Mass Migration in the Age of Electronics
The rapid extension of automated production around the world is creating a new global class of proletarians with no possessions and no means of making a living. Its formation is increasingly characterized by mass migrations on an unprecedented scale. As the capitalist system approaches its end it only continues to function at all by means of a ruthless drive to reduce labor costs. It breaks down every barrier to the flow of capital into every corner of the globe in the search for the lowest wages. At the same time, it constructs a complex system of immigration that allows it to suppress wages, divide the workers, and unleash repression in the advanced countries.
Immigration has become an unavoidable battlefield in the unfolding social revolution. For the rulers, it is instrumental to the consolidation of fascist rule, economically, legally, politically, and socially. For the workers, it is an indispensable arena in the fight for the unity, consciousness, and victory of the working class.
The Global Workforce
Modern capitalist agriculture is moving globally to displace billions of rural peasants and replace them with a relative handful of corporate farmers. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the total global workforce grew from 1.9 billion to 3.1 billion during the years 1980-2007. However, the expansion of the system also causes the spread of labor-replacing technology. This raises productivity to the point that growth of employment does not keep up with the growth of the workforce. Of those 3.1 billion workers, only 1.4 billion are actual wage workers, and that total includes temporary and part-time workers. The other 1.7 billion are “vulnerably employed,” a category of people economically active but not wage workers. These include “own-account workers,” who are peddlers and other petty contractors frequently called the “informal sector,” and “contributing family workers,” who are family members assisting wage earners by working alongside them without pay.
The vulnerably employed, together with the formally unemployed and “economically inactive” working-age people, make up what some call a “global reserve army of labor” of some 2.4 billion, much larger than the number actively working for wages. But clearly, a growing section of this army is not a reserve at all, but a mass of people who are permanently unemployed and always will be in a system based on private property in the age of electronics.
These billions displaced by today’s global economy are the source of the surge in world migration. According to the International Organization for Migrants, in 2010 there were some 214 million international migrants, or approximately 3% of the entire global population. There were also an additional 740 million internal migrants in the various countries of the world. Today there are 70 countries in the world where immigrants make up more than 10% of the population.
However, what is different now is not just the size of the migration, but the economic forces driving it. Until the late twentieth century, migration served the expansion of the system, providing a growing workforce to fill the needs of increasing industrial production. The highest level of immigration into the U.S. (21%) happened during the rapid growth period of the 1920s, and modern immigration into Europe began with the 1950s-60s “economic miracle” in Germany.
Today’s migration, however, serves a different purpose. In an economy based on electronic production, employment is no longer expanding. Whereas immigration was historically always used to control wages, now it is used to drive down wages. Migrants today are motivated not so much by the vision of a better life as by massive displacement and desperation to survive. Immigration into the U.S., which fell to 5% in 1970, has now risen again to 16% in 2010. Immigration into Europe soared in the 1990s and 2000s due to the upheavals in Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.
Immigration policy today reflects the merger of corporations and the State, and also helps this merger to happen. U.S. immigration legislation is essentially written by corporations themselves, in order to increase profits in the border enforcement business and to fix by law a variety of strata of guest workers. The Southern Poverty Law Center has described guest worker programs as “close to slavery.” Like the notorious Bracero Program of the 1950s, they threaten workers with deportation if they lose their jobs, and they render labor laws unenforceable.
Current programs include guest worker H2A visas for agricultural workers, H2B visas for non-agricultural seasonal workers, and H1B visas for technology workers. Virtually every immigration reform bill proposed in the last ten years would expand all these categories dramatically. The EU Blue Card program plays a similar role in Europe. Current and proposed immigration laws also facilitate fascism by denying citizenship and political rights to a growing sector of workers, and accustoming workers to routine raids, detention, criminalization, and deportation without legal recourse.
