David Bacon Stories & Photographs


By David Bacon
TruthOut, 11/23/09

One winter morning in 1996, Border Patrol agents charged into a Los Angeles street-corner clinic where 40 day laborers had lined up to be tested for AIDS. One worker, Omar Sierra, had just taken his seat, and a nurse had inserted the needle for drawing the blood. As agents of the migra ran across the street and sidewalk, Sierra jumped up, tore off the tourniquet, pulled the needle out of his vein and ran.
Sierra escaped and made it home. Shaken by his experience and determined never to forget his friends who were deported, he wrote a song.

I'm going to sing you a story, friends
that will make you cry,
how one day in front of K-Mart
the Migra came down on us,
sent by the sheriff
of this very same place . . .

We don't understand why,
we don’t know the reason,
why there is so much
discrimination against us.
In the end we'll wind up
all the same in the grave.

With this verse I leave you,
I'm tired of singing,
hoping the migra
won't come after us again,
because in the end, we all have to work.

Working – A Criminal Act

Sierra states an obvious truth about people in the U.S. without immigration papers: “We all have to work.” Yet work has become a crime for the undocumented. That Hollywood raid took place 13 years ago, but since then immigration enforcement against workers has grown much more widespread, with catastrophic consequences. In the last eight years of the Bush administration in particular, a succession of raids treated undocumented workers as criminals.

A year ago in Los Angeles, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents (“the migra”) arrived at Micro Solutions, a circuit board assembly plant in the San Fernando Valley. Unsuspecting workers were first herded into the plant’s cafeteria. Then immigration agents told those who were citizens to line up on one side of the room. Then they told the workers who had green cards to go over to the same side. Finally, as one worker said, “it just left us.” The remaining workers – those who were neither citizens nor visa holders -- were put into vans, and taken off to the migra jail.

Some women were later released to care for their kids, but had to wear ankle bracelets, and couldn’t work. How were they supposed to pay rent? Where would they get money to buy food?

On May 12, 2008, ICE agents raided the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. They sent 388 Guatemalan young people to the National Cattle Congress, a livestock showground in Waterloo, two hours away. In a makeshift courtroom workers went in chains before a judge who’d helped prosecutors design plea agreements five months before the raid even took place. The workers had given the company Social Security numbers that were either invented, or belonged to someone else. The judge and prosecutor told workers they’d be charged with aggravated identity theft, which carries a two-year prison jolt, and held without bail. If they pleaded guilty to misusing a Social Security number, however, they would serve just five months, and be deported immediately afterwards.

Many of these young people spoke only Mam or Qanjobal, the indigenous language of the region of Guatemala from which they came, so even with Spanish translation they understood little of the skewed process. They had no real options anyway, and agreed to the five months in a federal lockup and were then expelled from the country. One of them was a young worker who’d been beaten with a meat hook by a supervisor. Lacking papers, he was afraid to complain. After the raid, he went to prison with the others. The supervisor stayed working on the line.

As in Los Angeles, women released to care for their children couldn’t work, they had no way to pay rent or buy food, their husbands or brothers were in prison or deported, and they were held up to ostracism in this tiny town. Had it not been for St. Brigida’s Catholic Church and local activists, the women and children would have been left hungry and homeless as they waited months for their own hearings and deportations.

They say it’s just “illegals” – that makes this politically acceptable.

A year ago, ICE agents raided a Howard Industries plant in Laurel, Mississippi, sending 481 workers to a privately-run detention center in Jena, Louisiana, and releasing 106 women in ankle bracelets. Workers were incarcerated with no idea of where they were being held, and weren’t charged or provided lawyers for days. they slept on concrete floors, and went on a hunger strike after a week of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Patricia Ice, attorney for the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), called the raid political. “They want a mass exodus of immigrants out of the state,” she declared. “The political establishment here is threatened by Mississippi's changing demographics, and what the electorate might look like in 20 years.”

She means that African-Americans are moving back to Mississippi, and now make up over 35% of the population. In ten years, immigrants will make up another 10%. MIRA and the state’s legislative black caucus have a plan – combine those votes with unions and progressive whites, and Mississippi can finally get rid of the power structure that’s governed in Jackson since Reconstruction.

