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Undocumented Workers in the US

For the first time in 70 years, May Day in 2006 was marked in the US by two million people demanding legalisation for some 12 million undocumented immigrants. Sweeping the nation like a storm, the Latino protest mobilisation caught both the right and left off guard. The political struggle underlines the persistent economic gap between the US and its neighbours to the south, underlying racial stereotypes, fragmented ethnic consciousness, a divide between employers and right wing chauvinists, and the discontinuity between immigrant workers and the trade union establishment. Nevertheless, the May Day demonstrations could signal a new political awakening and rekindle the US labour movement.


Undocumented Workers in the US

For the first time in 70 years, May Day in 2006 was marked in the US by two million people demanding legalisation for some 12 million undocumented immigrants. Sweeping the nation like a storm, the Latino protest mobilisation caught both the right and left off guard. The political struggle underlines the persistent economic gap between the US and its neighbours to the south, underlying racial stereotypes, fragmented ethnic consciousness, a divide between employers and right wing chauvinists, and the discontinuity between immigrant workers and the trade union establishment. Nevertheless, the May Day demonstrations could signal a new political awakening and rekindle the

US labour movement.


ay Day 2006 was marked by hundreds of demonstrations for immigrants’ rights in cities throughout the US on Monday, May 1, 2006. For the first time in nearly 70 years, working people poured into the streets on May Day to protest against moves in the US Congress aimed at cracking down on undocumented immigrants, mostly from México and central America. An estimated two million people marched on May Day in the US, including over 6,50,000 in two marches in Los Angeles, 4,00,000 in Chicago, 2,50,000 in San José, 75,000 in Denver, and 30,000 each in San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno, Houston, and New York City. Tens of thousands marched in other cities, such as Oakland, Seattle, Santa Barbara, Orlando, Miami, Tampa and Atlanta.1

Taken together, the May Day demonstrations were the largest simultaneous outpouring of street protest since the Vietnam war and the US civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. A working Monday was chosen to highlight a national call for a boycott on working, selling, buying, and business as usual. Labelling it ‘un día sin inmigrantes’ (a day without immigrants), organisers wanted to point out the potential impact on the economy if all undocumented immigrants were sent home. Organisers selected May 1, owing to its symbolism as International Workers’ Day.

Nevertheless, coordination of immigration rights protests has been very decentralised, with the mobilisation of large marches being coordinated by regional coalitions like the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles or the National Capitol Immigration Coalition in Washington DC. But behind the scenes were a wide variety of national ethnicbased organisations that played a key role in planning and mobilising nationwide protests, such as the Mexican-American Political Association, La Raza, Latino Movement USA, Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana and the League of United Latin American Citizens, which claims to be the largest and oldest Hispanic organisation in the US. With heavy reliance on the Internet, the web has proven to be an unprecedented tool in mobilising millions for coordinated actions across the country.

Among labour organisations, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has many relatively low-skilled service workers of Hispanic origin, has played a leading role. However, fearing the loss of permanent union jobs and downward pressure on wages, the main US trade union federation, the American Federation of Labour/Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), continued to oppose a “guest worker” programme and amnesty for undocumented immigrants. In the latter part of the 20th century, the labour bureaucrats of the AFL-CIO and many of its constituent trade unions, now settled into the complacent role of power brokers between workers and management, have long since given up militant trade unionism and struggles beyond narrow economist demands for their memberships.

Passage of Bills

The upsurge in Hispanic activism was triggered by the passage on December 16, 2005 by the US House of Representatives of the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (HR 4437). Some of the more draconian provisions of HR 4437 include:

  • Section 202 – makes it a criminal offence to provide housing or transportation for illegal aliens. Also provides the federal government with extraterritorial jurisdiction in such cases.
  • Section 203 – makes illegal presence in the US a felony crime.
  • Section 607 – requires the federal government to take custody of illegal aliens detained by local authorities (even if a person was originally arrested for violations of local or state laws).
  • Section 1002 – requires the construction of approximately 1,123 kilometres of “reinforced fencing” at five zones of most frequent illegal crossings along the US-México border that currently have no barrier. (The longest continuous zone runs from eastern California along nearly the entire length of the Arizona border with México.)
  • The marchers sought to communicate their unequivocal opposition to HR 4437 with posters saying “No a la HR 4437”, and that undocumented immigrants are not what HR 4437 makes them out to be, i e, “No somos criminales” (we are not criminals). One poster pointed out an apparent contradiction in policy: “The Pilgrims were the first illegal immigrants”, referring to the first European settlers to arrive in the

    Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006 north-east coast who, though uninvited (they had no visas), were initially welcomed and aided by native Americans. Some posters recalled that “America is a nation of immigrants”. Another poster pleaded, “I came for my children”. Other posters said, “We are hard working”, reasserting that undocumented immigrants are not burdens on society, but instead make much needed contributions to the US economy. Finally, there were slogans of empowerment: “Sí, se puede” (Yes, we can) and “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (The people united will never be defeated).