The Changing Role of Race
Although U.S. immigration policy has always been about control of labor, its racial and ideological justifications have continually evolved along with the shifting political interests of the ruling class. The 1790 Naturalization Act extended citizenship to all “free white persons,” but excluded African Americans and Native Americans. The post-Civil War 1870 Naturalization Act extended citizenship to “white persons and persons of African descent” but Asians were excluded. Mexicans living in the U.S. at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848 were granted the right to citizenship, and Latinos in the U.S. were historically permitted to self-identify as either white or nonwhite. The 1924 Immigration Act outlawed immigration by people deemed racially ineligible for citizenship – except for Filipinos and Puerto Ricans because of their status as residents of direct U.S. colonies. Political alliances during World War II caused the U.S. to lift the citizenship bar for Asians, except for the Japanese, who were interned whether they were citizens or not. Immigrants from socialist countries like Cuba and Vietnam, regardless of race, were welcomed for Cold War political reasons with no restrictions whatsoever.
Ironically, Mexicans were not excluded during this time, because they were considered seasonal laborers and not immigrants at all. Unlike traditional European immigrants who arrived from overseas, they did not bring their families, tended to circulate back and forth to Mexico, and did not settle and seek to assimilate in the U.S.. The border was not even policed until 1924, and even then only minimally. The mass deportations of the 1930s and 1950s were not directed at “illegal immigrants,” but rather at ethnic Mexicans. In the 1930s some 2 million Mexicans, including 60% who were U.S. citizens, were rounded up in sweeps of their neighborhoods, and a million more in the 1950s.
Although nativism, racism, and anti-immigrant hatred have a long and ugly history in the U.S., the concept of undocumented or “illegal immigrant” barely existed before the 1965 immigration law was passed. That law established a fixed cap of 20,000 visas for Mexicans that came nowhere near to meeting the need for the agricultural workforce in the U.S. Combined with the end of the Bracero Program in 1964, the demand for labor caused the number of Mexicans without papers to increase from less than 100,000 in 1961 to over a million a year by the mid-1970s. This was nevertheless not a major crisis, as lax border enforcement allowed the Mexican laborers to continue their seasonal “circular” migration back and forth between the two countries.
The Impact of NAFTA
The situation escalated dramatically in the 1990s. As the economy gradually automated, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was enacted in order to break down trade barriers, expand markets, and move production to areas with the lowest possible wages. NAFTA displaced millions of Mexican farmers and caused a migration of some 6 million undocumented workers from Mexico into the U.S. from 1994-2007. The problem was aggravated by Clinton-era strengthening of border enforcement that brought “circular” migration to an end, by more and more forcing the undocumented to stay in the U.S., rather than migrate back and forth as they had done historically.
The doubling of the number of undocumented created an entirely new situation, both for the ruling class and workers. Corporations began actively recruiting undocumented workers to work in meatpacking, construction, and service industries they had never entered before. These were industries that could not offshore production, but refused to pay wages demanded by white and African American workers with a history of unionization. It also brought the undocumented into communities all across the country where they had never been before.
Bush’s workplace raids, Obama’s mass deportations, the spread of “Secure Communities,” and the decisive defeat of comprehensive immigration reform all accurately reflect the will and intentions of the ruling class. The 12 million undocumented, 24 million legal immigrants, and the millions of citizen children of the undocumented already pose a major political threat to the ability of the ruling class to impose its corporate dictatorship.
Since the civil rights movement, overt racial discrimination is something many Americans will no longer tolerate. The creation of the category of “illegal” in the decades since the sixties is an attempt to continue discrimination but in a different form, similar to the way mass incarceration and police profiling has been used to suppress the African American community. Every hard-fought victory of the immigrant rights movement, from Obama’s DACA (Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals), Obama’s Executive Action, and the various state drivers license laws, is being used by the government to carve out specific temporary status for specific immigrants, and divert, divide, and defuse the movement for human rights for all.
The tasks of revolutionaries are to rely on the spontaneous strivings and moral sentiments of the American people. We fight tirelessly to unite the decisive sections of the working class around the understanding that immigrant rights are human rights, and that immigration is essentially a class issue that affects all of us. Without unity none of us will be able to secure the jobs, housing, health care, or education we need.
Note: Most information here came from Aviva Chomsky’s Undocumented (2014), David Bacon’s Illegal People (2008), Guy Standing, The Precariat (2011) chapter 4, and John Foster & Robert McChesney, The Endless Crisis (2012) chapter 5.
March/April 2015 Vol25.Ed2
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Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011