The Howard Industries raid was intended to drive a wedge into the heart of that political coalition – to stop any possibility for change.

ICE says these raids protect U.S. citizens and legal residents against employers who hire undocumented workers in order to lower wages and working conditions. But very often immigration raids are used against workers efforts when they organize and protest those same conditions. At the big Smithfield plant in Tarheel, North Carolina, where workers spent 16 years trying to join the union, the company tried to fire 300 people, including the immigrant union leadership, saying it had discovered that their Social Security numbers were no good. Workers stopped the lines for three days, and won temporary reinstatement for those who were fired. But then the migra conducted two raids, and 21 workers went to prison for using numbers that belonged to someone else. The fear the raids created was compared by one organizer to a neutron bomb. It took two years for the union campaign to recover.

Since the end of the Bush administration, immigration authorities say they will follow a softer policy. Instead of raids, they say they’ll implement a system for checking the legal status of workers – an electronic database called E-Verify. People working with bad Social Security numbers will be fired. In October, 2000 young women in the Los Angeles garment factory of American Apparel were fired. And in November 1200 janitors were fired in Minneapolis.

The Department of Homeland Security says it’s auditing the records of 654 companies nationwide, to find the names of undocumented workers. Will hundreds of thousands more get fired? What kind of economic recovery goes with firing thousands of workers?

Workplace raids, firings and E-verify are all means to enforce employer sanctions – the part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 that said, for the first time, that employers had to check the immigration status of workers. The law essentially made it a federal crime for an undocumented person to work. Those who call for stricter enforcement say sanctions were never implemented, and point out that only a handful of employers were ever fined. But tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of workers have been fired for not having papers. No one keeps track of the number – these people don’t count.

ICE says sanctions enforcement targets employers “who are using illegal workers to drive down wages,” -- those who pay illegal workers substandard wages or force them to endure intolerable working conditions.

Curing intolerable conditions by firing or deporting workers who endure them doesn’t help the workers or change the conditions, however. And that’s not who ICE targets anyway. American Apparel pays better than most garment factories, although workers had to work fast and hard to earn that pay. In Minneapolis, the 1200 fired janitors at ABM belong to SEIU Local 26 and get a higher wage than non-union workers – and had to strike and fight to win it.

ICE is still targeting the same set of employers the Bush raids went after – union companies like Howard Industries, or organizing drives like those at Smithfield. The Agriprocessors raid came less than a year after workers there tried to organize. At Howard Industries in Mississippi, the migra conducted the biggest raid of all in the middle of union contract negotiations. ICE is punishing undocumented workers who earn too much, or who become too visible by demanding higher wages and organizing unions. And despite the notion that sanctions enforcement will punish those employers who exploit immigrants, at American Apparel and ABM the employers were rewarded for cooperation by being immunized from prosecution. So this policy really only hurts workers.

What purpose does criminalization serve? In part it serves a huge bureaucracy. With 15,000 agents, ICE has become the second largest enforcement arm of the Federal government. Private detention centers have been built across the country, operated by companies like Geo Corporation, formerly called Wackenhut, and before that, Pinkertons. Janet Napolitano, DHS secretary, recently announced plans to build two new detention supercenter. About 350,000 people were detained for immigration violations last year, and at any one time about 35,000 people were in detention (read: prison).

But the driving force behind enforcement is deeper than contracts and jobs.

Open the Front Door, Close the Back Door

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said “there's an obvious solution to the problem of illegal work, which is you open the front door and you shut the back door.” Chertoff means by “opening the front door” that he wants people to come to the U.S. as contract workers, recruited by employers using visas that say a worker can only come to work. This is the logic and requirement for every guest worker program, going back to the braceros. And to make people come only through this employment-based system, he’ll “close the back door,” by making walking through the desert across the border, or working outside of this contract labor system, a crime punished, not just by deportation, but by detention and prison.

People coming as contract labor never become citizens, vote or hold power. That’s very convenient in Mississippi, for instance, where employers need the labor of immigrants, but are afraid of what will happen if they vote. And by no coincidence, the state employs more guest workers per capita than any other. Mississippi recently passed a state employer sanctions law, with a $10,000 fine and five years in jail for working without being “authorized.”

