Solidarity has no borders

May 1, 2013

Shaun Harkin examines the politics and economics of immigration--and argues that the principle of international solidarity must be central to the working-class movement.

BORDERS ARE one of the great contradictions in the era of capitalist globalization.

The world has become a much smaller place because of advances in technology and transportation, global production chains and the lightning-fast movement of capital around the planet. In this regard, the globalized economy is borderless to those with billions of dollars or euros or yen to invest.

But borders are still there to keep the vast majority of us apart. In many respects, governments are doing less and less to regulate the flow of trade and finance between nations, but they are taking increasingly tough action to restrict the flow of people across borders.

More restrictions will never stop migration--the economic imperative for workers struggling to feed themselves and their families will force them to cross borders, no matter what the risks. But the restrictions can make this much more dangerous and oppressive, by forcing the most vulnerable people in society into relying on smugglers and human traffickers, not to mention the exploitative businesses where they end up working.

Immigrant rights supporters rally in Washington, D.C., for legalization and an end to deportations
Immigrant rights supporters rally in Washington, D.C., for legalization and an end to deportations

The militarization of the U.S. border with Mexico is a prime example. In his book Border Walls: Security and the War on Terror in the United States, India and Israel, Reece Jones writes:

The 3,169-kilometer border between the United States and Mexico was demarcated in the middle of the 19th century, but had only approximately 100 kilometers of fencing prior to 2006, all of which had been constructed since the 1990s. The U.S. Congress passed the Secure Fence Act of 2006, with bipartisan support, which authorized a barrier along an additional 1,125 kilometers of the border with Mexico. By 2010, 1,080 kilometers were completed, and consisted of a mix of roads, fences, walls, vehicle barriers and sections of a high technology "smart border."

This is not only a colossal waste of resources that could be used to provide help for people who desperately need it, rather than to punish them. The militarization of the border is also deadly.

The U.S. Border Patrol documented 477 deaths among border-crossers in the Southwest in 2012, a sharp increase over the year before, even though total migration from Mexico has slowed. The official count of border deaths is understated, too, because not every victim is found.

The increase in border deaths is directly attributable to stepped-up enforcement over the past two decades--since migrants are forced into more remote terrain where they are exposed to extreme temperatures and the like.

Why are there obstacles to immigration in a globalized world that more than ever resembles what Karl Marx and Frederick Engels described 165 years ago in the Communist Manifesto--of "[n]ational differences and antagonism between peoples" fading due "to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto"?

Marx and Engels' statement is true about one face of the capitalism--but the opposite is true at the same time: "National differences and antagonism between peoples" remain absolutely necessary for ruling classes to control the vast majority of people in society who labor.

Capitalists are absolutely dependent on migration across borders. But they also rely on restrictions on immigration to keep workers competing with each other so that all will be willing to work for less--and to keep the section of workers classified as "illegal" more easily exploited and intimidated with the threat of deportation.

Therefore, the struggle against restrictions on the right of workers to move freely and in defense of immigrant workers in the countries where they arrive is absolutely central to the creation of a genuine spirit of international working-class solidarity and networks of resistance.

MORE PEOPLE cross borders today than ever before in human history. The last three-plus decades of neoliberalism has led to a reorganization of the world division of labor, with massive movements of people both within and between countries. In Migration: Changing the World, Guy Arnold described just how massive the movements are:

The number of migrants worldwide rose from 36 million in 1991 to 191 million in 2005. Migration has become increasingly important to the population growth of developed countries. In 2005, the United States took in 61 percent of migrants compared with 53 percent in 1990. Because of low fertility rates in the developed countries, net migration accounts for 75 percent of population growth in those countries.

Should present trends continue, then between 2010 and 2030, net migration will probably account for all population increases in the developed world. In 2005, 64 million migrants lived in Europe, 44.5 million in North America, 4.7 million in Australia and New Zealand, and 2 million in Japan. By contrast, the migrant population of the developing world has risen by only 3 million since 1990, totaling 75 million in 2005: 51 million in Asia, 17 million in Africa and 7 million in Latin America and the Caribbean.

So migration is definitely not limited to North America. For example, China's program of industrialization has relied on the internal migration of 230 million mostly young people from rural areas to rapidly expanding urban economic hubs. Rural workers are treated as second-class citizens and denied access to decent wages and housing, and the health care and education opportunities available to existing city residents.

The combination of this oppressive treatment of migrants and the harsh exploitation of China's state capitalist economy has fed explosive struggles by Chinese workers--producing some of the biggest labor battles anywhere in the world.

In Europe, the creation of an integrated and "borderless" Eurozone has vastly expanded migration among member states. There are now over 25 million legal immigrants in Europe, plus another estimated 10 million undocumented immigrants.

But the idea of a borderless Europe that is welcoming to migrants is a myth. For example, though Muslims account for about 5 percent of Europe's total population of 500 million, they are the target of hysterical campaigns by mainstream parties and violent attacks by the far right. Though sanctioned and promoted across the political spectrum, Islamophobia has become the central vehicle for far-right parties to win support and gain political legitimacy.

Migrant workers are also targets--and nowhere more so than in Greece, where they have been violently scapegoated for the ongoing economic chaos caused by Greek and European rulers. Meanwhile, workers outside the EU zone who wish to reach Europe face the increasingly restrictive border policies of "Fortress Europe."

