Steps Toward a Labor Informed Position on Immigration
by Duane Campbell
( a prior version of this paper appeared on Portside with the title: The Left Case Against Open Borders-by Angela Nagle: a Review)
Tens of thousands of Hondurans, El Salvadorans and Guatemalans are fleeing hunger and death. Usually they do not flee in caravans but alone or with their immediate families. Caravans are formed for protection from crimes, assault, rape and extortion. As the Exodus Caravan from Honduras has reached our borders, there is a heightened sense of fear in the nation promoted by Donald Trump and his administration.
To begin with, the caravan of poor people at our border should not be stopped. Instead, those eligible for refugee status should be admitted required by the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1946) and current U.S. law. DSA’s Immigrants’ Rights Committee is actively involved with several local chapters in support of the migrants in the caravan in Tijuana, Mexico.
When writers propose an immigration policy and a critique of a movement, it is important to get the story right. People’s lives depend upon it.
It Is Not About Open Borders
In the article, “The Left Case against Open Borders”, writer Angela Nagle gets some of the economic conditions correct, but like Trump, she argues without evidence that the problem is that unions, the Left and immigrants’ rights activists support “open borders”. Her writing follows from the position in Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders – (2018) by Reihan Salam
Developing a policy on migration for labor and the left is far more complex than presented by these writers.
First we must deal with some of the false accusations about the role of unions in the immigration policy debates.
Writer Nagle is wrong in asserting that the left and labor favor open borders. This is accepting the false narrative of Trump and the anti- immigrant forces.
There has been a long and well developed movement for immigration reform, along with connected policy proposals – few of which argue for open borders. Progressive policies and practices have emerged from within U.S. communities and the labor movement. The writer seems to not be aware of this history. Instead she describes critics of the current attacks on immigrants as “Useful Idiots.”
She notes the Reagan Administration policy known by Republicans as amnesty without noting that the Simpson- Mazolli Act was the consequence of a multi- year struggle for immigration reform by both corporate forces and community groups.
This Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 bill permitted the legalization of some 2 million farmworkers and over 4 million others already living in the U.S. This program was a hard fought product of years of struggle by immigrants’ rights activists and their allies.
In addition to providing a path to legalization for many already here, the act required employers to attest to their employees immigration status and made it illegal for hire or recruit undocumented workers. These provisions were known as employer sanctions. The act also contained the program known as H2A which provides a system of temporary, controlled farm labor “guest workers” with very limited ability to organize, to have a union, and to demand improved wages or working conditions. The law further includes H1B temporary workers in high skilled technical fields. By 2017, some 40,000 agricultural “guest workers” were employed in the fields and some 419,000 mostly high tech H2B workers were employed in the U.S.
Immigrant rights groups opposed employer sanctions arguing that they would provide the employer with yet another way to exploit and intimidate immigrant workers. Now, the Nagle article argues for E verify system, which is the current digital process of employer sanctions, without noting that employer sanctions were opposed by the AFL-CIO in their landmark 1999 resolution on organizing immigrant workers.
In 1994, a Republican led Congress, with the support of 102 Democrats, passed the North American Free Trade Act, the economic construction that provides for free trade of goods and services but did not change immigration law. The promise made by NAFTA supporters was that the new trade regime would significantly reduce immigration. Instead, NAFTA impoverished millions of small farmers in Mexico and drove many of these workers to migrate to the U.S.
In 1996 the Republicans passed and Bill Clinton signed theIllegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, a repressive bill that provided for the construction of fencing along the border and criminalized many factors of immigrant life. Over the decade there were numerous appropriation bills to provide increased funding for the Border Patrol, militarization and fencing of the border.
It Is Not About Mass Migration
In 2005 when Republicans pushed the Sensenbrenner bill , theBorder Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 , unions with significant immigrant membership worked with immigrants rights groups to muster over 1 million into the streets in protest around the country on May 1, 2006, to kill the bill. They did demand a new amnesty for workers already here, this is what the Republican nationalists call a demand for open borders and mass migration.
Nagle argues: “There is no getting around the fact that the power of unions relies by definition on their ability to restrict and withdraw the supply of labor, which becomes impossible if an entire workforce can be easily and cheaply replaced. Open borders and mass immigration are a victory for the bosses.”
While this is partially true, neither unions nor the left have been arguing for open borders nor mass immigration. They have been arguing for revised policies that protect the rights of migrant workers including their right to form unions.
Nagle argues that support for restriction of immigration can be found in labor history. Yes, organized labor has long had two traditions on immigration; one urged restriction of immigration, the second urged recognizing that immigrants were here and sought to organize them into unions. Certainly there are instances of organized labor being anti immigrant, such as in the Chinese Exclusion Act. However she uses her history very selectively for example ignoring the unionization of the Industrial Workers of the World , the CIO and Packinghouse Workers among many. BTW. the socialists in labor were almost always on the side of supporting unionizing immigrant workers- not of building walls.
Seeking to support her claim, Nagle cites as evidence references to the UFW strike in 1969 ( I think she means 1973). In the strike mass Immigration was not the issue confronted by the UFW, it was strike breaking. The author, an Irish writer, may not know that the UFW has organized undocumented labor, has helped tens of thousands to achieve their legalization papers and has proposed more immigration and the protection of farm worker rights. The actual history of the UFW contradicts her thesis and the photo of Cesar Chavez used to promote the essay is -at best- a deception.
It would help for the writer to be better informed on the immigrants’ rights movement and the labor movement. If you are going to describe union’s approaches to immigration, you should deal with union sources, not the Koch Foundation funded think tanks she currently relies upon.