E-Verify, the high-tech immigration database endorsed by both the Bush and Obama administrations, is only the latest idea for enforcing this kind of criminalization. The purpose of E-Verify, raids, firings and every other kind of workplace immigration enforcement, is the basic criminalization of work -- if you have no papers, it is a crime to have a job.

So you stand on the street corner, a truck stops to pick up laborers, and you get in. You work all day in the sun until you’re so tired you can hardly go back to your room. This is a crime. You do it to send money home to your family and the people who depend on you. This is a crime too.

How many criminals like this are there? The Pew Hispanic Trust says there are 12 million people without papers here in the U.S.

But it’s not just here. Manu Chao wrote a whole CD of songs about this: Clandestino. He sings about people going from Morocco to Spain. Turkey to Germany. Jamaica to London. There are over 200 million people, all over the world, living outside the countries where they were born. If all the world’s “illegal workers” got together in one place there would be enough people for ten Mexico Cities or fifteen Los Angeleses.

If working is a crime, then workers are criminals. And if workers become criminals, proponents of this system say, they’ll go home. That’s the basic justification for all workplace immigration enforcement.

But is anyone going home? No one is leaving, because there’s no job to go home to.

Since 1994, six million Mexicans have come to live in the U.S. Millions came without visas, because it wasn’t possible for them to get one.

All over the world people are moving, from poor countries to rich ones. The largest Salvadoran city in the world is Los Angeles. More than half the world’s sailors come from the Philippines. More migrants go from the country to the city in China than cross borders in all the rest of the world combined.

So many people from Guatemala are living in the U.S. that one neighborhood in Los Angeles is now called Little San Miguel. San Miguel Acatan was the site of the worst massacre of indigenous people by the U.S.-armed Guatemalan Army in that country’s civil war, in 1982. Now more San Migueleños live in Los Angeles than in San Miguel.

The economic pressures causing displacement and migration are reaching into the most remote towns and villages in Mexico, where people still speak languages that were old when Columbus arrived in the Americas – Mixteco, Zapoteco, Triqui, Chatino, Purepecha, Nahuatl. There is no community in Mexico that does not have family members in the U.S.

Why Are So Many People Displaced?

NAFTA is just one element of the changes that have transformed the Mexican economy in the interests of foreign investors and wealthy Mexican partners. The treaty let huge U.S. companies, like Archer Daniels Midland, sell corn in Mexico for a price lower than what it cost small farmers in Oaxaca to grow it. Big U.S.. companies get huge subsidies from Congress -- $2 billion in the last farm bill.. But the World Bank and NAFTA’s rules dictated that subsidies for Mexican farmers had to end. This was not the creation of a “level playing field,” despite all the propaganda.

In Cananea, a small town in the Sonora mountains and site of one of the world’s largest copper mines, miners have been on strike for two years. Grupo Mexico, a multinational corporation that was virtually given the mine in one of the infamous privatizations of former President Carlos Salinas, wants to cut labor costs by eliminating hundreds of jobs, busting the miners’ union, and blacklisting its leaders. If miners lose the strike and their jobs, the border is only 50 miles north.

If you were a miner with a busted union and no job to support your family, where would you go? When Cananea miners lost the last strike against job cuts in 1998, over 800 were blacklisted, and many wound up working in Tucson, Phoenix and Los Angeles. No wonder the current strike has been going on for over two years. Miners are fighting to stay home, in Cananea, in Mexico.

The Mexican government just sent in the army to occupy all the power plants in Mexico City, dissolved the state-owned Power and Light Company (Luz y Fuerza), and fired its 44,000 employees. This act threatens to destroy the union there, one of the country’s oldest and most democratic. This is a step towards selling off Mexico’s electrical grid to foreign, private investors, just as the telephones, airlines, ports, railroads and factories have all been privatized over the last two decades. Where will the fired electrical workers go? If they don’t win their current battle with the government, they’ll follow many of their predecessors north.

