The following article was published in Proletarian Revolution No. 67 (Spring 2003).
A wave of attacks on immigrants in the U.S. began with September 11. As the war-mongering turned into an all-out war against Iraq, immigrant workers knew that there would be good cause for alarm on U.S. soil, too. Today the agenda is no less than the criminalization of entire immigrant communities. An atmosphere has been created in which all kinds of verbal and violent attacks are incited.One significant development was the dissolution of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) into the new Homeland Security department on March 1. “Since this is homeland security, people are afraid it will taint immigrants as potential threats rather than as benefits to society,” said Greg Simons of the Committee for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. (Los Angeles Times, March 1.) Talk about understatement! Indeed, the name of the department itself expresses only too well what the U.S. ruling class has in mind.
Even before the bombs began to drop on Iraq, the Bush Administration had rounded up, detained and deported thousands of documented and undocumented immigrants. There has been a long and growing official list of nationalities—almost all from the Middle East and South or Central Asia—subject to round-up or forced appearances. Many who reported for “interviews” with the INS vanished for days or even months, despite their families’ and friends’ frantic attempts to find them.
What is behind all this? As our lead article points out, the same economic crisis that pushes imperialist war abroad also drives the class war at home. But the latter war is still rather covert. U.S. capitalists are masters at using racism, national chauvinism and every other reactionary device to exacerbate divisions within the working class. Their method is divide and conquer, and they hide the fact that attacking the whole working class is going to be the only way to maintain capitalist rule.
Today, Arabs, Muslims and South Asians are among the most vulnerable targets for virulent scapegoating. For one thing, they are among the more recent arrivals. More importantly, U.S. imperialism needs to justify its murderous role in the Middle East and its growing repressive apparatus at home. It is no surprise that the rulers’ most rabid mouthpieces portray people born in majority-Muslim countries as one indistinguishable threatening horde. After all, Blacks and Latinos in the U.S. have always suffered pervasive racist oppression and deeper exploitation. Racial profiling was once supposed to be a justifiable part of the war on crime. Now profiling and detention of Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians are supposed to be an acceptable part of the war on terrorism. The attacks on immigrants are themselves racist and will have the added effect of deepening all forms of racism in this country.
To carry out its assaults without hindrance from constitutional protections, the federal government hurriedly passed new laws. Not only Republicans but Democratic Senators and Representatives as well voted overwhelmingly for the so-called “USA PATRIOT Act,” which greatly increased police powers to detain without charge, wiretap without warrant and search without notification. And now we are supposed to sit tight and stay tuned for another round of laws in the works, referred to fondly in government circles as Patriot Act II.
Given the urgency, who should immigrants under siege look toward for their defense? A logical avenue for help would be the existing immigrant rights groups. Unfortunately so far, nationally known groups like the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee have stuck to a strategy of voting for and lobbying the pro-imperialist politicians (i.e., in the Democratic and Republican Parties, which are bolstering the attacks), rather than trying to build mass actions that would seem too militant.
That doesn’t mean that there has not been resistance. Although immigrant groups tend to be divided by nationality, under the common attack there is a growing sense that this needs to be overcome. One of the more militant protests against the round-ups was a demonstration of thousands of Iranians in Los Angeles last December that won national attention. But the fact remains that there needs to be an organized fightback, one that all immigrants under attack can look to and that can encourage the rest of the working class to join in, too.
There is tremendous ground for fear of reprisals; in the current climate, caution is necessary as to how and when immigrants respond. Nevertheless, a pro-establishment strategy or a policy of inaction will be a disaster for immigrants under attack. We say that a working class strategy is needed to answer these attacks. In this, unity between Arab, Latin-American, African, Caribbean and Asian immigrants is a vital component. Unity with other powerful sectors of the working class and its supporters is equally urgent, in order to build the types of needed mass actions that can provide a real defense.
It is important to consider the role of Latino immigrants, who have played a major part in other types of fightbacks in the recent past. Only a few years ago the bold action of immigrant Latino janitors in Los Angeles and elsewhere provided a key spark for a growing amnesty movement. The struggles by immigrant workers, chiefly Mexican in origin, won concrete gains. The INS reduced the number of raids it carried out from 17,000 in 1997 to 953 in 2000.
Of course, there has never been a golden age for any people of color in this country. But the power of immigrant workers to fight back and even win gains has already been demonstrated. And to a large degree, their power is based on their role in the economy. Mass immigration has continued to grow despite September 11. Imperialism creates such misery around the world that—ironically—lots of people are forced to come to the U.S. for a better life, even though they face discrimination and would much prefer their homelands.
But the other side of this coin is that the immigrant workforce has become irreversibly vital to the U.S. economy. This fact is already understood by politicians and think tanks. And this gives immigrant workers an avenue to fight back.
Our strategy is based on building the biggest and most powerful possible unity of the working class against the capitalist-imperialist class. That is why we stress the common interests of immigrants of different nationalities, and also the common interest of immigrants and workers of color in the United States.
There are two key components to the heightened attacks on immigrants. One has been an underlying motive even in the most peaceful of times. As one observant INS bureaucrat now working for Homeland Security commented, “Part of our mission has always been to carry the burden that immigration policy is very difficult for this country. Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it too. Everyone wants to get rid of illegal aliens, but no one wants to get rid of cheap labor.” (Los Angeles Times, March 12.)
