What Wisconsin Means for Immigrant Rights

A few weeks can do a lot to sweep away old assumptions.  Last year U.S. leftists were wondering why the worst economic crisis in 70 years hadn’t inspired a stronger response from its victims; now Arabs have toppled neoliberal regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and U.S. workers have fought cutbacks and union-busting in Wisconsin with massive rallies and threats of general strikes.  The unexpected uprisings early this year may well mark the start of a period of sudden and surprising changes in political consciousness.

There hasn’t been much talk about immigration so far in 2011, but this may be another area where the old assumptions are about to give way.

Immigration reform is “the third rail of American politics,” Rahm Emanuel, then a Democratic Congress member from Illinois, announced in 2007.  “[A]nyone who doesn’t realize that isn’t with the American people.”  Racism, xenophobia, and relentless anti-immigrant propaganda in the media had brought us to a point where activists felt they couldn’t touch the issue, much less try to talk about it rationally with the U.S. public.  The best we could hope for, we were told, was a compromise with the politicians and the “business community,” a compromise in which undocumented immigrants might win some sort of legalization, but only in exchange for expanded guest worker programs and harsher enforcement measures.

Now, four years later, we have to ask ourselves whether politicians like Emanuel really understand the people they claim to represent.

Walking Like an Egyptian

One thing the events in Wisconsin have made clear is that many U.S. workers still have a sense of class, even if they identify their class as “middle.”

After decades of anti-union tirades in the media and a well-organized campaign to turn private-sectors workers against public employees, a majority of the population still supports the right to collective bargaining and still opposes wage cuts for government workers, according to national polls.  This isn’t just general sympathy for teachers and sanitation workers, moreover; the same polls indicate that the supportive people are generally the ones at lower income levels, while the bitterest enemies of the “greedy public employees” are the people with an annual income over $100,000.

And the support isn’t just passive: students, farmers, and private-sector workers repeatedly turned out in large numbers to back the public employees occupying the Capitol in Madison.  On March 19, the eighth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, antiwar veterans led one of the mass rallies outside the Capitol.  “I’m here because I was a public worker,” said Iraq war veteran Derek Giffin, who served in the U.S. Army from 2000 to 2005.  “I got paid with public funds just like the teachers, firefighters here, and their plight is our plight.”

This incipient class consciousness opens the way for important changes in attitudes.

For one thing, people are starting to use some common sense in thinking about economics.  The Great Recession had already created a lot of cynicism about the official economic line; it was getting hard to believe that “free trade,” “open markets,” and “trickle-down economics” were really leading us to prosperity.  But there’s an important shift when working people start to understand that the failed economic policies are policies that benefit the rich, that the rich pay the salaries of the economists and columnists that promote these policies, and that the “working class and the employing class have nothing in common,” as the Wobblies put it so neatly a century ago.

The media go on and on about deficits, “fiscal responsibility,” and “equality of sacrifice,” but down below you hear more and more that we’re just paying for a disaster that Wall Street created.  “When will the rich start to sacrifice?” asked a hand-lettered sign at a Wisconsin solidarity rally in New York on February 26.

The growth of class consciousness also undermines deep-seated prejudices.  Wisconsin workers rallying for their rights quickly began identifying themselves with the protesters in Egypt: years of “terrorism” hysteria against Arabs and Muslims weren’t enough to block an instinctive admiration for fellow humans fighting oppression, even if they were located in North Africa and the Middle East.  “Walk like an Egyptian” became a popular slogan among unionists in Wisconsin; an old comedy routine has turned into a new way of saying: “Stand up for your rights.”

Confronting the Third Rail

These developments point to a real potential — the best in many years — for changing people’s thinking about immigration.

If many private-sector workers can see through the campaign to turn them against public employees, is it really impossible for native-born workers to see through the similar effort to pit them against foreign-born workers?  If U.S. workers are beginning to understand the real purpose of neoliberal economic policies, are they incapable of understanding the real purpose of guest worker programs and anti-immigrant measures — that these programs are in fact, as has been demonstrated again and again, simply ways to drive down wages for everyone?

And if U.S. unionists now want to walk like Egyptians, can’t they also start to overcome the racism and xenophobia that have been so crucial to making immigration reform the “third rail”?  What if U.S. public employees, for instance, knew that the first massive resistance to the current wave of cutbacks by U.S. local governments wasn’t the demonstrations by English-speaking people in Madison — that it was an October 2009 general strike by workers and students in Puerto Rico?  The first militant resistance to Great Recession layoffs was the December 2008 occupation of the Republic Windows factory in Chicago.  Suppose people knew that what made this happen was united action by African-American and immigrant workers?

But in fact most people don’t know these things, and this is the sort of ignorance that activists need to focus on.  We can’t wait for people to discover on their own that “an injury to one is an injury to all”; we need to be out there talking to them and challenging the anti-immigrant myths.  No, we need to say, the 1986 amnesty didn’t lead to an increase in undocumented immigration.  No, the E-Verify program, which pushes companies to check employees’ immigration status in a government database, doesn’t actually keep people from coming here.  We need to tell people that E-Verify just forces more immigrants into the underground economy — and that the government’s own projections show this.

Don’t Lobby, Organize

We don’t control the mainstream media, of course, and it’s hard work to reach out to people around immigration, to confront the ignorance and prejudices of many native-born workers.  It can be scary at times.  But activists overcame similar obstacles in Wisconsin, and those obstacles are minor compared to what activists face in North Africa and the Middle East.

There’s no lack of opportunities for linking struggles by immigrants to struggles by the native-born: for workers’ rights, against layoffs, for education opportunities.

  • The Dignity Campaign, which brings together immigrant rights activists and union organizers, has developed a full program, already endorsed by a number of labor groups, for an immigration reform in the interests of workers, not the rich.
  • A coalition of workers’ centers and other groups is building for this year’s May 1 demonstrations to focus on resistance to “[s]tagnant and falling wages, lingering unemployment, and escalating attacks on immigrant workers and the right of all workers to organize.”

The student activists describe themselves as “undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic.”  We’ll all need to show this type of spirit in the coming months.

David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers(Monthly Review Press, July 2007).  Guskin and Wilson have facilitated dozens of dialogues on immigration issues over the past four years; if you are interested in setting one up, write to <thepoliticsofimmigration@gmail.com>.

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