NAFTA, and the economic reforms promoted by the U.S. and Mexican governments, helped big companies get rich by keeping wages low, by giving them subsidies and letting them push farmers into bankruptcy, by privatizing state enterprises and allowing cuts in the workforce and working conditions. But those are the changes that make it hard for families to survive: Low wages. Can’t farm any more. Laid off to cut costs. Factory privatized and union busted.

Salinas promised Mexicans cheap food if NAFTA was approved and corn imports flooded the country. Now the price of tortillas is three times what it was when the treaty passed. That’s great for Grupo Maseca, Mexico’s monopoly tortilla producer (and Archer Daniels Midland sits on its board. And it’s great for WalMart, now Mexico’s largest retailer. But if you can’t afford to buy those tortillas, then you go where you can buy them.

The advocates of economic liberalization said an economy of maquiladoras and low wages would produce jobs on the border. But today, hundreds of thousands of workers there have lost their jobs – when the recession began in the U.S., people stopped buying the products made in border factories. Even while they’re working, the wages of maquiladora workers are so low – $4-6/day – that it takes half a day’s pay to buy a gallon of milk. Most live in cardboard houses on streets with no pavement or sewer system. When they lose their jobs, and the border is a few blocks away, where do you think will they go? If you had no job or food for your family, what would you do?

And when people protest, the government brings in the police and the army to protect order and investment. People are beaten, as the teachers were in Oaxaca in 2006. After the army filled Oaxaca’s jails, how many more people had to leave?

When Honduran President Manuel Zelaya simply raised the minimum wage to give families a better future, not as migrants, but in Honduras, the U.S.-trained military kidnapped him in his pajamas, put him on an airplane and flew him out of the country. How many people will leave Honduras, because the door to a sustainable future at home has been closed?

The lack of human rights itself is a factor contributing to migration, since it makes it more difficult, even impossible, to organize for change. Unequal trade agreements and military intervention don’t stop the flow of migrants – they produce it by displacing people – making it impossible for them to survive without leaving home. Immigration laws then regulate this flow of people.

Migration is not an accidental byproduct of free trade. The economies of the U.S. and wealthy countries depend on migration, on the labor provided by a constant flow of migrants. Congress and the administration aren’t trying to stop migration. Nothing can, not with trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA and the economic policies they represent. Immigration enforcement does not keep people from crossing the border, or prevent them from working. Instead, immigration policy determines the status of people once they’re here. It enforces inequality among workers in rights, and economic and social status. That inequality then produces lower wages and higher profits

U.S. immigration policy has historically been designed to supply labor to employers, at a manageable cost, imposed by employers. And at its most overt, that labor supply policy has made workers vulnerable to employers, who can withdraw the right to stay in the country by firing them.

This is not an extremist view. Recently that gang of revolutionaries, the Council on Foreign Relations, proposed two goals for U.S. immigration policy. “We should reform the legal immigration system,” it advocated, “so that it operates more efficiently, responds more accurately to labor market needs, and enhances U.S. competitiveness.” This essentially calls for using migration to supply labor at competitive, or low, wages.

“We should restore the integrity of immigration laws,” the Council went on to say, “through an enforcement regime that strongly discourages employers and employees from operating outside that legal system.” This couples an enforcement regime like the one at present, with its raids and firings, to that labor supply system.

To employers, this system is not broken – it works well.

About 12 million people live in the U.S. without immigration documents. Another 26-28 million were born elsewhere, and are citizens or visa-holders. That’s almost 40 million people. If everyone went home tomorrow, would there be fruit and vegetables on the shelves at Safeway? Who would cut up the cows and pigs in meatpacking plants? Who would clean the offices of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Chicago?

Immigrants are not the only workers in our workforce, the only people willing to work, or the only people who need jobs. Our workforce includes African American, Native American, Asian American and Chicano families who have contributed their labor for hundreds of years. The vast majority of white people – the descendents of European immigrants – are workers too. We all work. We all need to work, to put bread on the table for our families. But without the labor of immigrants, the system would stop.

