Mass Upsurge Exposes the Crisis in Leadership in the Immigrant Rights Movement

by James Frickey

DANBURY, Conn.—The lights in Main Street storefronts are back on. The boycott is over. The roar of street protest has diminished to an anxious silence. Nothing is resolved.

A month ago, a crowd of 8000 people—almost all immigrant workers from Danbury—surrounded City Hall here to oppose a motion to deputize police as local proxies for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It is believed to have been the largest protest in Danbury since a famous hatters’ strike in 1915.

The size of the crowd also far exceeded the largest rallies in Connecticut during the Great American Boycott of May 1, 2006—and may have even topped the turnout for all of them combined. The historic importance was lost on the common council, however, which voted 19-2 to enter the federal program known as 287(g).

“Stop 2-8-7!” the protesters had shouted in unison at the glass façade of city hall as the city council was preparing to vote. Visible behind the glass, legislative aides flitted in and out of council chambers on the second floor, stopping at long intervals to gape at the swarming mass below.

On the roof of City Hall, several police officers stood with hand-held video cameras filming the faces of demonstrators. Dozens more police paced the pavement below, peering nervously into the crowd, their belts strung with rubber-handcuffs. A police spokesman later told a reporter that they had anticipated no more than 1000 demonstrators.

Solidarity for the protest came from throughout the Northeast. College students and unionists filled two school buses from Hartford. They marched to the rally in a 100-person contingent, chanting, “Amnesty, not 2-8-7 g!” Hundreds of workers in the crowd from Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala, and Ecuador took up the chant.

Other allies took the train or carpooled from Manhattan and Brooklyn. The parade marshals included members and staffers from District 1199 SEIU, the union of health-care workers whose Hartford headquarters was raided by ICE the previous week. ICE agents entered the union benefit fund, arrested a woman employee from Africa, and confiscated union files.

The size and spirit of the crowd were all the more remarkable under the circumstances. Danbury is the most hostile anti-immigrant city in the state.

Mayor Mark Boughton boasts that ICE pays two or three visits per week. ICE agents lurk in the city’s probation offices, handcuffing immigrants waiting in the lobby. A city cop disguised himself as a construction contractor and drove to a public park to
entrap day laborers and hand them over to ICE. An immigrant driver was once arrested and deported for not signaling a right-hand turn.

Militancy turns to Anxiety then Despair

Mayor Boughton is now isolated and faced with a delicate situation. He won the council vote, but it came at a high price. Even the liberals whom he has bullied for years can sense an opportunity.

Boughton had to swallow his pride and give an audience to the merchant leaders of the protest shortly after the vote and promise them that 287(g) was misconstrued. The federal program does not declare open season on immigrant workers, but is merely a tool for rooting out violent criminals. To allay their suspicions, Boughton invited them to sit as “watchdogs” on his 287(g) task force.

The merchants eagerly mistook the mayor’s diplomatic gesture for a concession, mostly because it aimed to satisfy their greatest wish, a return to order. Even though they are divided on entering into the 287(g) task force, they made a show of goodwill to the mayor’s more respectful tone by agreeing to host a public meeting for his police chief, Al Baker, to soother immigrants’ concerns about 287(g).

An uneasy crowd of more than 200 immigrants listened quietly to Baker’s remarks, which were translated into Portuguese by Helena Abrantes, the Democrat presumed to run for mayor in the next election. Echoes of the rally still lingered in the air, as Baker, under the weight of so many prying eyes, made 287(g) sound like a sanctuary-city ordinance for immigrants.

It is laughable for a racist politician as totally discredited as Boughton to have to reassure immigrants that he means them no harm. But his job is made easier when liberals lend a helping hand. The Danbury Partnership for Unity, a Democratic Party outfit, recently distributed a statement to immigrant workers that read, in part, “Immigrant Brothers and Sisters! We must remain calm … 287(g) will not affect honest and hardworking immigrants. Danbury police will only arrest criminals, the chief of police and our esteemed mayor have given us their word.”

Breno da Mata, editor of the Brazilian weekly Comunidade News and the most authoritative leader of the Feb. 6 rally, wrote a column defending the invitation to Baker: “There is an old adage that says, ‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.'”

But there are signs that workers are quickly losing confidence in a leadership that appears to be reconciled to 287(g). “I don’t understand why we are having a meeting for the chief,” said Ramiro, an Ecuadorian carpenter in the meeting for Baker. “No one trusts the police. My friends were too scared to come. They thought ICE was going to raid the meeting.”

Talk of mass action in protest of 287(g) in Danbury has evaporated. “A large protest would undermine the gains we have made with the mayor,” explained an Ecuadorian restaurateur.

