pinned their hopes on the Democrats are walking away from these illusions. Huge numbers of workers are defiant and in motion. They are putting their hope exactly where it belongs: in the streets, in the struggle, depending on people’s power for change.
This is an important lesson for our class.
When immigrant rights activists recently protested Democratic Party officials in California, Rep. Nancy Pelosi said activists were giving “a gift to the Republicans” by targeting her and her colleagues instead of Republican officials.
But if the Democrats were truly a party of the people, as they claim, they could effect change if they wanted. They could filibuster until the deportations stopped. They could cut funding to GEO. They could raise the minimum wage with one pen stroke to $15. They could even go out on strike until the government truly represented the interests of the people and not Wall Street.
They could represent the people in the way President Nicolás Maduro does in Venezuela. They could say no to corporate lobby money if they truly wanted change.
But the Democrats, like the Republicans, are tied to the very same system that is demanding the ouster of the cheap labor source they no longer need. That system is capitalism, and it is inherently and intrinsically at odds with the needs of the people.
Both parties in one way or another see no other route but to put a band-aid on the humanitarian crisis sweeping the working class. But the capitalist system is irreconcilable with the needs of the working class, and no band-aid will stop its exploitation.
The only way forward for the immigrant rights movement is to build class solidarity, to build people’s power everywhere. The movement for people’s power assemblies is the only way to win legalization and end the deportations.
Workers of all nationalities are facing an unbridled economic crisis like no other. Every day more and more workers are unable to make ends meet. Every day low-wage work is the main option for so many workers.
What if next May Day the growing low-wage workers movement joined hand in hand with the immigrant rights movement, and they both joined with all the other progressive movements to wield the mightiest power workers have at this moment?
What if next May Day the workers and the oppressed marched in the spirit of the mighty strike of May Day 2006, when millions of low-wage workers without documents walked out and cost the corporations billions of dollars in profits? What happened in 2006 must happen again in order for the workers movement to succeed.
Right now the weapon of choice for low-wage workers in the U.S. and around the world must be to hold back our labor. The only solution is for low-wage workers to shut this system down. On to May Day!
Gutierrez is co-coordinator of the May 1 Coalition for Worker and Immigrant Rights.