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New face of the war on immigrants?: US immigration reform

The reform plays a balancing act for a stable supply of cheap labour and a viable system of state control of immigrants.

Last Modified: 10 Jul 2013 11:42
William I. Robinson

William I. Robinson a professor of sociology and global studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
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An immigration reform that’s inclusive of 11m undocumented people passed the US senate June 27 [Getty Images]

After years of false starts, the US Congress now seems set to pass some version of long-awaited immigrant reform legislation. On June 27 the Senate passed a bill that observers have referred to as the "most monumental overhaul" of US immigration laws in a generation and the House is set to begin debate on reform legislation later in July.

But immigrant rights organisations are deeply divided. Some groups have given critical support to the proposed legislation as the "best bill possible" under current conditions for the estimated 11-12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States to normalise their status. Many others, however, have rejected what they see as a punitive Faustian bargain. They condemn the bill as an attempt to deny rights, codify repression, legitimate the criminalisation of immigrants, further the militarised control of their communities, and reproduce a system of de facto labour peonage.

Although the bill supposedly provides a "pathway to citizenship" for immigrants, the conditions under which undocumented immigrants can legalise their status are so onerous that it is estimated that between one-third and two-thirds of the undocumented will be unable meet the criteria. This criteria includes having an income of 125 per cent of the federal poverty guideline, which would make millions of immigrants who now work for minimum wage or less ineligible, as well as no lapses of employment for more than 60 days during a decade of provisional status, paying hefty fees and fines, passing a criminal background check, learning English and US civics and history.

The bill denies immigrants access to public services. It does not lift the repressive "Secure Communities" and "287g" government programmes. These two federal programs establish broad collabouration between the federal government and local and state law enforcement in policing immigrant communities, in raids, detentions, and deportations.

More ominous, the bill hinges on so-called "border security". If proposes to increase spending by nearly $50bn on militarising the 2,000 mile US-Mexico border (some 3,200 km), doubling the number of Border Patrol agents to some 40,000 (one agent for every 88 yards or 80 meters), to add 700 miles of fencing, to deploy drones, Blackhawk helicopters, surveillance towers, sensors, and former army soldiers to the border.

It would mandate a universal "E-verify" system, by which workers must prove they are eligible for employment before being hired, introduce biometric ID for immigrant workers, stipulate unprecedented collabouration between local and state police agencies and the Department of Homeland Security for database sharing, detention, and transfer of detainees, and sets up a "guest worker" programme that amounts to little more than indentured servitude.

It is no wonder that National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights board member Hamid Khan described the bill as a model for the "surveillance industrial complex." Under the guise of public safety and security, "the bill is a political investment in the further strengthening and legitimisation of the police state," he said.

Global capitalism and immigrant labour

The reform...meets the interests of the immigrant military-prison-industrial-detention complex. Military contractors, Silicon Valley, law enforcement, construction and private prison companies stand to earn billions in profits.

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The larger story behind immigration reform is capitalist globalisation and the worldwide reorganisation of the system for supplying labour to the global economy. Over the past few decades there has been an upsurge in transnational migration as every country and region has become integrated, often violently, into global capitalism through foreign invasions and occupations, free trade agreements, neo-liberal social and economic policies, and financial crises. Hundreds of millions have been displaced from the countryside in the Global South and turned into internal and transnational migrants, providing a vast new pool of exploitable labour for the global economy as national labour markets have increasingly merged into a global labour market.

The creation of immigrant labour pools is a worldwide phenomenon, in which poles of accumulation in the global economy attract immigrant labour from their peripheries. Thus, to name a few of the major 21st century transnational labour flows, Turkish and Eastern European workers supply labour to Western Europe, Central Africans to South Africa, Nicaraguans to Costa Rica, Sri Lankas and other South Asians to the Middle East oil producing countries, Asians to Australia, Thais to Japan, Indonesians to Malaysia, and so on.

In all of these cases, it is repressive state controls that create "immigrant workers" as a distinct category of labour that becomes central to the whole global capitalist economy. As borders have come down for capital and goods they have been reinforced for human beings. While global capitalism creates immigrant workers, these workers do not enjoy citizenship rights in their host countries. Stripped either de facto or de jure of the political, civic, and labour rights afforded to citizens, immigrant workers are forced into the underground, made vulnerable to employers, whether large private or state employers or affluent families, and subject to hostile cultural and ideological environments.

Neither employers nor the state want to do away with immigrant labour. To the contrary, they want to sustain a vast exploitable labour pool that exists under precarious conditions and that is flexible and disposable through deportation and therefore controllable. This super-exploitation of an immigrant workforce would not be possible if that workforce had the same civil, political and labour rights as citizens, if it did not face the insecurities and vulnerabilities of being undocumented or "illegal".

