There is a working-class approach to immigration
Rep. Luis Gutierrez D-Ill., third from left, along with other demonstrators protest outside of the U.S. Capitol in support of DACA and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) programs at the Capitol in December 2017. | Jose Luis Magana / AP

“Like it was for generations before, the labor movement is the natural home for new immigrants struggling to achieve economic security and win social justice. We will fight with and for immigrant working people, whatever their status.”

– 2017 AFL-CIO Resolution—“Immigration and Citizenship”

Trump and the right-wing sector of the U.S. ruling class have placed the issue of immigration on the front burner with their attacks against immigrants, his racist attempts to split native-born from immigrant workers, and his open appeals to racist groups to attack immigrant workers. This racist drive is being met with strong, increasing opposition, but there is real confusion on this issue. While he is appealing to working people, using populist appeals laced with racism, there is extreme danger to U.S. workers, as well as immigrants if he is successful. A real working class understanding of this crisis is necessary if we are to be able to successfully combat this racist drive, achieve unity and fight for real economic progress for all.

First of all, it is important to understand that this is a drive by the most backward minority section of the ruling class and that it, although couched in language meant to appeal to workers, has absolutely nothing to do with “worker’s rights.” It is a cover by the tiny wealthiest one percent of our nation to divide us in order to cram through a horrible regressive program to take away literally all the gains by working people over the past century, install a government of, by and for only the wealthiest of our nation and keep the rest of our nation out of governance for the foreseeable future. The only way that this government by, for and of the wealthiest minority can stay in power is to keep people confused, divided and unable to vote. The stakes are too high to overestimate!

Unifying approach needed

While this period is being marked by Trump’s disgraceful administration, the emergence of a massive militant opposition carries the hopes of future generations with it. That opposition is playing a heroic role, but as yet has mainly been ‘liberal’ in nature, supporting immigrants as fellow humans and appealing to our basic humanity. This is, regardless of the attacks on ‘liberals’ by sections of the left, positive. Liberals were one key to winning civil rights legislation and were much of the peace movement. Without these allies, immigrants and the support movement could be isolated. However, if we are to establish real unity and win this important fight, we badly need an infusion of a real unifying working-class approach, showing how this fight is in our interests. This piece is written in the hope that it begins to help develop that needed addition.

We need to be confident going forward, even faced with the constant bombardment of corporate media giving the impression that the racists represent American working people. By all standards, that is crap! A recent Quinnipiac poll had a 61 percent-28 percent majority of Americans polled supporting the statement that “Immigrants are good for America.”

Immigrants pay much more than they receive

The central tenet of the right-wing attack on immigrant workers is that they “take American jobs, are a drag on our economy.”

No less than the National Academy of Science published in a recent study that “immigrants pay much more to government and public service than they receive.” The conservative CATO institute also found that in 2016 immigrants added $2 billion to the US economy. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, undocumented immigrants pay almost $12 billion in state and local taxes each year.

While the right yells that “immigrants take government benefits” (usually citing Social Security), undocumented immigrants are ineligible and don’t receive benefits. The Social Security Administration estimates undocumented immigrants paid $13 billion in payroll taxes in 2010, receiving nothing back.

Almost all economists agree that immigration has a positive impact on our nation’s wages by raising the ‘floor,’ the bottom of our nation’s working class. This creates pressure, pushing the rest of the class upwards. They found immigrants aid in the creation of jobs in our nation, due to their buying power.

Immigrants key to union growth

It is a long, difficult and continuing, struggle to win our nation’s organized labor movement to full support for the rights of immigrant workers. The AFL-CIO has now been won to officially, strongly support rights for immigrant workers. From the earliest days of our nation’s trade union movement, immigrant workers have played central roles in the struggles of our nation’s workers for basic rights.

In my hometown of Lorain, Ohio, in the 1980s, we saw some more backward elements in labor organizing groups set up picket lines at local immigrant-run businesses. They’d shout insults at folks they thought were immigrants and try to discourage customers. This had to be taken on!

Progressive forces argued that not only were those actions morally reprehensible, but they greatly harmed labor’s self-interest. These types of actions isolated labor from the diverse community and encouraged racist, anti-union forces within labor. They harmed labor’s unity, ability to mobilize and work together. Citing union polling, it was pointed out that immigrants were, by far, the most pro-union sector of our nation’s working class, that they would overwhelmingly choose to join unions if given the opportunity. As well, it was shown that when immigrants had little or no rights, corporations could use them to undercut union benefits and they’d be unable to speak out. On the other hand, if organized, they’d become the strongest, most militant section of labor, helping us all. The Federation agreed to support immigrant workers rights.

Immigrant workers were at the center of the eight-hour day movement and the establishment of May Day as International Worker’s Day. The majority of those “legally” framed up and even murdered by the state in 1886 for organizing the huge 8-hour day demonstrations in Chicago were from other nations. That fight began with a massive strike of Polish immigrant workers in Milwaukee.

A half-century later, our labor movement was led by the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL wouldn’t organize immigrants, or women, African Americans, Hispanics or Asians into their unions. They only believed in organizing ‘craft unions,’ which only represented the few skilled workers in a particular craft, at that time. A wide left-center alliance responded by organizing the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) which organized all workers, regardless of race, sex or national origin. Unions such as my union, USW, garment workers, and others could not have gotten off the ground without immigrant workers playing a central role.

