“The Immigrants’ Rights Movement Is in Good Hands”: An Interview with Nativo Lopez

I was at a conference titled Build the Left, Fight the Right this past June.  The speakers and workshops at the conference ranged from the war in Iraq to the immigrant rights movement in the United States.  One of the most interesting (and there were many) and hopeful (in terms of a brighter future for the world’s majority) was a well-attended presentation by Justin Akers Chacon, co-author (with Mike Davis) of No One Is Illegal, and Nativo V. Lopez, the National President of the Mexican American Political Association, and National Director of the Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana.  In the conversation with the audience afterward, the two covered topics ranging from immigrant organizing to the Democratic Party and union sellouts and working-class solidarity.  I recently exchanged a series of emails with Nativo Lopez, who has been touring the United States.

Ron: Hi Nativo. I  heard that you were on a national tour.  What is its focus?  Whom do you hope to reach?  What has been the response so far?

Nativo: The focus of the tour is to meet with the base organizations and coalitions of immigrants who were responsible for the mega-marches throughout the country, invite them to the National Immigrant Strategy Convention held in Chicago on August 11-13th, and make the national links between our organizations to strengthen the movement from the bottom up.  A mega-march does not a national social movement make.  In other words, for us to sustain a truly national social movement for the rights of immigrants, we must build mass organizations of the immigrants, and strengthen those that already exist, as the backbone of the movement — in a politically independent current that draws its strength from the immigrants themselves who know best what they want and what they are willing to fight for.

The response from grassroots organizations and coalitions has been magnificent, and gives one every confidence that the movement is on the right track.  There exist grassroots organizations in every community — even if only in elementary form because of the newness of the immigrant community in a given locale.  Where there is oppression and repression, there exist the seeds of organization with the immigrant workers and families.

Ron: I heard you talk in New York during the Socialism 2006 conference.  During that talk, you told the audience that the SEIU, UNITE and the leadership of the UFW were selling out the immigrant rights movement.  What did you mean by that comment?  Why do you think they are siding with the Democrats in favor of legislation that would penalize migrant men and women looking for work in the US?

Nativo: The public, and private, positions taken by leaders of these three unions is well known.  All three have agreed to a more onerous form of employer sanctions than currently exist in federal law, and they support a massive contract labor program much beyond the scale ever witnessed in U.S. history.  It is hard to discern why they have taken this position even though it is tantamount to supporting perpetual servitude for the immigrants and undermining wage and other labor standards for all workers.  Perhaps it has something to do with their affiliation and participation in the Essential Worker Coalition, which is comprised principally with corporate and agri-business employers who advocate the same positions.  Perhaps this is the trade-off they are willing to accept (without having consulted their respective membership, or the immigrant communities) for some form of legalization for some workers.  Perhaps it is a strategy to build their unions on the short-term basis by obtaining contracts from these employers who would potentially be the employers of the “guest-workers” in the various industries where they could be employed.  This is all supposition, however, because they refuse to explain their positions to our organizations.  We are only left to judge by the practical implications of their positions on the legislation.  And, we have certainly concluded that it is not in the interest of the immigrant workers, their families, or workers generally.

Ron: Are you surprised at the stance taken by these unions?  Or is this about par for the course?

Nativo: In fact, I was surprised in that these unions have traditionally been at the forefront in defense of the rights of immigrants, and played a progressive role in shaping the new policies of the AFL-CIO when they were affiliated with the labor federation.  I have said that Cesar Chavez, Bert Corona, and Ernesto Galarza, all three iconic figures in Mexican American labor and immigration history, are turning over in their graves by what they are witnessing in relation to the advocacy for a massive contract-labor program.  All three individuals played a role in the elimination of the old Bracero Program in 1964.

Ron: At the conference you made a clear and concise equation.  You essentially stated that if the fruits of immigrant labor wasn’t illegal, than neither should the producers of those fruits.  Would you mind elaborating on that statement?

Nativo: All serious economists recognize that labor produces value.  This is the basis for the comment above.  If all workers (labor) produce value, wealth for the country, immigrant workers do so to a greater degree.  They do not enjoy a collective bargaining agreement, vacations, pensions, health insurance, etc. as do many other workers — particularly those who belong to a union.  Therefore, they are producing greater value for the employer.  It is no secret why corporations “outsource” and go abroad in search of cheaper labor, land, natural resources, etc.  But, only labor of the three factors just mentioned produce value over and above what is required to sustain the worker.  Certainly this value is not considered illegal, therefore, neither should the producers of such value be considered illegal.  Contrariwise, the term could just as easily be applied to all those workers throughout the world who are employed by U.S. corporations, but then again, that would be just silly.  Now, this equation has another dimension to it.  If we recognize that all workers produce value irrespective of their immigration status, and immigrant workers produce greater amounts, a fair exchange for their value would be legal permanent residence.  It is a known fact that immigrant workers in the U.S. have a higher labor participation rate than native-born workers.  This becomes the basis for our demand of legalization for ALL.  The immigrant worker is producing more than enough value to warrant permanent residence status in exchange, a fair exchange.