    Demonstrations for immigrants’ rights were tempered only by the US Senate’s passage of a more moderate bill, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (S 2611), on May 17, 2006. While S 2611 also steps up enforcement of immigration laws, unlike HR 4437, it does not turn undocumented immigrants into felony criminals. More importantly, it partially addresses one cause of undocumented immigration, the inadequacy of channels for obtaining visas and permits for entering the US legally. By providing for a three-year temporary guest worker visa and new visas for non-immigrant immediate family members, S 2611 will both help meet the US economy’s demand for low wage labour and enable more foreign workers to enter legally. Nevertheless, because S 2611 would also build more walls and take a harder line on undocumented immigrants until they achieve legal status after a tortuous application process, the Senate bill has also been rejected by many in the immigrant rights movement. Neither HR 4437 nor S 2611 can become law until a Senate-House conference committee can reconcile the differences between the two pieces of legislation.

    Overcoming Fear

    Undocumented immigrants have long lived in fear of being caught and facing summary deportation. They have always kept a low profile, focusing on hard work and family life. A new federal government immigration law that would have automatically turned them into criminal felons touched a raw nerve, although it alone was probably not sufficient to bring them out onto the streets in open protest. However, the Spanish language media in the US took on the immigration issue, and the discussion on the airwaves, print media, and Internet escalated. Latino organisations decided it was time to mobilise their once quiet constituencies. The slumbering giant that tenaciously harvests America’s vegetables, sweeps America’s floors, constructs America’s homes, repairs America’s vehicles, and cleans America’s hotel rooms was politically awakening.

    Immigrants’ rights activism had been snowballing across the country during the months after the passage of HR 4437. The march of a million people in Los Angeles on March 25, 2006 was a watershed because it sent a loud message to Latinos all over the US that it was time to come out of the shadows and join the political process. For undocumented persons, it sent a message that there are so many of “us” (11.5-12 million people plus another 30 million legal compatriots) that there is now security in numbers, that it is time to come out and openly protest against the attempts in Congress to criminalise “illegal aliens” and extend the wall along the Mexican border. The weeks that followed witnessed mass political mobilisations in city after city. Cities, many that were never before centres of political activism, suddenly jumped onto the national scene with protest demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people: Dallas (April 9 – 4,00,000), Washington DC (April 10 – 5,00,000) and Phoenix (April 10 – 3,00,000). In San José, the immigrants’ rights march of April 10 was five times larger than the largest antiwar demonstration in the city on March 20, 2004, which was further eclipsed by another tenfold larger only three weeks later by the May Day march. For the first time, undocumented persons joined their legal brethren in open protest, proudly bearing placards calling for legalisation of their status.

    May Day is traditionally celebrated in industrialised and developing countries alike around the world as International Workers’ Day. The US is an exception, where successive governments and the trade union bureaucracy have consistently resisted recognising May Day, fearing the connection with labour movements around the world. Instead, Labour Day was initiated to recognise the contribution of American workers on September 5, 1882 in New York City. In 1884, the first Monday in September was selected as a holiday from labour. Beginning in 1887, individual states came to recognise Labour Day as an official state holiday. However, it was not until 1894 that Congress made Labour Day a national holiday.

