“Illegals” of the World Unite?

So that formulation of “Blacks plus immigrants plus unions equals power” is a way of saying that if we want an alternative, we also have to have a different political alliance that fights for it. The immigrant rights movement and the labor movement need to build an alliance at the bottom among people of color, among workers, among unions.

The chapter takes a look at those instances where that political coalition has been organized and developed and basically says “Take a look, this is what actually creates strength and power for workers rather than an alliance with our employers.” As long as we have an alliance with the American Meat Institute, Walmart, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, we are never going to have immigration proposals in Congress that are going to do what we want, which is to increase the rights of workers, to help people boost their incomes, to provide real legal status for people, and to prevent employers from turning our immigration system into simply a system for supplying them with cheap labor.

The chapter talks about Sheila Jackson Lee’s first immigration bill [member of the House of Representatives from Houston], which said, on the one hand, that anybody who doesn’t have legal status should be able to apply for it and get it, like an instant amnesty, and also that the fees that are paid by people when they apply for legal status should be used to set up job creation programs in communities with high unemployment. This is a way of saying that if you pass a bill like this, both African-American communities with high levels of unemployment and undocumented workers are going to get something out of that bill and support it. In other words, an alliance.

I also talk about the alliance in Mississippi between African-American state legislators, who are the most progressive political force in Mississippi, and the immigrant rights organization that they started, the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance. They are looking at the change in demographics in Mississippi and seeing an electoral coalition that combines African Americans, who make up about 33% of registered voters in Mississippi now, plus immigrants, who make up as much as 10% in the next ten years, and unions, who can bring even progressive white workers into an alliance like that.

You can actually create an electoral alliance that would be a majority in Mississippi, which means you could knock out Trent Lott and the current racist power structure that’s held power in Mississippi since Reconstruction.

Again, what kind of alternative immigration proposals do you have to make in order to make an alliance like that possible? And also, by implication, what kind of proposals are the killers for an alliance like that? For instance, guest worker programs just drive a wedge into that alliance right away, because people who are unemployed start saying “Hey, wait a minute. Why should employers be able to bring workers in while I don’t have any job?” Especially at a time of a recession.

It’s very interesting that the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance is not only looking at this electoral alliance, but they also have become, on the one hand, the leading opponents of guest worker programs in Mississippi, and there are a lot of them in Mississippi – and also a big defender of guest worker rights. And they have actually had organizing efforts among guest workers themselves in pursuit of their rights.

ATC: Following on from that, what do you think the current economic crisis does to these kinds of movements? Do you see hopeful signs of organizing efforts that build on the marches in 2006, or on things like the recent sit-down at Republic Windows and Doors?

DB: The economic crisis is both a danger and an opportunity. Economic crises in the United States often lead to very nativist reactions by workers here, and that’s the danger, that people who are already here look at migrants and see job competitors and say “You’re the enemy out there. We need more deportations, more enforcement” and so forth. You certainly hear that. That’s what Lou Dobbs makes a living off of.

But I think that economic crisis also can force the consideration of political alternatives that are written off under normal circumstances – things like jobs programs. If you had tried proposing federal job programs two years ago, people would have told you “Well, that’s such a violation of the rules in the free market that it will never be considered by Congress.”

Yet here we are with the Obama administration proposing these economic stimulus packages, which in some ways are indirect jobs programs. And I suspect that these stimulus packages are not going to work, so the administration is either going to have to begin developing direct job creation programs as the government did during the New Deal, or move to the right, so there is a big fight coming up for us about that.

But that also has real implications around immigration, because we can say that if everybody has the right to work, we don’t need to be afraid of each other and to view each other as competitors. And to have a real right to work we have to remove the law that says that working is a crime for some people.

In terms of hopeful things, I think that first of all there are things happening on the ground that show that workers are willing to fight for something better, even in bad economic times. Republic Windows and Doors was a really good example. In this country, occupying the workplace is still viewed as something that is a very traumatic and drastic step, and so the fact that we had workers who were willing to do that is good.

Then I think there are organizing drives in which you can see a political alliance developing between African Americans and immigrants, which I think is very important. One I’m really thinking about is Smithfield, and the organizing drive that went on there for 16 years. Workers finally won because of their ability to reach across those race lines and national lines and form a common alliance which brought the union in.

I also think that in some ways when Obama announced the other day that he was willing to put immigration reform on the table in Congress this year, that’s a good sign too. It’s like saying “Let’s face reality. This is a real social problem we have here. We have to deal with it.”

I think that what the administration is supporting right now is very negative, because they are still stuck in that comprehensive immigration reform context, and so the challenge is to see if we can’t break them out of it, build an organized movement for something better, but that’s an opening that I think we have to learn how to use.

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