First They Came for the Immigrants
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Author: Max Elbaum
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Demonizing immigrants and attacking their rights is at the forefront of today’s MAGA assault on the international, multiracial working class, democracy, and basic human decency.

Top Republican strategists have decided once again that fearmongering about immigrant “invaders” pouring over US borders is the best formula for winning the 2024 election and implementing their white Christian Nationalist agenda.

This is why Republican governors have been dramatizing the movement of people by busing them to “blue” cities; why Texas Republicans are attempting to nullify federal authority and take control of immigration enforcement at “their” borders; why Trump doubles down on saying that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.” This is why Republicans demand that harsh “border security” measures be the price of approving the already terrible legislation funding military aid to Ukraine and Israel.

And the Democratic leadership? Having long embraced the framework that “undocumented immigrants are a problem,” they are incapable of offering more than a token defense against MAGA demagogy. Rather, in hopes of taking the issue of immigration off the 2024 electoral table Dems have agreed to numerous Republican demands in the negotiations over the combined immigration/military aid funding bill. Apparently only complete acceptance of what Trump plans to do if he wins in 2024 is good enough for the MAGA faithful, so according to House Speaker Mike Johnson the deal is “dead on arrival” in the House.

The progressive movement has its heart in the right place and a host of groups are fighting backBut even if the most draconian of MAGA’s current proposals are blocked —and even if MAGA is kept out of power in 2024—it will take a leap in the priority we give this battlefront and unity around an action strategy to begin turning things around.

Crisis of “the right to stay home”

The first step in charting an effective course is gaining an accurate understanding of the problem we face—the root causes for the movement of people.

Yes, a large number of migrants are trying to reach the US via crossing the US-Mexico border. But this is not at root a “border crisis.” The underlying problem is that tens of millions of people across the globe face a crisis of their right to stay at home. Migration has been a basic part of the human experience throughout history, and the right to migrate should be defended. But what the world faces today is forced migration, where millions who would prefer to stay in their homelands safely cannot do so:

“The movement of people from country to country, displaced by war, insecurity, and neoliberal economic policies, is enormous and growing… Nothing can stop this global movement, short of a radical reordering of the world’s economy and politics.” —David Bacon, Dignity or Exploitation: What Future for Farmworker Families in the United States, The Oakland Institute, 2021

As of 2020, the number of international migrants—people living outside their home country—was 281 million. This is 3.5% of the global population, compared to 2.8% in 2000 and 2.3% in 1980. And US policies are a big part of the reason for this steady increase: “neoliberal strictures, [US] support for oligarchs, and the War on Drugs have impoverished millions and destabilized Latin America.” Additionally, US militarism and failure to deal decisively with climate change are major contributors to forced migration globally.

Immigration policy in whose interests?

The mainstream debate over US immigration policy does not include much discussion of the root causes of global migration, much less the role of US policies in creating those conditions. Rather, the focus is how to manage the resulting displacement of human beings.

That management—according to the MAGA-controlled GOP and the pro-corporate elements in the Democratic Party—is to be done in the interest of those who want to earn a profit off human labor.

Their favored policies include “guest worker” programs, which create a pool of workers who can be brutally exploited because they lack political, labor or union organizing rights. And these guest worker programs simultaneously undermine the economic and political power of the workers’ movement as a whole. So does the persistent denial of a path to protected legal status and citizenship for migrants who are undocumented but have lived and worked in the US for many years. That denial also undermines democracy, as it legitimizes a two-tier system of political rights, even though both tiers are made up of people who work and contribute to society.

And for the bigots of MAGA, maintaining a constant “threat” of darker-skinned people “invading” the country is an ideal fit for their scapegoat —the “other.” It’s a perfect way of harnessing mass discontent and aiming it at a target other than the corporate class and their political representatives. It gins up their core base around the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory, in which globalist elites and/or Jews are plotting to replace whites with people of color. And legitimizing the demonization of immigrants and the use of force against them without due process paves the way for extending dehumanization and repression to all peoples of color, all workers, and all political opponents of white Christian nationalism.

A progressive approach, by contrast, takes the side of those who work and those who are vulnerable. Our task is to build a global movement powerful enough to give every human being on the planet the option of living and thriving in their homeland, or having their rights protected should they decide to or be forced to migrate. On the way to that long-range goal, we must fight to protect the human rights of migrants specified in international law and win immigration policies that maximize the power and rights of the exploited and the vulnerable.

A basic set of demands flows from this perspective: legal status for all residents, an end to contract labor and guest worker programs, human rights for all including equal social, labor, and political rights. Simply put, we must demand full enfranchisement for all migrants.