Those companies using that labor, however – the grape growers in Delano or the owners of office buildings in Century City, or the giant Blackstone group that owns hotels across the country – do not pay the actual cost of producing the workforce they rely on. Who pays for the needs of workers’ families in the towns and countries from which they come? Who builds the schools in the tiny Oaxacan villages that send their young people into California’s fields? Who builds the homes for the families of the meatpacking workers of Nebraska? Who pays for the doctor when the child of a Salvadoran janitor working in Los Angeles gets sick? The growers and the meatpackers and the building owners pay for nothing. They don’t even pay taxes in the countries from which their workers come, and some don’t pay taxes here either. So who pays the cost of producing and maintaining their workforce?

The workers pay for everything with the money they send home. Structural adjustment policies require countries like Mexico or the Philippines to cut the government budget for social services, so remittances pay for whatever social services those communities now get. For employers, that’s a very cheap system.

Here in the U.S. it’s cheap too. Workers without papers pay taxes and Social Security, but are barred from the benefits. For them there’s no unemployment insurance, no disability pay if they get sick, and no retirement benefits. Workers fought for these social benefits, and won them in the New Deal. For people without papers, the New Deal never happened. Even legal residents with green cards can’t get many Social Security benefits. If they take these benefits away from immigrants, it wont be long before they come after people born here.

Why can’t everyone get a Social Security number? After all, we want people to be part of the system. All workers, the undocumented included, get old and injured. Should people live on dog food after a lifetime of work? The purpose of Social Security is to assure dignity and income to the old and injured. The system should not be misused to determine immigration status and facilitate witch-hunts, firings and deportations for workers without it.

Wages for most immigrants are so low people can hardly live on them. There’s a big difference in wages between a day laborer and a longshoreman -- $8.25/hour minimum wage in San Francisco, where a dockworker gets over $25, plus benefits. If employers had to pay low wage workers, including immigrants, the wages of longshoremen, the lives of working families would improve immeasurably. And it can happen. Before people on the waterfront organized the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, they were like day labors. hired every morning in a humiliating shapeup where each person competed for a job with dozens of others. Dockworkers were considered bums. Now they own apartment houses. It’s the union that did it.

But if employers had to raise the wages of immigrants to the level of longshoremen, it would cost them a lot. Just the difference between the minimum wage received by 12 million undocumented workers and the average U.S. wage might well be over $80 billion a year. No wonder organizing efforts among immigrant workers meet such fierce opposition.

But immigrants are fighters. In 1992 undocumented drywallers stopped Southern California residential construction for a year from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. They’ve gone on strike at factories, office buildings, laundries, hotels and fields. Those unions today that are growing are often those that have made an alliance with immigrant workers, and know that they will fight for better conditions. In fact, the battles fought by immigrants over the last twenty years made the unions of Los Angeles strong today, and changed the politics of the city. In city after city, a similar transformation is possible or already underway.

So unions should make a commitment too. In 1999 the AFL-CIO held an historic convention in Los Angeles, and there unions said they would fight to get rid of the law that makes work a crime. Unions said they’d fight to protect the right of all workers to organize, immigrants included. Labor should live up to that promise. Today unions are fighting for the Employee Free Choice Act, intended to make it easier and quicker for workers to organize. That would help all workers, immigrants included. But if 12 million people have no right to their jobs at all, and are breaking the law simply by working, how will they use the rights that EFCA is designed to protect? Unions and workers need both labor law reform and immigration reform that decriminalizes work.

Employers and the wealthy love immigrants and hate them. They want and need people’s labor, but they don’t want to pay. And what better way not to pay than to turn workers into criminals?

Creating Illegality

This is an old story. The use of migration as a supply of criminalized low-paid, or even unpaid labor began when this country began. Who were the first “illegals”? They were Africans displaced by the most brutal means, kidnapped, chained and marched to the coast, put on ships and taken across the middle passage to the Americas. And for what purpose? To provide labor on plantations, but not as equal people – not even as people at all. When the U.S. Constitution was adopted, a slave was counted as three-fifths of a human being, not because planters intended to give them three-fifths of a white person’s rights, but so that slave masters could get more representatives in Congress.

Some of the nation’s first laws defined who could be enslaved and who couldn’t. The “drop of African blood” defined who was legal and who wasn’t. When Illinois and Indiana came into the Union, as free states, their first laws said a person of African descent couldn’t reside there. Were there no free Black people living in those territories? Did they not therefore become “illegal”?

