How Immigrants Built the American Left—And Can Build It Again

If and when a twenty-first-century left comes into being, immigrants—whether freshly arrived or one or two generations in—will be at the heart of it. A path to citizenship for all those now rendered vulnerable by their resident status is essential to building a more pluralistic, multicultural society. Yet a new left must go further, not merely defending the civil liberties of these new Americans but seeking to give them a new power and a new voice.
Nelson Lichtenstein
February 22, 2017
At a "Day Without Immigrants" rally in Washington, D.C., February 16
Lorie Shaull / Flickr

Last Thursday’s “Day Without Immigrants” work stoppages, which closed hundreds of restaurants, grocery stores, garages, retail shops, and other businesses, offered a taste of the capacity for militant action wielded by immigrant America. Led in many cities by Latino activists calling for a “huelga general,” the February 16 coast-to-coast walkouts augur well for an even larger set of strikes and demonstrations, including a March 8 “Day Without a Woman” and quite possibly a May Day general strike, already endorsed by one of the Service Employees International Union’s biggest and most active California locals. This year’s May Day mobilization looks to replicate or even exceed the stupendous success of the original May 1, 2006 “Day without Immigrants,” which shut down agribusiness fields, poultry processing plants, warehouses, and the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Newark.

The energy and upheaval unleashed by the Trump administration’s assault on Muslims, Latinos, and other immigrants, documented or not, has been directed toward a restoration of their rights and dignity, toward the family reunions and free passage into our country that have been happily broadcast from airports all across the country—and rightly so. But if our ambitions are simply to restore the old status quo or even recreate a liberalized version of the policies extant under President Obama, then we will be selling short the possibilities inherent in this moment.

Defending the rights of immigrants and people of color is critical, and must be linked to a greater ambition still. We can glimpse in the marches, strikes, and  confrontations the construction of a left that seeks to energize new strata of the population, embolden those Trump would silence, and lay the groundwork for an actual transformation of American politics.

If and when a twenty-first-century left comes into being, immigrants—whether freshly arrived or one or two generations in—will be at the heart of it. A path to citizenship for all those now rendered vulnerable by their resident status is essential to building a more pluralistic, multicultural society. Yet a new left must go further, not merely defending the civil liberties of these new Americans but seeking to give them a new power and a new voice. This is a left that can extend all the way from the progressive side of the Democratic Party through the unions, community groups, and domestic NGOs to the overtly radical parties and organizations that we often think of as fringe, except when they blossom into mass movements—as in the proletarian 1930s, the civil-rights 1960s, and the immigrant-centered movements of our own day. The marches, airport occupations, and political strikes of just the last month make clear that such social energy is once again in the air.

None of this should come as a surprise. For nearly two centuries, immigrants—be they Irish Fenians, Jewish Socialists, Italian anarchists, Puerto Rican nationalists, Mexican-American unionists, and now those fleeing chaos in the Middle East—have formed a reservoir of support out of which the left has drawn millions of partisans and thousands of leaders and activists. In this list, I also include black migrants from the American South, especially in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, when Chicago, Detroit, New York, and many other northern cities were the destination of all those who left Alabama, Georgia, and the rest of the South in the “Great Migration” that began during the First World War.

Take Chicago—hardly the promised land, except in the sense that urban America provided a far more favorable terrain for political insurgency, from which African Americans could organize to advance not only their own cause but that of their Southern counterparts as well. This context helps explain why the 1955 murder of Emmett Till became such a cause célèbre. The brutality of the crime was commonplace enough in rural Mississippi. But Till hailed from Chicago, from an African-American community that had been organized and energized by the Packinghouse Workers, the Steelworkers, a vibrant chapter of the NAACP, and a still-functioning, heavily black branch of the Communist Party, all of which mobilized to make the prosecution of Till’s lynchers a landmark event in civil rights history.