    Origins of May Day

    May Day, itself, also traces its origins to the US labour movement. In 1884 the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions, predecessor of the American Federation of Labour (AFL), called for an eight-hour workday. When implementation appeared unlikely, a general strike was called in Chicago on May 1, 1886. On that day, some 80,000 workers marched down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue in what is generally recognised as the first May Day parade. In the succeeding days, supporting strikes broke out in other cities, such as Milwaukee, Cincinnati and New York. On May 3, four striking workers were killed by police at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago. At an evening rally on May 4 in Haymarket Square, called to protest against the killings, police moved in to disperse the crowd when a bomb went off, killing seven policemen. Police retaliated by firing into the crowd of workers, killing and wounding an unknown number of civilians. Determined to stop the labour agitations, police interrogations and arrests went on into the night. Eight people were eventually charged and convicted for the deaths of the policemen, even though no evidence was ever presented directly linking them to the bombing in Haymarket Square. Four of the defendants were publicly hanged in 1887. In Paris in 1889, the International Workingmen’s Association (Second International) called for international demonstrations on May 1, 1890, commemorating the struggle of Chicago workers. Thus, the worldwide tradition of May Day was born.

    Over the next three decades, workers incrementally won eight-hour working days through struggles with individual companies. In 1916, the Adamson Act was passed by Congress, establishing a statutory eighthour working day for railway workers with additional pay for overtime work. Continuing labour struggles eventually brought the eight-hour working day to other industries, and additional laws were passed to make it universal in the organised sector. Thus, contrary to popular myth in the US, May Day did not originate from socialism or communism, but rather from the very same US trade union movement that brought about the basic eight-hour

    Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006

    working day that is taken so much for granted today.

    Divided Ethnic Consciousness

    Every observer of the many immigrant rights demonstrations has noted that their mass base has been overwhelmingly Hispanic. While a small percentage of non-Latinos always joined in support, there was no mass participation by other ethnic communities, with a few exceptions such as in San Francisco and Philadelphia. Yet it was only a few years ago that Muslims, Arabs, and everyone who “looked like” them were being subjected to racial profiling in searches at ports of entry in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Now, where are the Muslims, Arabs, and other Asians who mobilised for civil liberties and against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Many American blacks felt sidelined by the immigrant rights marches that have eclipsed the size of the civil rights marches of previous decades.2 So why are not blacks joining in large numbers? The problem is twofold.

    First, Americans who identify as members of a minority ethnic or religious group tend to see that as their primary identity within American society. Even in the left, at anti-war rallies speaker after speaker talks of the “unity of African American, Latino, native American, Asian, and Middle Eastern sisters and brothers”. Rarely do they mention the unity of workers, farmers, teachers, students, undocumented workers, the self-employed, the unemployed, etc. Thus, grassroot mobilisation is frequently done on an ethnic or religious community basis and manifested in banners bearing names like Muslim Students Association, Black Voices for Peace, South Asians for Collective Action, Filipino Workers Action Centre, and Catholic Mothers for Peace. So when political mobilisation is done in the Latino community, even if nationwide, it may have little initial impact on non-Latino communities.

    Second, even when ethnic communities do come into contact, they often take defensive positions and fail to develop a common cause against a common oppression. For example, when an Asian American in San José accused a black city official of racist discrimination some years ago, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) came to the defence of the black official. When scientist Wen Ho Lee was falsely accused in 1999 of espionage at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, it was primarily Chinese American associations all over the country that came to his support. When Muslims and Arabs were subjected to racial profiling after September 11, the east Asian, Hispanic and African American associations largely remained on the sidelines.

    Ethnocentric fragmentation is endemic in the American polity. Ethnicity based organisations may still have a role to play as fronts for grassroot mobilisation, but they need to be integrated under panethnic or, better yet, class-based umbrella political organisations. Alternatively, the ethnicity-based organisations should become mass organisations for a working class political party.

    Parallel Mass Media

    According to US Census estimates for July 1, 2005, 14.4 per cent of the US population was considered to be of Hispanic origin, numbering 42.7 million people.3 Today nearly all of that population is served by Spanish language radio and television stations, and cable service everywhere includes Spanish language channels. Spanish language newspapers are freely available in metropolitan areas. Large national and international networks dominate the airwaves: Univision, Telemundo, Hispanic Television Network (HTN), Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation (HBC), Spanish Broadcasting System (SBS) and TeleFutura and Galavisión (both owned by Univision). Collectively, the Spanish language media in the US has long carried a full range of news, talk shows, movies, singers, and comedies that are little known outside of the Spanishspeaking community. This media universe plays a crucial role in informing and shaping the consciousness of the Spanish-speaking community in the US for whom it defines the mainstream.