That concept of illegality was then applied to other people, for the same purpose. Chinese immigrants were brought from Toishan under contract to work on the railroad, and drain the Sacramento/San Joaquin River delta. Then the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act forbade their continued immigration, because under U.S. nationality law, they could never become citizens. At the time the law said the Chinese had no right to be here, there were already thousands of Chinese migrants in California, and even Idaho.

In the early 1900s California’s grower-dominated legislature made it a crime for Filipinos to marry women who were not Filipinas. At the same time, immigration of women from the Philippines to the mainland was very difficult. For the Filipino farm workers of the 1930s and 40s and 50s, it was virtually a crime to have a family. Many men stayed single until their 50s or 60s, living in labor camps, moving and working wherever the growers needed their labor.

During the bracero program from 1942 to 1964 growers recruited workers from Mexico, who could only come under contract, and had to leave the country at the end of the harvest. They called the braceros legal, but what kind of legality has people living behind barbed wire in camps, traveling and working only where the growers wanted? If braceros went on strike, they were deported. Part of their wages were withheld, supposedly to guarantee their return to Mexico. Half a century later they’re still fighting to recover the lost money.

But everyone fought to stay. The Chinese endured the burning of Chinatowns in Salinas and San Francisco. Filipinos had to fight just for the right to have a family. Many braceros just walked out of the labor camps, and kept living and working underground for thirty years, until they could got legal status from the amnesty of 1986.

Immigration policy based on producing a labor supply for employers always has two consequences. Displacement of communities abroad becomes an unspoken policy, because it produces workers. And inequality becomes an official policy.

Almost two hundred years after the civil war eliminated much of dejure inequality written into law, defacto inequality is still very much with us. But today immigration law, with its category of illegality, is reinstituting inequality under law. Calling someone an “illegal” doesn’t refer to an illegal act. It’s not the border that makes people illegal any more than the middle passage made people slaves. Slavery was created on the slave block and in the plantation. Today’s illegality is also created within the borders, by a legal system that excludes people from normal rights and social benefits.

Illegal status is created here. All the immigration reform bills in congress share the assumption that immigrants, even those with visas, shouldn’t be the equals of the people in the community around them, with the same rights. For those without visas, the exclusion and inequality is even fiercer. And this is not a defacto exclusion or denial of rights. It is dejure denial, written into law, that justifies the raid in Laurel, the firings in Los Angeles, or the ankle bracelets in Postville.

Today the U.S. faces a basic choice in direction for its immigration policy. There is a corporate agenda on migration, promoted by powerful voices in Washington DC, like the Council on Foreign Relations and the employers’ lobby, the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (think Wal-Mart, Marriott, or Tyson Foods). They propose managing the flow of migration with new guest worker programs, and increased penalties against those who try to migrate and work outside this system. Some of their proposals also contain a truncated legalization for the undocumented, but one that would disqualify most people or have them wait for years for visas, while removing employer liability for the undocumented workers they’ve already hired.

But, Washington lobbyists ask, wouldn’t guest worker programs be preferable to what we have now? The Southern Poverty Law Center’s report, Close to Slavery, documents that today’s braceros are routinely cheated of wages and overtime. Workers recruited from India to work in a Mississippi shipyard paid $15-20,000 for each visa. The company cut their promised wages, and fired their leader, Joseph Jacobs, when workers protested. If workers do protest, they’re put on a blacklist. The Department of Labor under Bush never decertified a guest worker contractor for labor violations, and said the blacklist is legal. When Rafael Santiago was sent by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee to Monterrey to monitor hiring by the North Carolina Growers Association, to eliminate the blacklist and end contractor corruption, his office was broken into, and he was tied up, tortured and killed.

No employer hires guest workers in order to pay more. They hire them to keep wages low.

That’s one possible direction – away from equality and the expansion of rights..

Undoing Inequality

Our own history tells us that a different direction is not only possible, but was partially achieved by the civil rights movement. In 1964, heroes of the Chicano movement like Bert Corona, Ernesto Galarza, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta forced Congress to end the bracero program. The next year, Mexicans and Filipinos went out on strike in the fields of Coachella and Delano, and the United Farm Workers was born.