The merchants have no clarity on the need mobilize in defense of arrests of undocumented workers. The first casualty of their new understanding with Mayor Boughton was the popular call for an ‘ICE Watch’ that would answer persecution with mass action, work stoppages, and high-school walkouts. No plan to involve the thousands of combative immigrant workers in their own self-defense is forthcoming.

Instead of an “ICE Watch” that involved the masses, the Ecuadorian chamber of commerce and some well-known Democrats have announced a voter-registration drive, a consumer boycott of businesses owned by council members, and a hotline to help workers pick up the pieces after 287(g) has broken apart their families.

No one denies that victims of ICE raids need legal assistance, child care, and counseling. But in the midst of a mass working-class upsurge, when the ability of the city to even enforce 287(g) remains an open question, these are not merely insufficient gestures, but signs of surrender. Workers can read the handwriting on the wall. The moving-companies in Danbury report a 40-percent rise in business since 287(g) was passed.

Immigrant workers seething

No one in Danbury—least of all Mayor Boughton—could have predicted that the buildup of resentment under the surface would rise so suddenly to rattle the windows of city hall. But eruptions of protest are not uncommon in places where 287(g) comes up for a vote. A showdown took place in Waukegan, Illinois, last December when 6000 workers marched on the city hall during a 287(g) vote and were met by a veritable army of SWAT cops with attack-dogs, snipers on rooftops, and two helicopters hovering overhead. The Waukegan city council passed 287(g) in a 8-2 vote.

Similarly, a struggle against 287(g) in Prince William County, Va., resulted in a march of 15,000 workers. Immigrants there say the agreement is a racist poison. A woman from Guatemala told the Washington Post that supermarket cashiers suddenly grow annoyed with her Spanish, and her young daughters told her, “Mami, las maestras prefieren a los Americanos.” (“The teachers prefer the Americans.”). Enormous public outcries have done little to discourage town councils from siding with ICE.

It is small wonder that 287(g) rouses immigrants to protest. The federal program permits ICE to establish outposts in places with high concentrations of immigrants. Waukegan, for example, is 80-percent immigrant; Danbury is more than 50-percent immigrant.

Police in both cities have federal authority to stop, interrogate, arrest, and transport to prison any city resident whom they suspect of being undocumented. They will have access to federal databases with background on hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers. ICE permits them to raid homes and workplaces, all they need is a warrant.

ICE’s move to formally deputize local police as its enforcers is a new phenomenon. More than three-quarters of ICE’s local proxies joined the 287(g) program in the past year—26 of 34 police departments that are enrolled. The program has been on the books since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1996, but it was rarely put into practice until the federal government began experimenting with ways to police a guest-worker program.

The timing of the spike in 287(g) agreements coincides with the general enforcement push that includes a border wall, a prison network, a national ID card, and thousands more ICE agents. Immigrant workers are the fastest growing section of the prison population. On any given day, 15,000 are locked up in deportation proceedings.

Most cities do not wait for 287(g) to authorize what their police have been doing for quite some time. Polimigras, as ICE’s local proxies are dubbed, are active in cities whose councils have never even heard of 287(g). City cops in Hartford, for example,
routinely interrogate drivers in possession of foreign licenses, run their names through the ICE database, and will readily hand them over to ICE for deportation. And it is standard procedure in many places for police to accompany ICE on raids of homes and workplaces.

Democrats do not oppose the polimigras, and if they find fault with 287(g) it is mainly because it shines a light on police collaborating with ICE, which creates an embarrassing situation for the party. So it was for Congressman Chris Murphy, darling of the Danbury Democrats, when a reporter asked why he did not oppose 287(g): “I think that every individual community has to decide whether they want a formal partnership or an informal partnership.”

Murphy’s performance in Danbury was a revelation. When he arrived in town it was the day of the preliminary vote on 287(g), and the local press expected him to come out swinging against it and Boughton, his Republican rival. But Murphy did nothing of the sort.

“My reason for being here is to try to take some of the heat off of the police department and the council,” Murphy stated. “I think there’s no way to avoid a coordination between ICE and local police departments.”

Democrats on the town council got the message; they voted 5 to 2 in favor of 287(g). Murphy’s words sealed the fate of 40,000 immigrant workers and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Democrats will not intervene to stop the repression.

The Democrats hope to convert the popular outrage over 287(g) into popular support for comprehensive immigration reform. They imply that the reform will nullify 287(g) and neutralize ICE. Murphy prescribes it as a remedy for what ails immigrant workers.

But immigrants have reason to doubt the healing properties of a reform that underwrites a 300-mile border wall, a prison system for immigrants, a network of ICE partnerships with local police, a guest-worker program, a national ID card, and thousands more ICE agents to raid and terrorize the undocumented.