Tough fights ahead

In the immediate period ahead, this translates mostly into waging a host of tough defensive fights while doing everything we can to introduce positive reforms into the national conversation.

An immediate priority is mobilizing opposition to the harsh anti-immigrant measures in the legislation under discussion in Washington  in case that seemingly dead “compromise” comes back around. The proposed legislation includes restricting humanitarian parole programs that give asylum seekers temporary protection; expanding “expedited removals” that allow deportation with very little due process; capping asylum grants; mass mandatory detention, increased enforcement and other repressive measures. Every provision in this bill should remain a focus of battle whether or not this measure becomes law.

Other important defensive fights include:

And key to all of these demands is to prevent the ascent to the presidency of a man who has promised to make immigrants first on his hit list of “vermin” to be expelled from the body politic. Trump has pledged to round up, put in detention camps, and then deport all undocumented immigrants on his first day in office. To accept the framing of immigration as mainly a border security issue, as the Biden administration and top congressional Democrats currently do, is not just bad policy and bad politics in an important election. It cedes the ideological initiative to MAGA, makes it more difficult to turn out pro-immigrant voters, and weakens the capacity to persuade those open to persuasion that MAGA’s anti-immigrant crusade will not address the real sources of their hardships and discontent.

And even if Trump loses in 2024, the fight for immigrant rights will be far from easy. Progressives and the Democratic leadership have their sharpest differences on immigration policy and on the Biden administration’s support for Israeli genocide (and foreign policy in general). Those differences may change form, but they aren’t going to disappear on January 21, 2025, no matter who controls the White House and Congress.

On the positive reform side, a key task is to build support for the legislation introduced by Alex Padilla in the Senate and Zoe Lofgren in the House that would expand the number of long-term residents in the US who could apply for permanent resident legal status. This “Registry Bill” updates previous legislation to state that people of good moral character who have lived continuously in the US for seven years could apply to legalize their status. As things stand now, people would have had to live in the US continuously since 1972. Passage of this bill could lead to a pathway to citizenship for up to eight million people.

A task for all progressives

Every one of these fights will be difficult. For decades now, the mainstream opposition to anti-immigrant fearmongering has been limited to arguing for “trade-offs”—tough enforcement measures are traded for limited numbers of immigrants eligible for temporary residency or legalization. (The last fully progressive immigration legislation was passed in 1965, ending racist immigration quotas and making family reunification a top priority.)

This pattern, combined with the barrage of MAGA anti-immigrant fearmongering, and an especially large number of migrants trying to reach the US, has taken a toll on public opinion. Current polling shows almost 75% agreeing that “illegal immigration is a major problem.” A majority of voters say they trust Trump more than Biden to tackle immigration issues; this includes substantial numbers of voters of color as well as significant majorities  among whites.

At the same time, a majority of voters support a path for undocumented people here to legalize their status. There is a deep reservoir of pro-immigrant sentiment out there, and many years of work by immigrant rights advocates has persuaded a substantial section of the population that we have to look at the roots of migration to understand why people are coming to the US in such numbers. An in-depth assessment of opinion polling on this issue released in 2020 by the National Immigration Forum showed majorities of 60 – 75% of the population saying immigration was a good thing for the country; majority support for paths to legalization, and majority opposition to mass detention of undocumented people. (It also showed the partisan divide on immigration policy widening, with Republicans growing more negative about immigrants and Democrats more positive.)

Still, it will take years of mass action, electoral campaigns, and political education to turn broad public sympathy for immigrants into a political force that targets the underlying roots of forced migration and is strong enough to bring about true immigration reform.

A vibrant if still under-resourced and fragmented immigrant rights movement is in the forefront of those fights today. And it also offers analytic and strategic frameworks for long range work. See for example:

The groups mentioned here and other immigrant rights organizations and campaigns should not have to carry this fight alone. It is up to all of us in the growing progressive current and resurgent labor movement in the US embrace this issue and join in this fight.

Thanks to Rev. Deborah Lee of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, Xiomara Corpeño, David Bacon, and Lillian Galedo for providing analysis and resources enabling me to write this column, and thanks even more for all your work tackling this issue over so many years.

Max Elbaum is a member of the Convergence Magazine editorial board and the author of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (Verso Books, Third Edition, 2018), a history of the 1970s-‘80s ‘New Communist Movement’ in which he was an active participant. He is also a co-editor, with Linda Burnham and María Poblet, of Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections (OR Books, 2022).

Convergence is a magazine for radical insights. We produce articles, videos, and podcasts to sharpen our collective practice, lift up stories about organizing, and engage in strategic debate — all with the goal of winning multi-racial democracy and a radically democratic economy.

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