The following year, in 1965, those leaders, together with many others, went back to Congress. Give us a law, they said, that doesn’t make workers into braceros or criminals behind barbed wire, into slaves for growers. Give us a law that says our families are what’s important, our communities. That was how we won the family preference system. That’s why, once you have a green card, you can petition for your mother and father, or your children, to join you in the U.S. We didn’t have that before. The civil rights movement won that law.

That fight is not over. In fact, we have to fight harder now than ever. Native-born workers and settled immigrant communities see the growth of an employment system based on low wages and insecurity as a threat. It fosters competition among workers for jobs, and expands the part of the workforce with the lowest income and the fewest rights. It’s not hard for people to see the impact of inequality and growing poverty, even if they get confused about its cause.

But we don’t have to assume that fear is hardwired into us, or that we can’t overcome it. Mainstream newspapers said people applauded in the Laurel plant when the immigrants were arrested and taken out in handcuffs. But after the arrests, Black workers came out of the gate and embraced the immigrant women sitting outside in their ankle bracelets, demanding their unpaid wages. African American women offered to bring food to Mexican mothers, and supported their demand for back wages.

At Smithfield in North Carolina, two immigration raids and 300 firings scared workers so badly that their union drive stopped. But then Mexicans and African Americans together brought the union in. They found a common cause by saying to each other that they all needed better wages and conditions, that they all had a right to work, and that they union would fight for the job of anyone, immigrant or native-born.

Unions know that immigrants can be fighters, like other workers. In 1992 drywallers stopped home construction for a year with a strike that extended from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. Immigrants, including the undocumented, have gone on strike at factories, office buildings, laundries, hotels and fields. Some unions today are growing, and they’re often those that know immigrant workers will fight for better wages and conditions. The battles fought by immigrants over the last twenty years are helping to create political power in cities like Los Angeles.

In recognition of that process, and of their own self-interest, unions made a commitment at the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles. They said they would fight to get rid of the law that makes work a crime, and to protect the right of all workers to organize. Labor should live up to that promise.

So What Do We Want?

First, we want legalization, giving 12 million people residence rights and green cards, so they can live like normal human beings. We do not want immigration used as a cheap labor supply system, with workers paying off recruiters, and, once here, frightened that they’ll be deported if they lose their jobs.

We need to get rid of the laws that make immigrants criminals and working a crime. No more detention centers, no more ankle bracelets, no more firings and no-match letters, and no more raids. We need equality and rights. All people in our communities should have the same rights and status.

We have to make sure that those who say they advocate for immigrants aren’t really advocating for low wages. That the decision-makers of Washington DC won’t plunge families in Mexico, El Salvador or Colombia into poverty, to force a new generation of workers to leave home and go through the doors of furniture factories and laundries, office buildings and packing plants, onto construction sites, or just into the gardens and nurseries of the rich.

Families in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador or the Philippines deserve a decent life too. They have a right to survive, a right to not migrate. To make that right a reality, they need jobs and productive farms, good schools and healthcare. Our government must stop negotiating trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA, and instead prohibit the use of trade and economic policy that causes poverty and displacement.

Those people who do choose to come here to work deserve the same things that every other worker does. We all have the same rights, and the same needs – jobs, schools, medical care, a decent place to live, and the right to walk the streets or drive our cars without fear.

Major changes in immigration policy are not possible if we don’t fight at the same time for these other basic needs: jobs, education, housing, healthcare, justice. But these are things that everyone needs, not just immigrants. And if we fight together, we can stop raids, and at the same time create a more just society for everyone, immigrant and non-immigrant alike

Is this possible?

In 1955, at the height of the cold war, braceros and farm workers didn’t think change would ever come. Growers had all the power, and farm workers none. Ten years later we had a new immigration law protecting families, and the bracero program was over. A new union for farm workers was on strike in Delano.

We can have an immigration system that respects human rights. We can stop deportations. We can win security for working families on both sides of our borders.

Yes, it’s possible. Si se puede!


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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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