Driving immigrant labour underground and absolving the state and employers of any commitment to the social reproduction of this labour allows for its maximum exploitation together with its disposal when necessary. In this way the immigrant labour force becomes responsible for its own maintenance and reproduction and also - through remittances - for their family members abroad. This makes immigrant labour low-cost and flexible for capital and also costless for the state compared to native born labour.

In sum, the division of the global working class into citizen and immigrant is a major new axis of inequality worldwide. Borders and nationality are used by transnational capital, the powerful and the privileged, to sustain new methods of control and domination over the global working class.

The US economy has become increasingly dependent on immigrant labour. There are an estimated 34 million immigrants in the United States, 20 million of these from Latin America, and 11-12 million undocumented, most of them of Latin American origin. 

This is, however, a contradictory situation. From the viewpoint of the dominant groups the dilemma is how to super-exploit an immigrant labour force, such as Latinos in the US, yet how to simultaneously assure it is super controllable and super-controlled. The push in the United States and elsewhere has been towards heightened criminalisation of immigrant communities, the militarised control of these communities, and the establishment of an immigrant detention and deportation complex.

The immigrant military-prison-industrial-detention complex

But there is another less evident dimension to the criminalisation of immigrants and the militarised control of their communities and the border.

The immigrant military-prison-industrial-detention complex is one of the fastest growing sectors of the US economy. There has been a boom in new private prison construction to house immigrants detained during deportation proceedings. In 2007 nearly one million undocumented immigrants were apprehended and 311,000 deported. The Obama administration presents itself as a friend of Latinos (and immigrants more generally) yet Obama has deported more immigrants than any other in the past half a century - some 400,000 per year since he took office in 2009.

Immigrant labour is extremely profitable for the corporate economy in double sense. First, as noted, it is labour that is highly vulnerable, forced to exist semi-underground, and deportable, and therefore super-exploitable. Second, the criminalisation of undocumented immigrants and the militarisation of their control not only reproduce these conditions of vulnerability but also in themselves generate vast new opportunities for accumulation. 

The private immigrant detention complex is a boom industry. Undocumented immigrants constitute the fastest growing sector of the US prison population and are detained in private detention centres and deported by private companies contracted out by the US state. As of 2010 there were 270 immigration detention centres that caged on any given day over 30,000 immigrants. Since detainment facilities and deportation logistics are subcontracted to private companies, capital has a vested interest in the criminalisation of immigrants and in the militarisation of control over immigrants - and more broadly, therefore, a vested interest in contributing to the neo-fascist anti-immigrant movement.

It is no surprise that William Andrews, the CEO of the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, the largest private US contractor for immigrant detention centres, declared in 2008 that "the demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts…or through decriminalisation [of immigrants]." A month after the anti-immigrant bill in Arizona, SB1070, became law, Wayne Callabres, the president of Geo Group, another private prison contractor, held a conference call with investors and explained his company’s aspirations. "Opportunities at the federal level are going to continue apace as a result of what’s happening," he said, referring to the Arizona law. "Those people coming across the border being caught are going to have to be detained and that to me at least suggests there’s going to be enhanced opportunities for what we do."

Containing the immigrant rights movement

The "war on terror" paved the way for an undeclared war on immigrants by fusing "national security/anti-terrorism" with immigration law enforcement, involving designation of borders and immigrant flows as "terrorism threats," the approval of vast new funding and the passage of a slew of policies and laws to undertake the new war.

This war has further escalated in response to the spread worldwide of an immigrant rights movement to fight-back against repression, exploitation, exclusion, cultural degradation and racism. A major turning point in this struggle in the United States came in spring 2006 with a series of unparalleled strikes and demonstrations that swept the country.

The immediate trigger for these mass protests was the introduction in the US Congress of a bill, known as the Sensenbrenner bill, that called for criminalising undocumented immigrants by making it a felony to be in the US without proper documentation. It also stipulated construction of a militarised wall between Mexico and the US and the application of criminal sanctions against anyone who provided assistance to undocumented immigrants, including churches, humanitarian groups, and social service agencies.

The protests defeated the Sensenbrenner bill and at the same time frightened the ruling class, sparking an escalation of state repression and racist nativism and fuelled the neo-fascist anti-immigrant movement. The backlash involved, among other things, stepped-up raids on immigrant workplaces and communities, mass deportations, an increase in the number of federal immigration enforcement agents, the deputizing of local police forces as enforcement agents, the further militarisation of the US-Mexico border, anti-immigrant hysteria in the mass media, and the introduction at local, state, and federal levels of a slew of discriminatory anti-immigrant legislative initiatives.

