May Day in the US was marked by defiant nationwide protests against the recently enacted Arizona law, which made it a crime to be present in the state without legal immigration status and authorized police to question people about their status based on “reasonable” suspicion. Tens of thousands gathered in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Milwaukee, San Francisco and Washington, DC in outrage at a law, now providing a blueprint for similar racist proposals in Utah, Texas, Ohio, Missouri, Maryland and elsewhere, targeting Hispanics and making suspects out of people based on the color of their skins.
Originally planned in March before the Arizona law was enacted, the protests were called by immigrant advocates who had set May 1st as a deadline for the overhaul of existing immigration law aiming to grant legal status to millions of illegal immigrants. The Arizona law was seen as a watershed event lending immediate urgency to the situation.
Anti-(Hispanic) immigration sentiment, previously called the “culture war”, has long been a staple of the American right. It is of a piece with the “Take Back America”crusade, the “birther” conspiracy theory and the Tea Party movement that has attended the rise of Barack Obama and the demographic shift that this administration represents. The Arizona law even contains a rider demanding that future presidential candidates present their “birth certificates” before their names are placed on the ballot.
Advocates of the law claim it is necessary to fight crime. They argue that drug cartel activity has spilled over from the lawless Mexican border towns. But Arizona also has a protracted history of rightwing racist politics, including a 1950s and 1960s GOP organized drive, led by future Chief Justice William Rehnquist, to keep Blacks and Latinos off the voting rolls. Arizona led by far the most intense and politically fractious battle against the Martin Luther King birthday state holiday and has a long history of anti-immigrant policies and practices, including violent Minuteman nativist vigilantes, which predate the recent intensification of drug cartel violence.
This assertion is similarly belied by FBI crime statistics that clearly indicate violent crime on the Arizona side of the border has remained flat for the past decade even as drug cartel violence has spiraled out of control in Mexico. Statewide crime rates are also down. Equally important is the fact that fighting drug cartel violence desperately requires the cooperation of the Hispanic community with police officials. This law drives a giant wedge between that community and law enforcement. Not only does it discourage police cooperation, but it diverts resources from actual crime fighting to immigration enforcement rendering the law, in effect, an anti-crime fighting bill. This is undoubtedly know to the law makers who drafted legislation that targets Hispanics but cloaked it under a “law and order” fig leaf to conceal its racist intent under a more appealing guise.
The Arizona law has strongly shifted the emphasis from immigration reform to border enforcement. But the drive to enforce borders cannot undo the underlying dynamic that drives immigration — both legal and illegal — in the US. More than half of this activity can be attributed to the economic aftermath of NAFTA. It is an arrangement designed to keep workers powerless and Mexicans desperate. Millions of Mexican farmers were evicted from their lands, unable to compete with the cheap US agricultural produce that flooded the market. And they faired little better in the maquiladora towns that were designed as anti-union havens to provide cheap labor for American manufacturing. Unable to absorb the rural surplus population, Mexican wages were driven ever further down pressured not only by their own burgeoning rural surpluses, but by competition with cheap Chinese labor that largely shuttered the maquiladoras altogether. The immigration “problem,” indeed the descent of huge swathes of Mexico into narco violence, is a problem of economic fugitives, outlaws and refugees that capitalism itself created and now finds itself unable to control.
As American socialists, we see immigrant workers — both legal and illegal — as a potential source for revitalizing the labor movement. The Democrats and their allies in the mainstream immigrant rights groups differ from genuine grassroots immigration groups by their refusal to seek immediate legalization for all immigrants now working in the United States. If the counter momentum for comprehensive progressive reform is contained by Democrats, a far more conservative compromise bill acceptable to moderate Republicans will pass. And far-seeing Republicans who see the writing on the wall are all too eager to find common cause with Democrats lest the racist wing of their party consign it to long term demographic oblivion. This compromise will undoubtedly continue to deny illegal immigrants the right to employment. It will maintain the emphasis on biometric identifications and workplace raids that drive illegal immigrants into underground markets where they are deprived not only of union representation, but also of all existing workplace rights.