Occupying the Immigration Debate

People in the United States may not be as rabidly anti-immigrant as we’ve been led to believe.

An article posted on the Center for American Progress website in December, “The Public’s View of Immigration,” summarizes five recent U.S. opinion polls.  Authors Philip E. Wolgin and Angela Maria Kelley find that while the media and the politicians frantically call for the mass deportation of “illegals,” a majority of U.S. adults don’t favor the idea of removing all 11 million of the country’s unauthorized immigrants.  And while immigrant rights advocates don’t dare use the word “amnesty,” the polls show a majority of the population supporting some form of legalization for many or most of the undocumented — in other words, they support an amnesty.

These aren’t just the opinions of the “liberal elite”; they cut across partisan lines.  According to a poll released by the rightwing Fox News network, 57 percent of Republicans and 48 percent of Tea Party supporters back some form of legalization.  The results also cut across ethnic lines.  African Americans are probably among the U.S. citizens most affected by immigration’s impact on jobs and wages, but a National Journal poll found that African Americans were in fact the least likely to support mass deportations and the most likely to back an amnesty for all undocumented immigrants.

Taken together, these five polls “illustrate that the ideological extremism of the hard right is well outside the mainstream pragmatism of the American people,” Wolgin and Kelley note.

Understanding the Historic Moment

As enlightening and useful as it is, the article seems to miss the main point.  “Americans are talking, but why aren’t candidates listening?” the authors ask in a headline.  A more important question is why progressives and immigrant rights advocates aren’t listening.

Up until now those of us who support immigrants’ struggles have too often let the media and the politicians set the terms of the debate.  The right wing calls for massive roundups of immigrants and moats filled with alligators, while we act as if we were the ones who are “well outside the mainstream,” politely asking for moderate reforms that lead to a “path to citizenship” in exchange for stricter enforcement measures and an expanded guest worker program.

If there’s one thing we should have learned from the events of the past year — from the Wisconsin protests to the Occupy Wall Street movement — it’s that we no longer have to let the one percent dictate our agenda.

We are at one of those rare moments in history when people’s minds are open to new and more radical ideas and ways of thinking.  For example, just a year or two ago, class was virtually banned as a topic of public discourse.  Now 66 percent of the public thinks there are “strong” or “very strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor, according to a poll the Pew Research Center released in January.  This is a 19 percentage point increase since 2009, with the biggest increase — 22 percentage points — among whites, traditionally the most conservative (and anti-immigrant) part of the U.S. population

If attitudes on class can change despite decades of corporate propaganda, surely it must be possible to raise consciousness about immigration.  In fact, this process already seems to be under way: when polled by Pew in 2009, people seemed more concerned about conflicts between immigrants and the native born than about conflicts between the rich and the poor; in the new poll these positions are reversed.

Challenging the Corporate Narrative

What’s most striking about the U.S. public’s relatively progressive views on immigration is that at the same time people are astonishingly ignorant about the subject.  For all the talk on immigration issues, most people don’t know even the most basic facts.  A 2010 survey by Transatlantic Trends, for example, found that people here think, on the average, that immigrants make up a staggering 39 percent of the population — that is, they believe that two out of every five people they see on the street are foreign born.  The actual number is around 12.5 percent, about the same as it’s been through most of the country’s history.

This sort of ignorance is largely the fault of biased and incompetent media coverage, but immigrant rights advocates need to accept some responsibility.  We’ve failed to counter the media’s distortions with a clear presentation of the facts, and we’ve failed to explain the crucial connection between immigration and the issues that are uppermost on people’s minds right now: class conflict and economic inequality.

The current wave of immigration started in the 1970s and 1980s as the United States began heavily promoting neoliberal economic policies in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.  These policies created very profitable openings for U.S. corporations in the region; they also produced millions of unemployed workers and displaced farmers.  Many of these headed north to find jobs.  At about the same time, the United States government started stepping up enforcement at the border and in the workplace.  The new enforcement measures failed to stop the wave of immigration, but they succeeded in converting the new immigrants into a vulnerable, terrorized workforce that would accept lower wages and worse working conditions.  This then added to the erosion of wages and working conditions for the native born that had already started in the early 1970s and had intensified with the flight of industrial jobs to the Global South.

Having profited doubly from neoliberal policies in Latin America and the Caribbean and from the super-exploitation of immigrant workers here at home, the corporations then used their media subsidiaries to scapegoat “illegal aliens” for worsening conditions in the United States — the conditions these same corporations created.

A January 4 article by journalist and labor activist David Bacon in The Nation, “How US Policies Fueled Mexico’s Great Migration,” is a good example of how we can discuss this analysis in a way that’s clear and meaningful to the 99 percent.

Bacon ties all the issues together with the example of Smithfield Foods.  The multinational has been moving hog-raising operations to Mexico’s Veracruz state since the 1990s, increasing its profits by taking advantage of the country’s low wages and weak environmental regulations, along with the availability, thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), of cheap feed from government-subsidized U.S. farms.  Smithfield profited again when Veracruz butchers and pig farmers it had displaced turned up working for low wages in the company’s U.S. slaughterhouses.  And in 2006 the company tried to profit a third time by using immigration enforcement in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to stop a unionization campaign.

“Don’t Imagine Obstacles”

This sort of analysis may be unfamiliar to most of the U.S. population — including many activists on the left, unfortunately — but people understand it when they hear it.

U.S. citizens may not know what neoliberalism is, but they already hate the one example of neoliberal policies they are likely to know about: NAFTA.  They know it destroyed manufacturing jobs here; what they don’t know, thanks to the refusal of the media to report such things, is that it also led to a net loss of jobs in Mexico, along with a major drop in real wages for the jobs that remained.  They know that low wages for immigrant workers mean lower wages for the native born; what they don’t know is that oppressive anti-immigrant measures like raids, detention, and deportation are what push immigrant wages down.  And while racism and xenophobia remain powerful forces in our society, many people are starting to understand how the superrich use divide-and-conquer strategies against the majority.  It’s not so hard to explain class solidarity to people who are already chanting “We are the 99 percent.”

In early January investigative journalist Allan Nairn led an informal discussion organized by the Occupy Wall Street People’s Think Tank at the 60 Wall Street Atrium in Lower Manhattan.  Nairn — who has three decades’ experience covering grassroots struggles in places as varied as Guatemala, Haiti, East Timor, and Indonesia — stressed that we’re living in a time when it’s possible to make real changes in people’s consciousness.  Asked about techniques for building the Occupy Wall Street movement, Nairn stressed that we need to go out and talk to people who aren’t our friends, to strangers, to people who are different from us.

Nairn acknowledged the difficulties that U.S. progressives face in doing this–while noting that these challenges pale next to what people in much of the world face.  He urged us not to “imagine obstacles that aren’t really there,” not to “think [ourselves] out of power.”  This is a moment when “history accelerates,” when “people’s minds crack open,” Nairn said.  But our time is limited.  We have to act before their minds close again.

David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, Monthly Review Press, July 2007.  He also co-edits Weekly News Update on the Americas, a summary of news from Latin America and the Caribbean.

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