The corporate sponsors of the Democrat and Republican parties are determined to cut labor costs in basic industry. They calculate that a system that binds an immigrant worker to a sole employer will arrest the natural rise in wages caused by competition for labor; it will allow them to systematize and artificially lower the pay scale across whole industries.

ICE is building the police network to enforce this “guest-worker” program and serve, in effect, as the anti-amnesty. No change in legal status for any portion of the 12 million undocumented workers is desirable or necessary to the employers under this scenario.

This is a time of hard lessons for immigrant workers. For two years the federal government has battered their workplaces and neighborhoods with raids designed to spread terror to the furthest reaches. The individual solution to lie low and wait it out is testing their patience.

The ICE raids are intensifying, and the police are more hostile than ever. The world around them is transforming for the worse. They endure a racism that is bolder and more pervasive than they remember. It quarantines them from the rest of the working class. Some are leaving the country. Many are relocating to new cities where they believe they will be safer. All who remain will have to adjust to increasing pressure. Over time they may see that what first appeared to them as a local problem of a temporary nature is the deliberate policy of the capitalist class.

But they remain captives to debt and family obligations that force most of them to remain in the U.S. The ways to relieve the tension are deportation, departure, or amnesty. Otherwise, the tension among immigrant workers will continue to rise for lack of any release.

The immigration reform, when it comes, is not likely to please immigrant workers, who can already recognize that a rise in police power does not portend an amnesty. Under these circumstances, the blows of ICE or local police are an incitement to protest.

The New York Times warned Danbury and its imitators in an editorial that 287(g) “inflames tensions” in cities with large immigrant populations. Therefore, the sudden bursts of mass protest in Danbury, Waukegan, and in Prince William County are soon to be repeated elsewhere. How should militants and revolutionaries prepare to meet the next wave of protest when it comes?

How the fight is won

The immigrant rights movement is built around the active participation of undocumented workers and their families. They assume enormous risks by taking part in
any fightback. In this age, deportation is not an inconvenience, but a cause for lengthy imprisonment, financial ruin, orphaned children, and the increasing likelihood of death on attempting to reenter the country.

The military buildup along the border relegates workers to the most perilous desert treks imaginable. At the same time, halting the government persecution and winning an amnesty are goals that can reunite families, improve living conditions, and permit the workers a measure of peace.

Their indignation and their personal experience in social upheaval and class-struggle combine to make them the most diligent and self-sacrificing of fighters. But a movement leadership that wavers in its determination to defend them from persecution is not worthy of their respect or confidence.

Immigrant workers are the vanguard of the proletariat in this country. They are years ahead of their peers in their willingness to strike for political demands. They have little trouble seeing that the Democratic Party leads in the interest of the capitalist class because it accords with their experience in places like Danbury.

The living memory of the enormous power that they have momentarily gathered in their hands is alive in their minds. What they doubt is not their ability to shut down a city, but the likelihood that it will stop the ICE juggernaut.

The main problem facing the immigrant rights movement is less and less the fear of workers to participate in protests and meetings and more the absence of a principled leadership that can sustain a mass struggle until victory is in hand.

The unity of the capitalist parties on ICE repression and the guest-worker program is a concern for workers born in the U.S. It means that the economic trends toward lower pay, higher job insecurity, more limited access to medical care, and diminished power of labor unions are going to worsen. It is also a compelling basis for working-class unity. Racial scapegoating of immigrants is going to substitute for more substantive explanations of the problems that workers face.

For immigrant workers to win broad support from the working-class, they must be able to explain their struggle in terms of a reversal of the general decline of living conditions for all workers in the country. The crisis of leadership can be resolved in favor of the workers if they build a party of their own—entirely independent of the Democrats and Republicans—to lead the movement.

Immigrant workers in a proletarian party would make the difference in a future showdown with ICE and its local proxies. They would be in a position to seize on the sporadic upheavals of workers against ICE to build a model campaign of resistance with mass mobilization as its cornerstone. A city mayor who tests this leadership by escalating raids will find that every act of violence against immigrants results in a mass mobilization that strengthens the opposition, rather than weaken it.

The struggle of a workers’ party would not be limited to a city or a section of the working class. It can organize national tours of militants to places that face the same threat of ICE and the polimigras. They could compare notes, build relationships, and begin working toward the construction of a national united front to halt the ICE raids and the guest-worker program.

Immigrant workers have the potential to reinvigorate the labor movement, but it will take a party to unite the militant workers and students of all colors and nationalities with a program of uncompromising struggle for working-class demands. A workers’ party—with an uncompromising leadership—could withstand the full fury of the state, its police and courts, its media propaganda, its grinding pressures of blandishment and abuse.

Let the ruling-class pundits preach foreign invasion, and band-aids to overcome social problems like crime and job-loss. A workers’ party will answer them with free health care for all, a class-struggle union movement, and the six-hour day!