    In California in the weeks leading up to May Day, the front page headlines read:“Marcha histórica en Los Ángeles” (El Mundo, Oakland, March 30, 2006), “Primero de Mayo” (Alianza, San José, April 20, 2006), “Primero de Mayo, un día sin latinos. ¿ Cómo la ve?” (“First of May, a day without Latinos. How does one view it?’’) (El Observador, San José, April 28, 2006) and “Americans back immigrant-friendly reform” (La Oferta, San José, April 21, 2006).

    After May Day, and after the abundant news coverage of the May Day demonstrations, the Spanish language press continued to react strongly to immigration related events. On May 15, 2006, US president George W Bush announced his plan to dispatch 6,000 National Guard troops to the US-México border in an attempt to placate the right wing of his Republican Party, while simultaneously appealing to immigrants and their employers by supporting a guest worker programme and a pathway to legalisation for many undocumented workers. Two days later, the Senate’s passage of S 2611 authorised building 593 kilometres of new fencing on the US-México border. The headline drama continued: “6 mil soldados a la frontera” (6 thousand troops to the border) (La Opinión, Los Angeles, May 16, 2006), “Más tropas y legalización” (More troops and legalisation) (Hoy, Los Angeles, May 16, 2006), “México: ¿Zona de guerra?” (México: war zone?) (El Observador, May 19, 2006), “Senado aprueba muro en frontera con México” (Senate approves wall on border with México) (La Oferta, May 19, 2006).

    Media organisations that publish separate newspapers in English and Spanish frequently carried decisively different content in each language. Knight Ridder reported in the San Jose Mercury News (May 7, 2006, p 3A) on ‘militias and Minutemen’ patrolling the US-México border, but the report was sensationalised in Fronteras with the headline “Nazis en la frontera” (June 24, 2006, p 12). Hence, the Latino community became far more aware of, and emotionally mobilised in, the issues behind the immigration debate than other ethnic communities or the general population.

    As discussion and outrage over HR 4437 escalated in the Spanish language media, the rest of the country was focused elsewhere. When anti-war forces were mobilising for nationwide demonstrations on March 18-19, 2006, the third anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, there was relatively little awareness of the gathering storm in the Latino community. As 25,000 people marched against war in San Francisco on March 18, few had any idea that they would be dwarfed by 1 million marching in Los Angeles at the following weekend. If anyone had cared to look in the rear view mirror, nothing could have been seen coming up from behind because it was an English language mirror. In effect, the US today contains parallel universes

    Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006 of culture and political consciousness, each fully internally integrated and national in scope, but almost mutually exclusive in the communities they serve – one thinking in English and another thinking in Spanish.

    Racially Motivated Myths

    Opponents of amnesty for undocumented immigrants launched small scattered demonstrations in the days following May 1. They carried signs saying, “No illegals” or “No amnesty for illegal immigrants”. Most insisted that they are not against immigration, but against illegal immigration because they felt that it burdens the nation’s law enforcement, welfare, healthcare, and education systems. Yet many among them carried signs with distinctly xenophobic overtones: “Close borders now” or “Fix your own country before you trash ours”. Still others implied that immigrants from south of the border would drag down the US standard of living, Slogans such as “Amnesty equals joining the Third World” or “Illegal employers import poverty” were tinged with racism.

    The assumption is that undocumented immigrants, coming mostly from impoverished rural areas and having little education, bring poverty, crime, third world diseases, and “dilute the culture” of the US. There are several flaws in these arguments. First, if undocumented immigrants utilise free public services, so also do legal residents and citizens. For example, all low income groups tend to lack health insurance, and place an uncompensated burden on hospital emergency rooms and public healthcare facilities. Second, because nonpermanent residents are not entitled to welfare, even this category of legal immigrants does not burden the welfare system, let alone undocumented immigrants.

    Third, undocumented immigrants enter the US almost entirely for employment and because they can actually get work. Among those who have tax identification numbers most actually do pay income taxes. Those who pay income taxes contribute as much as low income legal residents to funding the public services that they may utilise. However, to the extent that undocumentedness pushes workers into the underground economy, a defined pathway towards legalisation would create millions of additional above ground income tax payers. The notion that illegal immigrants burden public services more than they contribute economically is partly based on a racially motivated presumption that they are lazy and do not work. In fact, their participation rate in employment (96 per cent for men) is higher than that of legal immigrants or citizens [Passel, Capps and Fix 2004]. However, owing to the frequently temporary nature of their work, many experience a significant degree of underemployment.