Of course, not all immigrants are radicals, and among some who fled authoritarian regimes of a left-wing coloration—Cuban and Vietnamese exiles, for example—a Cold War mentality lingers on. Others from left-wing backgrounds assimilate over time: descendants of the German anarchist bomb throwers of 1886, for instance, are today indistinguishable from other Midwesterners. But for many others, including most Latinos, African-Americans, Asians, and even Jews, assimilation remains a contested project, often at war with a proud determination to maintain a multigenerational sense of ethnic identity. Regardless of the motives or circumstances, a radical, progressive sensibility has long been overrepresented within immigrants’ ranks. There are two reasons.

The first is the experience of exclusion itself. Today as in centuries past, the marginalization of those who are not white, Protestant, and native born—whether in the form of interpersonal prejudice or denial of citizenship and outright persecution—has predisposed many immigrants toward a critical outlook on American politics and society writ large. It’s now taken for granted that working-class whites vote GOP, but this trend goes back farther than many realize. Even at the height of the New Deal, white Protestant workers—even those enrolled in militant unions like the UAW—voted Republican 20 and 30 points more than did similarly situated Jews and Catholics, most of whom were immigrants or their sons and daughters. Of course, many immigrants want nothing more than to integrate themselves into U.S. society. But for others, the experience of exclusion fosters a kind of insight that extends well beyond their own particular set of concerns: it invites a wider critique of American institutions, ideologies, social mores, and cultural tropes.

Second, many immigrants were politicized in the old country, and they often remain animated by the conflicts there and the connections they maintain with friends, family, and comrades. Just as the failed revolutions of 1848 and 1905 brought thousands of radicals to American shores, so too the upheavals of our own day generate a new wave of activist exiles, from El Salvador and Honduras in Central America to Syria, Palestine,  Iran, and Turkey in the Middle East. While some of these refugees and immigrants keep their political sights largely on the conflicts of the homeland, many deploy their radicalism within a U.S. context, protesting U.S. government collaboration with repressive regimes abroad, organizing unions like the multiethnic Taxi Workers Alliance in New York City, or running for office at the municipal and state level, where Latinos have made huge inroads in California and across many western states.

To take just a few historic examples of immigrant activism: In the nineteenth century, hostility to British colonialism in Ireland, as well as their own fight for full U.S. citizenship, led many Irish-Americans to identify in the 1860s and 1870s with the homeland agitation of the Irish National Land League, which sought to overthrow landlord oppression there. Historian Eric Foner has argued that Land League affiliates in the United States pioneered the producerist, antimonopoly ideology that animated the Knights of Labor, the most important American union of the nineteenth century, with many Irish descendants among its ranks. Another historian, Michael Snay, makes the further point that Irish nationalism, in the United States and abroad, animated an “imagined Republic” at the time of Reconstruction and afterwards, linking both Irish and African-American demands for land and the citizenship that came with it. “Our fight is not for Ireland alone,” proclaimed the Fourth National Fenian Congress in 1866. “It is for freedom, for humanity at large. All the oppressed peoples of the earth are interested in the spread of human liberty.”

Those who built the industrial unions in the 1930s and 1940s were immigrants, too, although they did not choose to advertise it. Many were on the left as well. Jews came out of the Polish Bund, Italians got their training in the anarchist movement, Bohemians were often staunch socialists, and Finns were Communists or left Socialists. The United States restricted Eastern and Southern European immigration during the 1920s, but those who had arrived between 1890 and 1924 spearheaded organizing efforts long after the restrictions were imposed. In the garment trades, local unions were sometimes organized along ethnic lines—for Jews and Italians in particular—and in the big industrial unions that coalesced into the Congress of Industrial Organizations, Poles, Hungarians, Croats, Slavs, Greeks, Hungarians, Italians, and African-American migrants made up close to a majority of the rank and file. The CIO advertised itself as aggressively and thoroughly American, but its enemies knew it was full of Eastern and Southern European immigrants, with Jews in key staff and leadership positions—hence the anti-Semitic invective that was never far below the surface of anti-union rhetoric.