It Is About Workers’ Rights
In 1999 and 2000 The AFL-CIO changed its policy and no longer supported efforts prior efforts that blamed workers for migration. Since the 2000 change of federation policy several unions have changed their stance and work to organize immigrant workers rather than trying to keep them out of the country, but these unions have not argued for open borders.
See, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, Bacon (2008)
Nagle describes the neoliberal corporate opinion campaign in support of more immigration. These are corporate campaigns, not union campaigns.
The left and unions are not promoting open borders, they are defending workers- some of who are undocumented. Workers without legal status are a product of the biases in current immigration law including per country caps on granting visas.
Angela Nagle is the author of a prior book Kill All Normies. Her criticism of immigration politics seems , like her book, to be informed by a class of pundits and hash tag politics rather than a working knowledge of U.S. labor unions and their history in dealing with immigration.
In her essay Nagle describes well several aspects of global finance and NAFTA. Yes, there are real problems with NAFTA. But, NAFTA was and is a neoliberal project, not a left project nor a union project. Rather than accepting the neoliberal argument that the U.S. has benefitted from migration, it would be more accurate to argue that certain corporations and industries and their owners have benefitted in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The lobbyists from these industries dominate finance and the foreign policy establishment and they promote the reconsideration of NAFTA. Other corporations and most workers are harmed by the current exploitation of illegal migration- such as in farm labor and construction. The winning corporations externalize their own costs to the entire society and take little responsibility for their actions including the destructions of entire communities. Under CAFTA, (Central America Free Trade Agreement) for example, the U.S. military is active in Honduras and other parts of Central America paid for by us all for the benefit of specific corporations not to the benefit of the people of the U.S.
Addressing Root Causes of Migration- The Economy
Angela Nagle makes her most useful point when she argues in her conclusion, “The proper response, therefore, is not abstract moralism about welcoming all migrants as an imagined act of charity, but rather addressing the root causes of migration in the relationship between large and powerful economies and the smaller or developing economies from which people migrate. “
Most labor and left advocates of immigration reform would agree with her assessment of the need to address the root causes of migration. See for example, Bacon, The Right to Stay Home: How U.S. Policy Drives Mexican Migration (2013)
There were 27.4 million foreign born persons working in the U.S. labor force in 2017- 17.1 percent of the total labor force. Latinos accounted for 47.9 percent of the total and Asians 25.2 percent, As of 2016, roughly 10.6 million of all the 16.3 million workers covered by a union contract were women and/or people of color. More than a third (35.8 percent) are black, Latino or Asian.
These are the workers discussing the future of immigration and how it will affect their work lives, their unions, and their families.
The growth of neoliberal corporate capitalism and the global markets produce a few winners and millions of losers including millions of migrants.
The actual alternative to the current existing immigration policy is not “ open borders”- it is enforcement of existing employment laws as a first step, followed by the development of new employment and immigration laws, leading to a fair, pro worker system of immigration.
The U.S. does need to develop a new immigration policy. Note- asylum policy is different than immigration policy.
In the last 50 years immigration policy was shaped by what could be passed through Congress, not what ought to be policy. A policy that the left might favor such as the control of capital is not likely to pass the Congress.
We should try something different. We should try consulting working people. An enlightened policy on immigration is more likely to emerge from including leaders and activists from the multi-racial (and significantly immigrant) working class in conversations and cooperation with labor and left forces in other countries.
One example, in July 2018 Mexico elected a new left president, Manuel Lopez Obrador. After the vote, and prior to his inauguration on Dec.1, progressive independent labor unions have emerged after decades of repression. These unions will represent Mexican workers.
Trump, in his arrogance, has told Mexico to enforce U.S. immigration and asylum policy at the border in Tijuana and on November 24, he claimed that he had an agreement with the new Obrador government. He did not. Readers should understand that current U.S. immigration policy and drug policy is significantly dependent upon the continuing cooperation of the Mexican Army. The Obrador government responded to Trump’s demand by offering to cooperate if the U.S. provided $20 billion in development aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. We have not heard of a response.
We on the left should engage with the newly insurgent labor movement and the new government of Mexico and the peoples of Central America in designing an immigration policy that serves working people on both sides of the border.
David Bacon describes the issues well,
Without changing U.S. trade policy and ending structural adjustment programs and neoliberal economic reforms, millions of displaced people will continue to migrate, no matter how many walls are built on the border.
Changing corporate trade policy and stopping neoliberal reforms is as central to immigration reform as gaining legal status for undocumented immigrants. There is a fundamental contradiction in the bipartisan policies in Congress that promote more free trade agreements, and then criminalize the migration of the people they displace. Instead, Congress could end the use of the free trade system as a mechanism for producing displaced workers. That would mean delinking immigration status and employment. If employers are allowed to recruit contract labor abroad, and those workers can only stay if they are continuously employed (the two essential characteristics of guest worker programs), then they will never have enforceable rights.
THE RIGHT TO MIGRATE, THE RIGHT TO STAY HOME
By David Bacon NACLA Report on the Americas
Volume 50, 2018 - Issue 3: NACLA at 50:
The DSA Immigrants’ Rights Committee has worked toward defining a socialist approach to immigration that respects working people. Working with the national office we are actively engaged in supporting efforts by several DSA chapters and individuals to provide support for the migrants in Tijuana, Mexico.
We oppose the efforts of both Trump nationalists and neoliberal advocates to avoid discussion of the neoliberal economic system we currently have that produces migration.
Duane Campbell has over thirty years of experience working with unions and immigrants’ rights organizations. He is currently a co-chair of DSA’s Immigrants” Rights Committee. The committee can be contacted at
Another version of this piece, with an excellent edit and some differences in emphasis has been posted on the DSAWeekly blog site.
We thank the editors for their interest and are pleased to work in cooperation with DSAWeekly.