    Fourth, critics of amnesty claim that undocumented immigrants, perhaps because they are defined as illegal, contribute more than their share to crime, hence disproportionately burdening the law enforcement, criminal justice, and correctional systems. Immigration opponents have claimed that in many cases 60 to 90 per cent of serious crimes in the US are attributable to illegal aliens [MacDonald 2004]. However, actual statistics tell a somewhat different story. For example, in California, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, out of a total of nearly 1,71,000 state prison inmates in April 2006, there were 22,478 undocumented immigrants and persons suspected of being undocumented.4 (These figures do not include persons held in local jails and federal government prisons.) According to the Pew Hispanic Centre, a Washington DC based think, tank, California had approximately 27,50,000 undocumented immigrants as of March 2006, out of the 11.5-12 million in the country.5 This gives undocumented immigrants an incarceration rate in California state prisons as high as 817 per 100,000 population. According to the California Department of Finance, the total population of California reached 37.2 million in January 2006.6 Thus, the incarceration rate of the general population in California state prisons was 460 per 1,00,000.

    Outside Legal Margins

    The incarceration rate for undocumented immigrants was less than twice the rate for the general population, but significantly lower than the incarceration rates for black and native American US citizens, who are the most severely affected by racial profiling and negative stereotyping. Even legally resident Hispanics were somewhat overrepresented in the prison population because of racial profiling and underprivilege. Furthermore, the incarceration rate for undocumented immigrants must be viewed in the context of a population that by definition lives outside the legal margins of society even when performing normal everyday tasks that the legal population takes for granted. Thus, for example, identity theft crimes may be committed more for the purpose of acquiring a tax identification number needed for employment rather than for the purpose of tapping another person’s bank account. Undocumented workers may be caught driving without a licence because they may need to drive a vehicle to live and for a livelihood.

    Fifth, amnesty opponents fear that undocumented immigrants are taking their jobs and pulling down wages. However, not only are undocumented immigrants hard working, but they perform jobs that others are unwilling to perform, or at least unwilling to perform at those low (frequently sub-minimum) wages. According to the March 2005 Current Population Survey by the US Census Bureau, 78 per cent of undocumented immigrants are employed in low wage and low education occupations, e g, farm labour, cleaning, household service, construction, extraction, repair, production labour, and transportation [Passel 2006, p 10]. Thus, there is relatively little direct competition for jobs between most US citizens and the undocumented immigrants. To the extent that undocumented immigrants are willing to work at below market wages, they do effectively reduce mean wages in those economic sectors where they predominate. However, this has little direct impact on the organised economic sectors in which citizens and permanent residents generally participate. In fact, there is emerging evidence in some areas that Latino workers, in taking over low wage jobs, are actually pushing black workers up into higher wage occupations.7

    Finally, undocumented immigrants effectively increase the purchasing power of all Americans by reducing the cost of certain labour services, foodstuffs, freight transportation, etc. Nevertheless, a defence of undocumented immigrants is not to condone an economic system that institutionalises sub-minimum wages by perpetuating multiple unorganised sectors based largely on undocumented labour. Nor does it justify their social marginalisation through exclusion from public services. All human beings have minimum social needs that can only be met by ensuring them a decent standard of living, and rightful access to healthcare, education, and justice. This is yet another reason for

    Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006

    providing a dignified pathway towards legalisation of undocumented immigrants who make essential contributions to the economy and have otherwise not engaged in criminal activity.

    Common Struggle

    The question of undocumented immigrants from Latin America has dominated the debate over immigration reform. An estimated 78 per cent of undocumented immigrants as of March 2005 originated from Latin America in general, and 57 per cent came from México in particular. But that leaves some 1.5 million undocumented immigrants from Asia (13 per cent), 6,00,000 from Europe and Canada (6 per cent), and 4,00,000 from Africa and elsewhere (3 per cent) [Passel 2006, p 5]. While the great majority of undocumented immigrants from Latin America have made illegal border crossings, those from Asia and Europe are associated more with nonimmigrant visa overstays. Nevertheless, the unauthorised immigration status of those from Asia and Europe presents the same socio-economic marginalisation and insecurity faced by undocumented immigrants from Latin America.