Ron: Over the past year or so, the anti-immigrant organization the Minutemen have received a high (and often positive) profile in the mainstream US media.  Why do you think this is happening?

Nativo: Every right-wing movement requires its shock troops and these are generally found within the lower middle classes, popular sectors, and even amongst workers.  The U.S. experience is no different.  Certainly it comes in a different form, but this phenomenon is connected to political circles in the U.S. Congress and even sectors of capital that oppose globalization, which does not serve its interest.  Capital, in this sense, is divided.  Remember the comment I made earlier about the Essential Worker Coalition, which advocates for a massive contract-labor program.  This group is representative of a different sector of capital.  Again, circles within the corporate media also represent different sectors of capital.  The Lou Dobbses and O’Reillies of the media world are given free rein to espouse their venom nightly only because they represent a view corresponding to a certain sector of capital.  Therein you have complimentary remarks by these television hosts about the Minutemen.

Ron: As regards the Minutemen and similar organizations, what do you see as the best strategy for negating their essentially racist agenda?

Nativo: The best response to these organizations is to build mass organizations within the immigrant communities, and broad coalitions representative of the majorities — labor, church, business, youth, African-American, and across national origin lines, within the peace, environmental, and women movements, and across international borders with international and bi-national organizations and social movements, for fair and progressive immigration reform legislation, policies, and practices.  Second, it is important to conduct education within those sectors targeted for recruitment by the hate-mongers — as difficult as this may be.  And, third, support those individuals and organizations which have the courage to organize counter-protests to those of the Minutemen in order to reduce the social space of operation and message of these racists.

Ron: What do you say to people who blame immigrants for the declining wages almost all workers face in the US (and other northern countries)?

Nativo: This is difficult, but we must be honest with people.  We should not play word games, for example, not mention amnesty and instead call it a “path to citizenship.”  We should be willing to explain the role of capital in undermining wage and working standards for all workers in the U.S., and other advanced industrial and technological countries.  In many ways, capital has made our explanation easier to make the logical and economic connections of the devastation wrought on community after community.  Wal-Mart has made it easier for us to make the argument that big-box is not necessarily better for our communities — especially when you consider that the local community is subsidizing this corporation by way of land write-downs, government-sponsored health services, deferred taxes, etc.

Ron: One of the defining aspects of Marxist analysis (at least in my mind) has been the fact that workers around the world have more in common with each other than they do with the ruling elites in their own countries.  What are your thoughts on this and how do you think this relates to immigration?  Also, if this internationalism is key to any movement for immigrant rights, how can that best be organized and expressed?

Nativo: The internationalization of capital (commonly referred to as globalization) breeds its opposite — international labor organization, social movements, and solidarity.  The information and technology revolutions have made the world smaller, and the sharing of experiences between communities vexed by the same or similar corporate enemies easier and faster.  The World Social Forums are a good example of this expression of internationalization of organization, movement, and solidarity.  This will only grow stronger.  The national movement for immigrants’ rights in the U.S. will only become stronger by formalizing connections with other social movements, but especially those from whence the immigrants sojourn.  This movement will soon develop a clearer international dimension in terms of what it advocates for itself within the U.S., and what it advocates for its brethren left at home and left to fend for themselves against unfair trade agreements concluded between the elites.

Ron: Can you  elaborate a little on why the Sensenbrenner Bill and the subsequent “compromises” should all be rejected?

Nativo: These immigration legislative proposals are restrictionist, exclusionary, and criminalizing by their very nature.  While the first, Sensenbrenner, is all enforcement, the second, Hagel-Martinez (S.2611) is enforcement, plus — plus the illusion of something beneficial to the vast majority of immigrants currently in the U.S.  Both would codify in law provisions to criminalize workers, build a border wall, deploy the national guard on the U.S.-Mexico border, eliminate legal rights to judicial review, require local law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration authorities, and create massive detention facilities for prolonged and indefinite incarceration of immigrants.  Both would result in the separation and deportation of millions of families and undermine the legal rights of U.S. citizens.  Neither proposals fairly address the current need to legalize the estimated 12 million undocumented in the U.S., or provide for future flows of immigrants.  They both represent the tendency towards criminalization and militarization of our immigration issues.  This will only lead to social conflict, death on the border, and potential social explosion.

Ron: What about the immigrants’ rights movement?  Are there elements that organizers and other interested folks should be aware of?  Trends they should combat?

Nativo: I believe that the immigrants’ rights movement is in good hands to the degree that we invest faith and confidence in the immigrants themselves.  They know what they want.  They know what they are willing to fight for.  While the movement has a spontaneous element to it — as do all movements — there has always existed the organizational element.  This is the kernel of leadership that exist in all communities — some more experienced than others, and some more independent than others.  The real test of the movement is whether it will be able to develop a strong enough independent leadership, build mass organization within the immigrant communities, and steer the movement in a direction that accords with the legitimate interest of the immigrants and not those that are extraneous to the immigrants or the movement.  Only time will tell.

For more info on the Immigrant Rights conference Lopez referred to, please visit www.immigrantsolidarity.org/.

Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch‘s new collection on music, art and sex: Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at <rjacobs3625@charter.net>.