How a globalized system creates illegality

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BOOK REVIEW

Illegal People

By David Bacon

Beacon Press, 2004

Hardcover, 261 pp., $26.95

Photojournalist and activist David Bacon provides us with a useful and readable account of undocumented migration to the United States.

He takes us back to the migrants’ home communities in Mexico, Central America and the Philippines, and shows us how the activities of multinational corporations force millions of people to emigrate. As Bacon puts it: “A globalized political and economic system creates illegality by displacing people and then denying them rights and equality as they do what they have to do to survive — move to find work.” Bacon then shows how the U.S. legal system forces the migrants to accept outrageous working conditions, either as undocumented or “guest” workers.

The best parts of the book are a series of well written vignettes which demonstrate the ways in which corporations’ drives for profits at first displace workers and farmers from their homeland in Mexico and other Third World countries, and then convert them into a migrant workforce that can be subjected to grotesque super exploitation. Bacon’s forte is his ability to seamlessly link what ordinary workers tell him to large international and national economic and political developments.

Bacon’s description of the struggle of Mexican copper miners in Cananea, Sonora, demonstrates how U.S. and Mexican capitalists and politicians have combined to crush Mexican unions and drive down wages and working conditions. Formerly progressive Mexican labor law has been demolished by the onslaught of U.S., international and Mexican big capital abetted by reactionary politicians on both sides of the border. A vivid example given by Bacon is that of U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, one of the worst anti-immigrant bigots in Congress. Sensenbrenner’s family is heavily linked to the Kimberly-Clark paper company. Kimberly-Clark has close ties to Grupo Mexico, which owns the Cananea copper mine and is trying to crush the union there. And in the U.S., Kimberly Clark, via subcontractors, is engaged in some of the most abusive practices against migrant paper workers.

The passage of NAFTA and the conditions attached to the Clinton-Rubin loan bailout in 1994 displaced millions of Mexican farmers and workers. Bacon shows what happens to them on our side of the border, when they try to unionize. His examples of grassroots organizing efforts led by immigrant workers show that in spite of repression, undocumented workers often demonstrate leadership qualities that are an asset to the whole labor movement.

Bacon reminds us that immigration raids do not help either immigrant or U.S. workers, but rather are a massive union-busting tool that aids super exploitation.

Starting with a historical account of the old “bracero” program, the book makes clear that “guest worker” programs are not the solution, as they are cynically exploited by employers who ignore labor laws in the certainty that the government is never going to enforce them.

The weakest part of the book is Bacon’s coverage of the legislative history of “comprehensive immigration reform” over the past three years. Bacon has been highly critical of a series of initiatives (the SOLVE Act of 2004, the Kennedy-McCain bill of 2005-2006 and the Senate immigration bill of 2007) which sought to trade a legalization program for the undocumented against new guest worker programs and tighter internal and border enforcement. Bacon supported a bill introduced by Sheila Jackson-Lee, which had no guest worker aspect and included new jobs programs for the unemployed.

Bacon puts a worse construction than I would on the motives of some of the activists, organizations and politicians who supported the SOLVE/McCain-Kennedy bill “architecture.”

Certainly, the corporate “Essential Worker Coalition” and some of the politicians, especially Bush and congressional Republicans, who backed this legislation saw it as a source of cheap labor for U.S. business.

But some unions (SEIU, Unite Here, UFW and FLOC), the Roman Catholic bishops, the National Council of La Raza, the National Immigration Forum and others also supported this legislation. Their motive was to find a legislative fix, albeit temporary, that would get undocumented immigrants out from under the hammer blows of the government’s repression.

Given the might of the corporations and the balance of power in Congress, no bill that simply legalized the undocumented without any negative concessions and tradeoffs was going to pass. The votes simply were not there, though Bacon writes as if this were just a minor obstacle. Even Jackson-Lee’s bill did not attract the all-important labor support it needed, and in the current Congress Jackson-Lee herself has signed on as a cosponsor of the STRIVE act, another version of McCain-Kennedy.

Bacon is certainly correct to say that an alliance among labor, immigrants and African Americans is key to any advances in the future. And this is well under way. But any legislative advances will depend on Obama in the presidency and a much bigger Democratic majority in the House and Senate.

A small criticism: The lack of an index and detailed list of sources is a drawback and should be corrected in future editions.