However, this is not a policy of an anonymous “everyone.” It is the conscious two-faced policy fostered by the capitalists against workers and oppressed peoples: force or lure people here with promises, use them for cheap labor and harass and castigate them every chance you get. The new factor is the stepped-up, open imperial stance of the U.S. in the world.
It is not only against Arabs and Muslims. A recent dispute with Mexico over support to the U.S. war drive led President Bush and his cronies to mouth off threats against Mexican workers here. An unnamed American diplomat was quoted in the press saying that if Mexico didn’t vote for the U.S. war in the U.N., that could “stir up feelings” against Mexicans in the United States. He recalled that the U.S. had interned Japanese-Americans during World War II, and threatened that a Mexican rejection would “stir the fires of jingoism during a war.” Bush himself added to the warnings, according to the New York Times:
He alluded to the possibility of reprisals if Mexico didn’t vote America’s way, saying, “I don’t expect there to be significant retribution from the government.” … He then went on to suggest that there might, however, be a reaction from other quarters, citing “an interesting phenomena taking place here in America about the French … a backlash against the French, not stirred up by anybody except the people.” (March 7.)
That is, while it is Arabs who are being rounded up now, any nation that displeases the U.S. can become a target of “the people.”
Given the fragile situation that immigrants find themselves in, it would be a mistake to blame the lack of a fightback primarily on the immigrant rights groups. The major problem has been the strongest working-class institutions, the trade unions, whose leadership is so rotten that few people even expect them to do their job of defending the working class.
For example, the fighting immigrant workers, especially Mexican immigrants were the main pressure behind the AFL-CIO’s historic turnabout in 2000 when it came out in favor of amnesty for immigrants. The AFL-CIO’s turn reflected the central role that immigrant workers were now playing in the blue-collar workforce. But little happened. A lot of hoopla and illusions were spread about a federal amnesty bill, as if it could really be won just by occasional lobbying and demonstrations. And after September 11, the reactionary labor bureaucracy went back to its real full-time job of touting U.S. imperialism uncritically.
Significantly, the only protest the AFL-CIO issued in reference to the Homeland Security consolidation was over the civil service status of the new department’s employees and agents! The Arab and other immigrant workers, who were most immediately imperiled, were shoved under the rug. This was a dramatic demonstration that opposing the imperialist war in Iraq and defending immigrant rights at home are part of the same struggle.
The bureaucrats’ affinity for the ruling class has produced an altogether one-sided class war at home. Now that there is a war on, the one-sidedness will be even sharper, and not only for immigrants and people of color. The living standards of the whole working class are getting worse. Because it holds back necessary and powerful struggles like a general strike, the craven union bureaucracy has to be fought until the day it is replaced!
In our view, the most vital organization for the defense of immigrants is the building of the internationalist revolutionary party. Only an authentically Marxist party, which understands imperialism fully and knows that the main enemy is the U.S. ruling class, can withstand the pressures of bourgeois nationalism. In imperialist countries like the U.S., a huge problem has been the capitulation of so-called socialist and communist parties to imperialist attacks on oppressed nations. In the two inter-imperialist world wars, these same types of centrist and reformist parties mostly caved in to supporting their own bourgeoisie, with workers killing other workers in the name of their particular nation. Only a revolutionary international party can effectively fight to prevent this. It will do so as part of its fight for the socialist revolution that is needed here and across the globe.
The Third International, under the leadership of Josef Stalin, was among the parties that sided with U.S. imperialism during World War II. Only the Fourth International, under the leadership of Leon Trotsky, retained a revolutionary policy and did not side with any imperialist power in World War II. Tragically, Trotsky was assassinated at Stalin’s order in 1940 and some of the Trotskyist leadership was killed during the war. Later the Fourth International disintegrated into bands of revolutionary pretenders who betrayed other revolutions, in particular the struggle in Bolivia in 1952. Today we in the LRP fight for the basic political views of Trotsky’s International. This is why the chief slogan of the LRP is to re-create the Fourth International. We must attempt to strengthen the international revolutionary program, re-create the organization that is needed and win masses of workers to it.
When united, the power of workers will defeat the capitalist class. Immigrant workers bring to the struggle a fierce hatred of imperialism based on first-hand experience, as well as a heritage of revolutionary struggle from countries all around the world. They will certainly be an important component of the struggle against U.S. imperialism here—which, if it is to succeed, must be thoroughly internationalist.
More so than ever before, there is no long-term solution to the plight of immigrants within the capitalist system. Even in the richest nation in the world, the economic crisis cannot be resolved except at the expense of the working class. Since a frontal assault on the whole working class is not yet possible, the bourgeoisie must attack its most vulnerable elements first. If immigrant workers are forced to retreat further, then all workers in this country will end up under the gun, whether they realize it yet or not.
Of course, all workers will not be won away from the U.S. nationalist patriotic garbage, but if those of us who see through the lies and racism join together, then a decisive number of our fellow workers can be won over to both opposition to the war and defense of immigrant rights and the whole working class.
The vital cause of the immigrant working class at home must not be buried. If this happens at a time when domestic and world opinion against the war is so massive it would be an even greater shame. Proletarian revolutionaries look for every opportunity to join with others to raise the needs of the working class—and the immediate defense of immigrant workers in particular—at demonstrations and anti-war events. The time is now to advance in building a revolutionary organization and fortifying a movement that can be both against the war and in defense of all workers!