Pro-Immigrant Coalitions Suggest the Solution but Reflect the Problem

This year’s May Day events are already underway throughout the world. In parts of Southeast Asia, May Day marches have been protesting the rise in food prices as well as advocating for workers’ rights. In Turkey, labor unions were met with government repression and police abuse as they marches and attempted to congregate in a noted public center. In Germany, scattered violence and rioting occurred when leftists went to battle with the police. In Greece, Cuba, and China workers also participated in events. In Greece, workers staged a day-long strike protesting privatization; in Cuba, Raul Castro sat for speeches from the nation’s only union; in China everyone celebrated what is a national holiday.

Around the world, workers’ rose up for their rights, whether those be the right to a fair wage, the right to affordable food, or the right to be free from government corruption.

In Los Angeles, as in several other urban sites around the U.S., labor and immigrant rights advocates are standing in solidarity for what has become a yearly movement to promote the rights of immigrant workers. That coalition of unions and immigrant groups is also joined by business leaders in the case of U.S. politics. Today’s L.A. Times reported on the supportive stance by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce with respect to immigrants’ rights. This broad coalition are demanding an end to rampant government raids as well as reforms in legislation providing for a legalization pathway for the undocumented.

Coalitions which represent a broad base of support are important for securing meaningful change in a democratic system. As a scholar of social movements (you can see one of my college courses here), I know the recent past has seen too few instances of truly democratic coalition but, when it has, those movements have produced profound changes, whether in the systems of power they targeted or in the communities of which they were a part.

The immigration issue in this country is only going to be solved by such representative coalitions. As an immigrant rights advocate, I am happy to have seen such forms of mobilization become the trend with respect to these issues. Since the 1980s, immigrant rights organizations have been joined in their efforts by labor unions, churches, antiwar/anti-imperialism factions, human rights groups, and now business leaders.

But, those of us seeking true immigration reform should keep in mind not all parties come to a coalition for the same reason. While the visions for a better future held by business and human rights organizations converge on the desire for an end to raids and the passage of reform legislation, they do not have the same utopian visions for the future beyond. Business interests are pro-immigrant because they see in immigrants a cheap and plentiful supply of labor. They profit from the precarious status of undocumented labor; worse yet, they exploit that labor. [Read Miriam Ching Yoon Louie’s powerful 2001 book Sweatshop Warriors if you think this isn’t the case.]

Immigration raids hurt businesses who employ both documented and undocumented immigrant workers.  They also promote fear among businesses located in high immigration centers who might employ lots of Latino workers who are not immigrants at all.  In those and other ways, raids are bad business.  They are so bad, businesses who exploit immigrant labor would rather have that labor be legal than illegal just to end them.

But such motivations are not humanistic.  They do nothing to challenge the commodification of people’s bodies, the racialized assumptions which serve as the backbone of a segmented labor market, or the ultimate belief in profit over people.  This coalition is the model of what a successful immigrant  rights’ movement  does look like, but it is also the problem.  The unity reflected today will only last as long as the immigration reform movement stays in the comfortable position of not fundamentally challenging the problem at hand.

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