Organizers in this era confronted a highly stratified workplace. Every factory and mill was an ethnic hierarchy, with the native-born Protestants and some Irish near the top—Germans, Swedes, and Scots in the skilled trades—below which labored all those immigrants with imperfect English and a heavy accent, as well as the African Americans who were often consigned to mere janitorial work. If the industrial unions were to achieve a measure of solidarity, necessary for union certification and strike victories, they had to democratize these workplaces, both to enhance union power and level ethnic privilege. While they did not always succeed on this last count, the CIO and the New Deal were revolutionary in their impact—revolutionary in the spirit of 1789 rather than 1917—in the sense that they offered the “rights of man and citizen” to a population of former peasants long consigned to the bottom or the margins of industrial society.

Where to find such ferment today? One place is California, where the rise of Latino power, in schools, unions, and throughout state politics over the last two decades offers a glimpse of  how a vigorous defense of immigrant rights can help construct a progressive American future. Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s support for the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994 is usually cited as the reason that California has become a solidly blue state since then. Prefiguring Trump, Bannon, and other nativists, Prop 187 would have established a state-run screening program to deny the undocumented access to public education, health care, driver’s licenses, and other state services. Although later found unconstitutional by a federal court, the ballot initiative won by a large majority—59 to 41 percent—and high school student walkouts and marches protesting the measure, often with Mexican flags flying high, were widely condemned. Although the fight against the proposition did energize much of the Latino population and many liberals, both white and black, this reaction alone was not a victory for immigrants or for California liberalism.

Rather, it took the organization of that immigrant energy to shift California to the left. The key moment came in 1996, when Miguel Contreras and a cohort of Latino activists took over top leadership spots in the Los Angeles Federation of Labor, second largest in the nation. Deposing a stolid, mostly white building-trades leadership, they backed militant strikes by janitors and hotel workers, forged alliances with the black community and immigrant-aid organizations, and ran Latino “warriors for working people” in Democratic primaries against more centrist Latino incumbents. By the turn of the millennium, Los Angeles County, home to 30 percent of California voters, was as politically liberal as the Bay Area. Neither Contreras nor his successors (he died in 2005 at just fifty-two) were able to significantly advance traditional union interests—raising wages through collective bargaining and organizing new industries like retail and fast food—but the political power of immigrant California has begun to pay off with new laws providing sick-leave benefits, gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and perhaps most importantly, creating a state political culture decidedly welcoming to undocumented immigrants, even more so in the face of Trumpite reaction.

The California experience is instructive in this time of troubles. America is a nation of immigrants and becoming more so almost every year. But demography is not destiny. Texas has a Latino population proportionally as large as that of California, but it remains politically inert outside of a few large cities and without leverage at the level of state government. Nor are mass marches and demonstrations enough to stop the drift to a nativist authoritarianism. Organization is essential, in unions if possible, but of any sort that can create a structure capable of repeatedly mobilizing its membership, projecting an ideological vision, and confronting opponents, not just episodically but continuously, day in and day out. Republicans understand this, which is why upon assuming power in a state legislature, they immediately target Planned Parenthood and the unions. These organizations do good things—protecting workers on the job or providing health care services for women—but that alone is not why the GOP has been so fierce in its attack. More potently, both Planned Parenthood and the unions are also sophisticated and tenacious centers of opposition to the Republican program, with a seasoned staff, an extensive membership, and connections to the Democratic Party and activists outside its orbit.

Immigrant America today has good reason to be fearful. But if last week’s “Day Without Immigrants” is any indication, it is also emboldened. It constitutes both the leading edge of mass public resistance to the Trump administration and the broad demographic force necessary to advance toward a truly progressive society. The history of the immigrant left reminds us of the possibilities that lie before us. We must seize them.


Nelson Lichtenstein teaches history at the University of California, Santa Barbara where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy.

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February 22, 2017