The European Union project was never guided by a goal of social justice. The ruling classes of various European countries, especially the most powerful, believed an integrated Europe would help them compete and profit in a globalized world. Freedom of movement for workers within the EU zone wasn't geared toward building continent-wide working-class solidarity, but the opposite: undermining working-class living standards by introducing workers from countries where unemployment was high and wages were lower.

This process has also undermined the social safety net in countries such as Germany, France, Spain and Britain--countries where working-class struggle had established important social welfare gains.

Euro-wide solidarity is more possible and necessary under conditions of integration, but it has to be organized on the basis of championing the demands for justice of all workers, regardless of national origin.

IN THE U.S., the political and corporate establishment seems to have reached a consensus that the time has come for "immigration reform."

Unsurprisingly, however, the proposed legislation under discussion in Washington today is shaped to meet the interests of business--and not those of the 11 million undocumented immigrants who have been forced to labor and live in the shadows.

Yes, there is a way for the undocumented to become "legalized" under the proposals supported by the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators and the Obama White House. But the process this requires and the length of time that will be spent under "temporary" status means the undocumented will continue to be second-class citizens.

Waiting a decade under temporary legal status creates a "virtual border" within the U.S., dividing workers from each other. The requirements needed just to gain access to temporary status--ranging from job requirements to payment of back taxes and fines--are designed to punish, rather than to welcome.

And before any "legalization" happens, the government will spend billions of dollars on further militarizing the U.S.-Mexico border and various other measures that will not stop future migration, but will cause more unnecessary deaths and suffering.

Initial studies estimate that more than 3 million of the undocumented workers will not qualify for any form of legalization. What will happen to them? Deportation? They can stay at their own risk, but will be viewed as easily exploitable and abused by employers willing to circumvent the expanded mandatory national E-Verify identification system. The border will also follow immigrants in new proposed "guest worker" programs.

The mythology of America celebrates a country that was built by generations of immigrants from all over the globe--but the government is intent on punishing millions of immigrants who are building the U.S. today. Former Republican President Ronald Reagan was no friend of immigrant workers, but the reform legislation he signed into law in 1986 appears a lot more lenient than anything on offer from the Obama White House today.

The media is congratulating politicians and corporate leaders for mustering the courage to overcome the remaining obstacles to "immigration reform." But they have shown no urgency about the fate of millions of people in the U.S. who have been exploited, abused, humiliated, detained and deported.

The White House and Congress deserve no credit for helping to bring any undocumented immigrants out of the shadows--if, in fact, immigration legislation does pass, which is far from certain. If millions of undocumented immigrants establish the legal right, however restricted, to live and work in the U.S., it is because they refused to go away and stood firm in the face of bigoted opposition to their demands for justice.

The mass demonstrations that erupted across the U.S. in 2006 demonstrated the importance of immigrant workers to the U.S. economy and their power. More recently, the "DREAM activists"--immigrant youth courageously taking action to put pressure on the government--were able to force grudging concessions from the Obama White House.

THE PUNITIVE border enforcement measures and contorted "path to legalization" contained in Washington's immigration proposals is completely at odds with the ways that immigrants are key to transforming the world politically, socially, demographically and economically.

Capitalism has always needed workers to migrate across borders. For example, tens of thousands of Irish workers were central to England's Industrial Revolution. British domination distorted Ireland's economic development, causing widespread dislocation and unemployment that made migration to England a necessity for many. Once in England, the Irish got the worst-paid jobs, lived in slums and were caricatured as slothful drunks.

The legacy of colonialism and modern imperialism continues to drive migration from many countries in the Global South, whose economies have been ruined by more powerful industrialized nations.

The U.S. economy has always depended heavily on labor from across its Southwestern border. The number of Mexican immigrants, documented and undocumented, in the U.S. today is estimated at 23 million. This has contributed to a long-term demographic shift in the U.S. By 2060, the proportion of the U.S. population of Latino origin will have risen to 30 percent, according to estimates.

Latin America is not the only source of the continuing influx of immigrants. Africans are now coming to the U.S. in numbers that are unprecedented since the millions who were kidnapped and brought to the U.S. as slaves. In New York City today, one in three Black residents is an immigrant.

A study by the Pew Research Center estimates that the U.S. will need up to 50 million new immigrants over the next 20 years to cope with anticipated economic expansion, the slowing growth of the native-born population and an aging population living longer.

One central feature woven into the fabric of capitalism is the uneven spread of poverty and development around the world. As long as this remains with us, people will migrate--and they have every right to do so. Immigrants who are determined to move will do so, risking the harshest obstacles, no matter how high the border walls or drastic the punishments.

Our solidarity recognizes no borders. We must do everything we can to support the right of workers to come here. We should campaign against U.S. government and corporate polices that damage employment opportunities and cause poverty in Mexico and elsewhere around the world. We can organize support for working-class struggles in other countries. We can campaign here to unite native-born workers with their immigrant sisters and brothers in struggle.

If Washington's "immigration reform" framework becomes law, we must defend the right of every "temporary" and undocumented worker--now and in the future--to have the same rights and access to the same benefits as every worker who is categorized as "legal."

Our struggles here in the U.S. can only succeed if we build connections with the struggles of workers and the oppressed in every corner of the globe. Ultimately, we want to live in a world where borders have become a relic of the past.

Further Reading

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