When It Comes to Protecting Immigrant Workers, Strategic Organizing is the Answer

By Arun Gupta (February 4, 2018)

This is an insightful report on how to organize against Trump’s deportation regime. Here are some important lessons.

One:  Immigration is as much about labor as about race. Trump won by racializing working-class conflict, stoking white nativism and resentment against all immigrant workers from farms to high tech. A few years ago I interviewed Ana Cañuenguez, an undocumented worker who cleans hotel rooms in Utah. She left El Salvador in 2003. Ana told me, “It was a very difficult decision to flee from my country and leave behind my family and all my people. But I had six children and one died because of severe malnutrition. I did not earn enough to feed them.”

U.S. policy has devastated El Salvador for more than 100 years, particularly during the Reagan era when it funded and armed a death-squad government that massacred tens of thousands of peasants and workers fighting for some measure of justice. That’s why hundreds of thousands Salvadorans have fled their country. I have interviewed refugees from more than half-a-dozen countries. Not one wanted to leave their home. What would you do if the U.S. destroyed your country and you watched helplessly as your child starved to death? These people are coming here to make better lives for themselves and their families. It’s the least the U.S. owes them.

The notion immigrants come here for welfare is a racist lie. For one, there is virtually no social welfare for anyone to get. It’s just crumbs at best. And there are all sorts of state and federal laws that bar undocumented immigrants from receiving assistance. More significant, the labor force participation rate for all Americans over 16 years old is 60.2%, but for undocumented immigrants? There are about 10.1 million undocumented immigrants over 16 and of those, 8 million are in the workforce. In other words, they have a labor force participation of 80%. That is staggeringly high. They want to work. They are doing jobs native-born Americans won’t do, and the fact they are being terrorized by the state, police, and racists is what would suppress wages, not their presence here.

Second: Organizing is not an either/or. This campaign against the bakery in Queens that fired undocumented workers used letter writing, flyering, protests, boycotts, *and* direct action. A tactic is just that: a tactic. Tactics should never be elevated to a strategy or a way of life.

Third:  Organization matters. Brandworkers played a crucial role in helping the immigrant workers receive severance. Brandworkers has links to the Industrial Workers of the World, the storied anarchist union. Despite the fact New York is one of the last remaining strongholds of unions, it was a scrappy leftwing labor group that threw down with the workers. Not one of the big national unions with a billion-dollar war chest.

Fourth: The campaign was unable to stop the firings, but is now agitating for greater legal protection for undocumented workers.* The only way to fight state power right now in the U.S. is through exercising other forms of state power. That does not have to mean electoral politics, but it does mean organizing has to be focused on figuring out how to pressure state institutions, especially at the municipal level, to throw up roadblocks to federal policy., particularly barring local police cooperation with the federal immigraiton police. The reality is these campaigns will be much more effective in liberal enclaves, which is why it does matter who is in office. It’s easier to force neoliberal Democrats to the left on the immigration issue than it is to force white nationalist Republicans.

It is impossible to protect millions of immigrants solely through protest and direct action. It’s like the foreclosure crisis. There were millions of illegal foreclosures that happened in the last decade. All the various anti-foreclosure groups, including Occupy Our Home groups, prevented maybe a couple hundred families from being evicted. It was heroic work, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the scale of the problem.

Strategic organizing gets the goods.

*From the article, some ideas for how cities can give greater protection to immigrants.
“In addition to its work with the fired employees, Brandworkers is fighting to establish an immigrant-protection policy for businesses that would notify workers about audits and provide safeguards against warrantless raids. The blueprint for such legislation has already emerged in California, where the Immigrant Worker Protection Act just took effect. The new law prohibits employers from allowing ICE agents to enter non-public areas or obtain records without a warrant. It also requires warnings before and after audits take place. California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra has even warned that he will prosecute businesses that voluntarily hand employee information over to ICE.”


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