Anti-immigrant hate groups had already been on the rise in the years prior to 2006. The FBI reported more than 2,500 hate crimes against Latinos in the United States between 2000 and 2006. Blatantly racist public discourse that only a few years earlier would have been considered extreme became increasingly mainstreamed and aired on the mass media. The paramilitary organisation Minutemen, a modern day Latino-hating version of the Ku Klux Klan, spread in the first decade of the 21st century from its place of origin along the US-Mexican border in Arizona and California to other parts of the country. Minutemen claimed they must "secure the border" in the face of inadequate state-sponsored control. Their discourse, as well as that of the Tea Party and other such groups, beyond racist, was neo-fascist.

Lifting national borders for capital and simultaneously reinforcing these same national boundaries is a contradictory situation that helps generate a nationalist hysteria by propagating such images as "out of control borders" and "invasions of illegal immigrants". Racist hostility towards Latinos and other immigrants may be intentionally generated by right-wing politicians, law-enforcement agents and neo-fascist anti-immigrant movements. They may be the effect of the structural and legal-institutional subordination of immigrant workers and their communities, or simply an unintended (although not necessarily unwelcomed) byproduct of the state’s coercive policies.

The crisis, cooptation, and reform legislation

White middle and world class sectors in the US faced downward mobility and heightened insecurities as the welfare state and job stability have been dismantled in the face of capitalist globalisation. These sectors have been particularly prone to being organised into racist anti-immigrant politics by conservative political groups housed inside and outside of the Republican Party. Anti-immigrant forces have tried to draw in white workers with appeals to racial solidarity and to xenophobia and scapegoating of immigrant communities.

The scapegoating of these communities reached a zenith in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse and the onset of crisis. The crisis intensified anti-immigrant hysteria, fueled by a right-wing, racist and xenophobic anti-immigrant movement. Dozens of state and local governments around the country passed repressive anti-immigrant legislation, among them, Arizona’s SB1070 and Alabama’s HB56, both of which institutionalised racial profiling and the terrorisation of immigrant communities.

The magazine Mother Jones built a database of hundreds of repressive local and state level anti-immigrant laws introduced around the US in the wake of SB1070, including 164 such laws passed by state legislatures in 2010 and 2011 alone. The database as well uncovered the extensive interlocking of far-right organisations comprising the anti-immigrant movement, other neo-fascist organisations in civil society (see above), government agencies and elected officials (local and federal), politicians, and corporate and foundation funders, lobbies, and activists.

If there is a broad social and political base for the maintenance of a flexible, super-controlled and super-exploited Latino immigrant workforce, the immigrant issue presents a contradiction for political and economic elites: from the vantage points of dominant group interests, the dilemma is how to deal with the new "barbarians" at Rome’s door. The state must play a balancing act by finding a formula for a stable supply of cheap labour to employers and at the same time for a viable system of state control over immigrants.

It is widely recognised that Obama’s 2012 reelection hinged heavily on the Latino vote, and that this voting bloc is expanding rapidly, something that has caused important sectors of the Republican Party to reconsider immigration reform. It may be that the 2012 vote gave the necessary impetus to bringing together a critical mass around the reformation of the strategy and methods for reproducing and controlling a reserve army of immigrant labour.

The reform legislation passed in the Senate on June 27 meets the interests of the immigrant military-prison-industrial-detention complex. Military contractors, Silicon Valley, law enforcement, construction and private prison companies stand to earn billions in profits. Agribusiness and the corporate sector will continue to exploit a largely captive labour force, racialised and relegated to second class status, especially among the millions of immigrants who will be unable to legalise their status, among new immigrants, and among those brought in as "guest workers". It is no wonder that along with corporate lobbyists staunch anti-immigrant conservatives such as Arizona governor Jan Brewer, FOX News commentator Bill O’Reilly, and Tea Party icon Rand Paul, have endorsed the bill.

The Obama strategy may prove to be quite successful in establishing the conditions for a reformulation of strategies and methods of immigrant social control and political co-optation. In the wake of the 2006 mass immigrant rights protests and the fierce state repression that ensued, Washington DC-based foundations broadly funded the more moderate and mainstream of the Latino and immigrant rights organisations, while the Democratic Party set about to separate the "establishment" Latino leadership from the radical organisers at the mass grassroots base and to recruit this leadership for the Obama project.

These diverse developments - state repression, anti-immigrant politics, establishment and Democratic cooptation - all came together in recent years and paid off by throwing the grassroots movement onto the defensive, bolstering Democratic Party hegemony among immigrants, and generating a critical mass for exactly the kind of conservative and repressive immigration reform legislation now in Congress.

William I. Robinson a professor of sociology and global studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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