    In 1986, undocumented immigrants from Asia represented 6 per cent of the total. By 2002, they constituted 10 per cent [Wasem 2004]. It took only three more years for that figure to reach 13 per cent. Thus, in percentage terms, persons of Asian origin actually represent the fastest growing major segment of undocumented immigrants in the US. According to the former US Immigration and Naturalisation Service estimates for 2000, 1.64 per cent of undocumented immigrants were from China, 1.21 per cent from the Philippines,

    1.00 per cent from India, and 0.79 per cent from Korea.8 Assuming the same percentages in March 2006 out of a total of 12 million undocumented immigrants would yield significant underestimates: 1,97,000 undocumented immigrants from China, 1,45,000 from Philippines, 1,20,000 from India and 95,000 from Korea, followed by significant numbers from Pakistan and Iran.

    With counter pressure mounting on the administration and Congress for tightening border security and rounding up at least a segment of undocumented immigrants, the possibility looms of large-scale immigration arrests without trials. An ominous precedent was set following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks when more than 5,000 foreign nationals disappeared under secret detentions in the two years after the attacks. Nearly all were Muslims or Arabs. The pretext was unspecified “immigration violations”. Yet most were held without being charged, and none were ever convicted. On June 14, 2006, in the case Turkmen vs Ashcroft, US district judge John Gleeson upheld the US government’s authority to arrest and detain non-citizens on the basis of race, religion or national origin, and to hold them indefinitely without explanation.9

    Following presidential and congressional apologies, and the payment of reparations for their sufferings, the second world war detentions of Japanese Americans and, to a lesser extent, German Americans purely on the basis of race or national origin was long thought to have been relegated to the dustbin of history. However, now the spectre of such ethically reprehensible and openly racist events is once again becoming possible. On some pretext of terrorism, enforcing immigration law, or national security, the next target could be Hispanic Americans, south Asian Americans or east Asian Americans. The potential threat to fundamental civil liberties is common to all immigrant communities. So it is in the interest of all immigrant communities to unite in opposition to these draconian measures.

    While Hispanic immigrants have finally broken through the fear barrier and come out onto the streets defiantly proclaiming their rights, undocumented Asians have largely chosen to remain in the shadows. Only small numbers of Asians, particularly those from the Philippines and Korea, have joined protests in solidarity with Latinos. Nevertheless, as more legal members of Asian communities become citizens, and as Asian communities in the US awaken politically, it can be expected that legal and undocumented Asians alike will increasingly assert their political rights. As the slumbering giant that is the Latino community awakens politically, the slogan “Hoy marchamos, mañana votamos” (Today we march, tomorrow we vote) may illuminate the way forward for all immigrant communities.

    The other challenge is the unification of the immigrant rights movement with the trade union movement of permanent workers. The May Day demonstrations symbolise the potential for rebirth and unity of the US labour movement, but there is clearly a long road ahead. While undocumented immigrant workers may lead the way, permanent workers will need to reject their trade union bureaucracies to join them in reclaiming May Day as International Workers’ Day in the US.

    The root causes of unidirectional migrations are both push and pull. Massive unauthorised immigration simply reflects such extreme pushes and pulls that even legal and physical barriers cannot stem the tide. On the one hand, the desperate economic conditions facing millions of marginalised farmers and underemployed workers in México and central America as a direct result of globalised development are pushing them to leave their homelands. On the other hand, the capitalist system’s relentless competitive drive to improve profit margins is increasing demand for low wage manual labour in the US. Outsourcing to the growing unorganised sector, absolute cost minimisation business models like that of Wal-Mart, and the growing demand for domestic services all exert an inexorable pull.

    Symptom of Contradiction

    Undocumented immigrants themselves are not the underlying problem, but rather a symptom of the deeper social contradiction between rich countries and poor countries, or, more precisely, between the metropolitan centres and the periphery of the world capitalist system. In Europe a similar controversy is brewing over the rising tide of undocumented immigration from Africa. There the lack of a land bridge constrains the undocumented migration to tens of thousands per annum. The US-México border just happens to be one of those infrequent instances where the centre and periphery geographically touch, and where unequal development spawns a labour migration measured in the hundreds of thousands per annum. No man made barrier can stop the human tide.

