Which Way Forward for the Movement?
Revolution #044, April 23, 2006, posted at revcom.us
Over the last five weeks, millions of immigrants and their allies have filled the streets. They are demanding that undocumented immigrants be treated like human beings with the same rights as people who are citizens and that all the repressive measures at the border and within the country be stopped. On April 10, I attended the massive demonstration of up to 500,000 people in Washington, DC. On that day and the preceding two days, millions demonstrated. This really got me to thinking about which way forward for this movement.
Within this historic and truly earthshaking movement, two very different roads are taking shape. One would lead to further unleashing the immigrants, and many others, to fight for their just demands by relying on their own struggle. The other road would demobilize and deflate this growing movement by telling people to rely on the very politicians who are putting forward these horribly repressive bills in Congress. A big part of this dead-end road is telling people to wrap themselves in the U.S. flag and proclaim their love for the U.S., in the name of appealing to “mainstream America” and not offending them. This is having a big and very negative effect.
Let’s get some things straight. There is no “immigration problem” or “border problem.” The real problem is that immigrants are being persecuted by the U.S. government and their storm troopers like the Minutemen just because of where they were born, the language that they speak, and the color of their skin. All of the bills now in Congress are bad, from the Sensenbrenner bill to the McCain-Kennedy bill. (See “Update on the Immigration Bills: They're All No Good” in Revolution #43, online at revcom.us) They all call for even heavier militarization of the border, which has resulted in the deaths of over 4,000 immigrants over the last ten years. Some in the immigrant rights movement back the Specter bill. It, like several others, greatly expands the grounds for mandatory detention and deportation, legalizes indefinite detention for the first time, massively expands detention capacity, and greatly expands the number of people who are barred from ever obtaining legal status.
Others are praising the McCain-Kennedy bill which, like the Specter bill and others, would create an apartheid-like system where millions could obtain temporary work permits, without any guarantee that they can stay here permanently and have the same rights as citizens. All of these bills are worse than doing nothing! They will make life much more horrible for immigrants. With “friends” like these, who needs enemies?
Some sections of the movement are arguing that we should support bills like Specter because they at least have some promise of legalization for undocumented immigrants, or because they are a lesser evil compared to Sensenbrenner. No. What these bills do is sucker people into going along with dividing up immigrants into different categories and with establishing much more repressive laws for immigrants.
People are being told that if they wrap themselves in the U.S. flag and proclaim their allegiance to the U.S. (and stop waving the flags of the countries they come from), in order to not offend “mainstream America,” then “mainstream America” will realize that immigrants are not a threat and come to their support. The fatally mistaken assumption is that fundamental social change is achieved by appealing to the “mainstream.” But the struggle for civil rights for Black people and the movement against the Vietnam War advanced because of a massive movement of millions in the street that challenged the prejudices and sensibilities of large sections of people in America—and won them over. Today there are millions of non-immigrant people who hate the mistreatment of immigrants, are inspired by this outpouring, and can be won more actively to the side of the immigrants.
These calls for the movement to wrap itself in the U.S. flag and get behind one bill or another are really a call to channel the struggle into a framework acceptable to sections of the ruling class represented by Kennedy, McCain, Specter, and even Bush. But let's learn from history. In World War 2, 120,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants were rounded up and put in concentration camps despite widespread proclamations by leaders of these communities that their people were loyal Americans. Or look at recent history. Before 9/11, many Muslim, Arab, and South Asian organizations endorsed Bush for president and proclaimed their patriotism. That did not prevent the government from rounding up and secretly jailing thousands of these immigrants and deporting thousands after 9/11.
The rulers of this country do not want a movement of millions of immigrants in the streets demanding and fighting for equality and dignity. Even though there are some sharp differences among them in how exactly to do this, they all want the cheap labor of immigrants in a way that is much more under their control and a border that is even more militarized and repressive. And we are supposed to put our faith in these people? No!
We need a movement that is determined to fight for what people actually want and need. Then let all these politicians respond to that. Look. The reason that there is a debate across the country on immigration now, and that so far the trajectory of making the Sensenbrenner bill the law of the land has been derailed, is because millions of immigrants and their supporters have been in the streets and hundreds of thousands of students have walked out of school! We need to continue breaking out of the political framework of what is acceptable to official America and go forward with a new framework based on fighting for the just demands of the people.