This development not only affected those workers and their families but spurred the huge New Deal reform movement of the Roosevelt administration. The New Deal passed Social Security, unemployment comp, the eight-hour day, steps toward civil rights for minorities and put millions back to work in the Works Projects Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

These gains are still helping all U.S. working people but would’ve been impossible without the central fighting role of immigrant workers here.

Present situation

In October, a large caravan of migrants began moving north from Honduras. Trump has taken the opportunity to insult migrants, immigrants, Latinos and to dangerously militarize the border with Mexico. Trump has lied outright about the caravan, calling it an “invasion.” He’s stated that it is filled with “illegals,” “bad people,” “Middle Easterners,” “rapists” and “terrorists.” He’s threatening to call out the military, raising the terrible possibility of a bloodbath at the border. He is threatening to cut off aid to Central American nations, further exasperating the already difficult situation.

First of all, this is a massive humanitarian crisis. People do not uproot their families, travel by foot over extremely dangerous territory in terrible heat, without food, shelter, or water in many cases, except when horrible life-threatening conditions leave them no other choice. Like migrants before them, these are regular working people forced from their homes, hoping to find better conditions for their families. More importantly, the U.S. government is by no means a bystander, without blame, in this situation.

NAFTA free trade pacts brought a huge flood of U.S.-subsidized, corporate produced agricultural goods into their home market. Poor, small farmers traditionally tilling the land could not compete and were driven off the land.

The other cause for this exodus is the 2009 military fascist coup against the democratically-elected government of Honduras, supported by the U.S. government. The previous progressive, elected government of president Zelaya had the audacity to raise the minimum wage in Honduras, start school lunch programs, make it easier for workers to join unions, give aid to poor families, establish free education and set up a program of free electricity, which reduced poverty by over 15 percent in that nation. All this was seen as dangerous by U.S. corporations, the Honduran military, and a military coup was organized.

Another contributing factor is the militarized “drug war” the U.S. government is pursuing in that area. Drugs are a real problem but it is a medical issue, not a military one. Uruguay’s left government legalized all drugs, bringing people back to the workforce. The U.S. drug war has militarized that entire area.

This is why people are leaving Central America, looking for a better life.

The migrant caravan is made up of ‘refugees,’ not ‘immigrants.’ There is a difference according to U.S. law. Refugees from government violence, as this caravan is, are to be taken in and processed, welcomed. Not only that, but they are refugees from violence created by our nation’s government. We have a working-class responsibility to aid our sisters and brothers in this difficult and dangerous situation.

Between 1898-1994, the U.S. intervened militarily in Latin America 41 times, every time on behalf of U.S. corporations, against working people’s interests, there and here. Most interventions overthrew democratically elected governments. Those taking power were generally trained, as was the scum that overthrew Honduran democracy, at the CIA-run School of the Americas. It’s now safe for multinational corporations who can shift work there to avoid unions, government regulations, minimum wages, safety, and other concerns. It’s reduced our bargaining power and made Latin America unsafe for working people.

In steel (USW), we learned of the case of Chile. Prior to the reform government of Allende, Chile’s President was Eduardo Frei, of the Conservative Party. In 1969, copper miners in the southwest U.S., USW members, former members of the left-led Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers, went on strike over safety issues. They gained little after a tough strike because Anaconda and Kennecott shifted work to Chile where they had little leverage. After Allende was elected in 1971, the mines were taken over by Chile, nationalized, to gain funds to use for Chile’s people. Again, those miners prepared to walk out. The companies settled immediately and the miners got the relief they needed. The mining companies had nowhere to shift the work to. The following year, a U.S.-CIA-organized coup murdered Allende and returned the mines to those multinational corporations. The next year saw the companies lock out the U.S. miners and break the union.

All that is just an example, to point out that U.S. intervention is NOT for the benefit of either workers here or in Latin America.

In the aftermath of the coup, a huge bloodbath took place, with unionists, progressives, educators, reformers and regular people being murdered by death squads and the Honduran military. The countryside is now controlled by gangs, drug runners, and the like. Acting in desperation, people then began organizing the migrant caravan.

This is why poor working people are walking, in caravan, toward our nation.

We have, not only a human and proletarian responsibility to help and stand in solidarity with them, but it is very much in our own self-interest to do so!

Working-class proposal for progress

After discussing these issues with many other unionists, the following are some suggestions for a working-class program we collectively came up with, to begin to deal with the developing crisis;

  • Real immigration reform legislation, with a path to citizenship, is badly needed, establishing dignity, human rights for immigrant families, stability for U.S. native-born workers.
  • Stop imperialist intervention in Latin America and across the globe. We need a foreign policy that recognizes human rights both here and abroad. This is in the interests of working peoples there and here.
  • Aid to Latin American nations that builds their nation’s infrastructure, along with real humanitarian aid to combat climate change, and re-establish national agriculture and industry in those nations, instead of supporting only the interests of the multinational corporations.
  • End the drug war, that has caused a massive humanitarian crisis. Treat this issue as a medical issue, not a military one. This misdirected program is being used to criminalize an entire generation of African-American youth. There is also the need for prison reform, bringing non-violent drug offenders home, back into communities.
  • An infrastructure rebuild program is needed to put people to work rebuilding our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, using Green Energy, targeting inner cities, Appalachia and other high unemployment areas.
  • A new international federation of all labor is needed to unite, in an organic manner all the workers and their struggles against the multinational corporations, across the globe.


Bruce Bostick
Bruce Bostick

Bruce Bostick is a retired steelworker and leader in Ohio Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees.