Illegal People – David Bacon’s third book on migrant labour in the modern economy – extends his previous focus on Latino immigration in the US to consider its global dimensions. Combining his signature of personal testimonies allied to politically informed analysis, he shows us that the two topics of globalisation and migrant labour are intimately related. For it is the neo-liberal globalisation agenda pursued by leading capitalist powers (and the institutions they control) that destroys existing livelihoods, uprooting peoples, who are then set in motion within ever increasing migrant flows. As immigrants in the rich countries, these migrants find themselves socially and politically marginalised: confined to low grade exploitable labour, without rights to organise, denied citizenship and facing manifold discrimination. They are the ‘illegal people’, but their illegality is one that has been created by the global economic and political system. Bacon argues the best political solution is not to confine migrants within second class ‘guest worker’ programmes (the preference of corporations and Western governments), but to press ahead and secure full social and political rights for all working people.
The book opens with two dispatches from the front lines of immigration battles in the US – detailing federal workplace raids on employers using undocumented labour in California and North Carolina. In both cases the crackdowns were targeted at sites where migrant labour had been fighting back through union organising and campaigning. Working here was transformed into a crime, punishable by interrogation, imprisonment and loss of employment on the part of those deemed illegal. In the process, collective efforts to improve conditions for migrant labour were derailed.
As for these migrant communities themselves, their very presence in the US is a direct consequence of economic displacement and associated political upheavals in Central America. Bacon focuses on conditions in two regions of Mexico – Oaxaca and Cananea – showing how neo-liberal reforms under NAFTA destroyed farm livelihoods and state supports for production and consumption, leaving masses of people with no choice but to migrate northwards. He insists the two processes of displacement and migration are part of a single global economic system, trade and immigration policies working together to create and then utilise a mass of vulnerable and exploitable labour.
There are now an estimated 12 million undocumented people in the US, 6 million Mexicans crossing the border since Nafta came into force in 1994. Their labour has become a central support for the whole US economy, especially in agricultural, food processing and service industries. They perform the worst jobs for low pay (thereby holding down the overall level of wages), contribute taxes but are allowed to claim no benefits, are used as a buffer to cope with shifting economic conditions (and able to be deported if losing employment), and cover their own costs of social reproduction.
However this undeniable and growing economic contribution to USA plc has not brought with it accompanying social and political rights for migrant workers and their communities. In the second part of his book Bacon surveys the political battles around immigration and its reform in the US, which turns on the issues of what status and rights can be claimed by its migrant masses.
The option favoured by corporate and mainstream political parties is that of a ‘guest worker’ programme, granting temporary residence tied to work visas and employment only, reinforced by strong enforcement measures and a limited legalisation for existing undocumented labour.
Looking at the historical record of such programmes (especially the Bracero regime of the mid twentieth century), and their smaller scale equivalents today (the H2 programmes in agricultural and assembly manufacture) Bacon shows us there is no real future here. Instead a large body of evidence exists documenting the appalling conditions facing those employed in this way: low pay, long hours, tied housing, health and safety violations, repression of worker protests, firing of activists and employer blacklists. As Cesar Chavez, UFW founder pointed out, the Bracero regime inhibited workers organisation and their attainment of better pay and conditions. Obviously this is why it remains the corporate preference today.
Alternatives pressing for greater rights for migrant workers have emerged in the US labour and immigrant rights movements, and Bacon looks at a number of these. Grassroots efforts to organise migrant day labourers in non traditional settings of street corners and community sites, found in the megacities of LA and NYC, have had some success. From here a national day labourers’ body has emerged and begun working with established trade unions. Bacon speculates that the increasing casualisation of the workforce will require more in the way of such non traditional forms of organising.
The unions themselves eventually recognised the significance and weight of migrant labour in the US economy, and swung behind organising for immigrant rights, a process that has also allowed them to draw upon the traditions of political resistance migrant workers carry with them from their lands of origin. (Bacon’s earlier two books, The Children of Nafta and Communities without Borders drew our attention to such a fertilisation). At best, unions have supported calls for an amnesty for the undocumented, opening up the prospect of a new mass movement uniting labour and community organs. However the later split of AFL-CIO fractured this possibility, the breakaway ‘Change to Win’ coalition moving over to the ‘guest worker’ option, leaving organised labour without a common programme for immigration reform.
There are further considerations that progressives need to take on board. Bacon argues immigration reform must be pursued within a larger project of establishing a common programme of jobs and rights for all working people – Latino, Afro-American, Asian, white – to prevent division and competition between these groups in their fight against existing inequalities. In the southern states he finds promising examples of this expansive strategy. MIRA, the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, has responded to the influx of migrant labour and guest worker programmes associated with post –Katrina reconstruction with workplace organising amongst migrant construction crews and legislative alliances to overturn anti-immigrant bills at state level. Nationally the Black Caucus in Congress has delivered wide-ranging proposals for immigration reform that attach job creation programmes for Afro-American communities to legalisation of the undocumented and workplace rights for all. Through such initiatives, progressive immigration reform proposals are coming to national attention – amplified to be sure by the massive immigrant rights protests of 2003 and 2006. However as he cautions, their future depends upon the movement growing stronger and uniting around a common platform.
In the third part of ‘Illegal People’ Bacon broadens his scope to foreground the global dimension of migration, both historically and today. His discussion of the role Filipino labour has played in the US economy makes the important point that its inferior status was inherited at root from the slave foundations of US society which clearly divided people between the categories of legal citizen and illegal alien, with the associated right to work, on racial grounds.
US immigration policy still models itself today on these barbaric foundations. A potential political link is however clearly established here between Afro-American communities and today’s ‘illegal peoples’ in terms of their search for citizenship and full socioeconomic rights.
Globally some 180 million people now live and work outside their country of origin, struggling against conditions similar to those Bacon has described in the US, to break out of an assigned illegal status or the restrictions of guest worker programmes and claim social and political rights: Turks in Germany, Algerians in France, Iraqis in Britain. At the level of global politics, whilst the WTO advocates a managed migration programme on a global scale to keep these masses confined, Bacon notes that a UN International Convention on migrant workers and their families of 1990 offers them a real future. It promises security and rights for both documented and undocumented labour, in respect of employment, education, family reunification and safeguards against collective deportation. This goes far beyond the current legal/illegal division that economic and political elites use to restrict migrant labour. In Bacon’s view, such distinctions only preserve existing inequalities.
The book ends with a look at the ‘transnational’ character of today’s migrant communities and their demands for a new model of citizenship. Migrant streams flowing from parts of Africa, Asia and Central America to the US and Europe are retaining strong ties to their lands of origin, creating in effect a transnational dimension to their communities – simultaneously in Oaxaca and California. They are calling for citizenship rights in both locations, against their exclusion from the economic and political life of the countries they settle in. Bacon cites the example of the Oaxacan ‘Indigenous Front of Binational Organisations’ (FIOB), to illustrate this feature, and their campaigns against guest worker programmes in the US coupled with on-going participation in Oaxacan village life.
US electoral politics however continues to deny representation to undocumented and transient migrant communities. Yet their demands for employment rights, the ability to organise, decent homes, education and healthcare are ones that all working people could benefit from. Without the electoral participation of these millions the positive agenda they support will be less likely to be achieved: legalisation is therefore an immigration reform that all workers should support, for with citizenship brings extra weight in favour of social change.
Bacon argues immigration reform now has to be part of such a larger common programme that can provide security, rights and equality for all. This must tackle not only the consequences of mass migration but challenge the very neo-liberal economic policies that put masses in motion in the first place. At its widest a real progressive alternative to today’s global order has to promote a range of global solidarities, challenging Western trade and associated military interventions, support workers’ organisation overseas, and secure freedom of movement for peoples beyond the narrow confines of corporate agendas. Bacon concludes that our common needs for jobs, social and political rights and freedom of movement will provide the platform on which such a campaign can be built. The old slogan ‘Workers of the world unite’ acquires here a concrete agenda we can all support.
Review by Richard Leitch