The Basic Contradiction of U.S. Immigration Policy

by James Frickey / June 2006 issue Socialist Action

For the past 20 years, the U.S. has sought in earnest to remove its southern border as a barrier to foreign trade and investment, while continuously reinforcing it as a barrier to the free movement of workers.

Over the years, the Mexican peasantry has been uprooted, the rate of emigration has greatly increased, and the clandestine underclass of undocumented workers has swelled and finally burst into the open. Every step in U.S. policy has been pre-determined to draw larger numbers of low-skilled undocumented labor into the workforce.

Advanced capitalist economies demand workers who will toil under unpleasant conditions, at low wages, in jobs with great instability and little chance for advancement. And who is better suited than Mexican immigrants? Wages in Mexico are one-fifth those of the U.S., jobs are sparse, and Mexico, as its dictator Porfirio Diaz was fond of saying, “was so far from God, yet so close to the United States.”

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that as many as 12 million undocumented workers currently live in the U.S.—and 56 percent of them are Mexican. They arrive at a rate of 500,000 per year and fewer are returning home, aided in their decision by the heightened risk and cost of re-entry associated with increased border security.

Immigrant workers have become integral to the competitiveness and profitability of multiple U.S. industries. And the narcotic-like dependency of U.S. capitalism on low-wage undocumented labor has had the unintended consequence of consolidating the position of immigrant workers in the U.S. working class. They are integral to the U.S. construction, manufacturing, agriculture, and service industries. A day without immigrants in any of these industries is a day without profit.

The U.S. ruling-class appears to hold all the cards; its politicians, journalists, labor statesmen, and nonprofit nurslings are lined up neatly in a row. A renewed Bracero Program is within its reach. But it may be dismayed to find that its 21st-century guest workers are nothing like the braceros, who at their peak were never more than several hundred thousand farm laborers and track-layers on the railroad.

Braceros were landless peasant farmers recruited from the Mexican hinterlands. The 21st-century guest workers are a class-conscious urban proletariat of 12 million. They did not wait for a Senate bill to “bring them out of the shadows” but stepped out themselves en masse on a scale of protest never before seen in U.S. history. Within their ranks is an unknown reserve of leadership capable of actuating the next heroic chapter in the U.S. workers’ movement. It is there that the immigration debate ultimately turns.

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