    While some US workers are worried that the tide of undocumented immigrants is pulling down wages, it is actually the capitalist labour market that determines wages and actively seeks to minimise labour costs (regardless of where the labour comes from) in order to increase profitability. In other words, undocumented immigration into the US is a direct result of the globalised commoditisation of labour power in an increasingly globalised capitalist system led by US corporations. It is also a consequence of the North American Free Trade

    Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006 Agreement (NAFTA) that has, for example, by opening the Mexican market to subsidised US corn, driven Mexican corn farmers deeper into poverty. On the surface, the apparent common cause of employers and undocumented immigrants in favouring amnesty may seem deceptively like an unlikely class alliance. With one hand, capitalism does allow some wealth to trickle down through employment, but, with the other hand, wealth is also taken away through asymmetric competition and financial power. Therefore, US workers and undocumented immigrant workers actually share a common contradiction and a common struggle against the same economic system that is driving small farmers off the land, outsourcing jobs, driving down wages, reducing benefits, and attempting to divide one section of the working class from another.

    The needed solution is political and economic restructuring on both sides of the border. First, migrant workers must begiven practical legal options for obtaining visas. Second, replacing capitalist production with social production for human needs will guarantee jobs and living wages on both sides of the border, greatly reducing the compulsion for unidirectional labour migration.




    1 San Jose Mercury News, May 2, 2006, p 3A;

    Los Angeles Times, May 2, 2006, p A1. 2 Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2006, p A1. 3 “Table 3: Annual estimates of the population

    by sex, race and Hispanic or Latino origin for the United States: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2005 (NC-EST2005-03)”, US Census Bureau (Washington, DC), May 10, 2006, http://

    4 San Francisco Chronicle, May 4, 2006, pp A1-A15.

    5 Fact sheet: Estimates of the Unauthorised Migrant Population For States Based on the March 2005 CPS, Pew Hispanic Centre (Washington DC), April 26, 2006, p 1.

    6 Press release: Report: State Adds 444,000 in 2005; 2006 Population Nears 37.2 Million, California Department of Finance (Sacramento),

    May 1, 2006, p 1,


    7 Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2006, pp A10-A11.

    8 Estimates of Unauthorised Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: 1990 to 2000, US Immigration and Naturalisation Service (Washington DC), January 31, 2003, p 9.

    9 New York Times, June 15, 2006, p A20; David Cole, ‘Ill-Advised Court Decision Strips Rights from Many Foreigners’, San Jose Mercury News, June 19, 2006, p 13A.


    Passel, Jeffrey S, Randy Capps, Michael Fix (2004): Undocumented Immigrants: Facts and Figures, Urban Institute, Washington DC, January 12, p 1.

    MacDonald, Heather (2004): Crime and the Illegal Alien: The Fallout from Crippled Immigration Enforcement, Centre for Immigration Studies, Washington, DC, June, pp 1-11.

    Passel, Jeffrey S (2006): The Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorised Migrant Population in the US: Estimates Based on the March 2005 Current Population Survey, Pew Hispanic Centre, Washington DC, March 7.

    Wasem, Ruth E (2004): Unauthorised Aliens in the United States: Estimates since 1986, Congressional Research Service, Washington DC, September 15, p 5.

    Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment

    Ashoka Trust for Research in

    Bangalore Kalimpong New Delhi

    Ecology and the Environment

    Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore India, invites nominations and applications for the following position.

    Fellow in Environmental Governance

    The applicants are expected to build and lead a programme in policy and environmental governance, and contribute to the development of ATREE’s Center for Conservation, Governance and Policy, and an interdisciplinary doctoral program in conservation science. The candidate must have experience in policy analysis, and an interest in catalyzing meaningful exchange and action among government, non-government, and corporate sector institutions involved in environmental governance. Applicants are expected to have a doctorate in social sciences though candidates with a Masters degree and substantial research and professional experience will also be considered.

    This position is endowed with a grant from the Arghyam Foundation and is based at Bangalore. Although this is a long term position, applications from those interested in short term visiting fellowships will also be entertained.

    ATREE ( is fast emerging as one of South Asia’s leading conservation organizations. One of the major initiatives of ATREE is the development of an interdisciplinary doctoral program in conservation science.

    ATREE fosters diversity and gender equity at the work place. Thus women and persons from underprivileged groups are especially encouraged to apply. There is no deadline. Applications will be accepted until the position is filled. Applicants should write to the address below, enclosing their CVs, names of three referees, and a letter describing their professional goals over the next 4-5 years and how these goals fit with ATREE’s mission.

    Director, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment 659, 5th ‘A’ Main Road Hebbal, Bangalore 560024, India Email:

    Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006

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