Sunday, January 16, 2011

The American Way of Immigration: The Example of Kern County

The American Way of Immigration:  The Example of Kern County

The anti-immigrant punks always whine "if only they'd just go through the legal process..."  The problem is the "legal process" doesn't exist.  The immigration system as a whole is designed to turn immigrants into a second class group without rights that corporations can use as a counter to lower the wages and benefits of all working people, both documented and undocumented.  Immigration policy has never been about "making people into citizens."  Immigration policy has always and continues to begin with the question "Who can we attack and how so that we can make more money for the rich in this country?"

My home town is a perfect example of how "immigration policy" in the US works.  In the 30s and 40s, unemployed farmers and other workers migrated to Kern County, CA to look for work in the Depression, the "Okies" of the Grapes of Wrath.  My own family came over from Kansas in the early 60s.  Those migrants were treated like human trash, dirty, filthy pigs who were coming over to steal from the people "already here".  This allowed the big farm operators to keep conditions in the field barely above slavery and make huge profits.

Kern County is a huge agricultural center in the US.  You can go to any store in Washington and find produce from the farms around my grandma's house.  Your beautiful baby carrots could have been picked by a 50-year old man who spent 8 hours hunched over in a field in 100-degree summer weather with no access to drinking fountains and he might even be lucky enough to have been “accidently” sprayed with pesticides from a plane, meaning he and his fellow farmworkers, men and women, adults and children, once again “get to” strip naked and be decontaminated in a makeshift Hazmat station.

Immigration doesn’t change; human beings move.  The only thing that changes is the location from which people move and the reasons.  When Okies stopped coming, Big Business looked to Mexico for cheap labor.  After the war to “save the world from fascism,” Big Business was so eager to get back to the business of squeezing profits out of workers that they told the US government to create a program to “import” cheap labor from Mexico, the bracero program, rather than employ native born workers (who might demand fair wages and working conditions).  That program was and continues to be a goldmine for the rich. Today, it’s the immigrants from Mexico who are treated like human trash, dirty, filthy pigs who come over to steal from the people “already here.”  And this time it’s the children and grandchildren of the Okies who are encouraged to see and treat the latest migrants as their own families were treated.  And Big Business smiles all the way to the bank.

Despite the “debate” in Congress about “comprehensive immigration reform” (really, it’s just a debate about how miserable Congress can make the lives of immigrants so that Big Business can maintain its standard of low wages and low benefits and thereby make more profits),  there’s no real impetus to change things.  The status quo  works out great for Big Business:  immigrants are scared (and therefore won’t complain when they’re mistreated), native born workers follow the lead of right wing talk radio and TV talking heads (usually the only media they have access to), and the money keeps rolling in for Big Business while everyone here on the ground suffers.  It’s an irony of the capitalist system that the immigrant workers who are “stealing” from the system are now paying into the Social Security system (from which they will never receive benefits) of the Okies who were also “stealing” from the system, while many of the children and grandchildren of those same Okies aren’t working at all in today’s recession.  The system is in a stalemate and WE are the ones to break the stalemate and push for a solution that benefits US instead of a “compromise” in which we give up everything and Big Business gives up nothing.  The example of the fate of the Sensenbrenner Bill shows the power we have when we refuse to accept the limits set before us by our enemies AND by our so-called allies in organizations all too willing to give up everything to make our enemies smile:  when the bigots threaten to turn every undocumented worker and anyone who "helped" them into criminals, millions of undocumented workers went on what was effectively a limited general strike and STOPPED THE BILL DEAD IN ITS TRACKS, MAKING OUR DEMANDS A PART OF THE DEBATE.

The ruling class has never hesitated turn to immigrants to fill the ranks of the US military war machine at the same time as they incite racism and xenophobia against them.  My own father couldn’t afford to go to Bakersfield College and so he served time in Vietnam in the late 60s.  Today, they dangle the prize of citizenship named “The Dream Act” before immigrants desperate for a chance for their children and their families.

The solution:  activists need to intervene in the debate.  Politicians are not our “allies” in this struggle; they are opponents and they need to be treated as such.  Activists need to win immigrant and native born workers to the idea that they should work together against the real enemy:  Big Business.  Native born workers should not be fighting against immigrant workers for the crumbs that Big Business tosses to us.  We should be fighting alongside immigrant workers against Big Business for the whole damn loaf.

If you really want a solid understanding of the history of immigration and immigration policy in the western United States, especially if you're in or from Kern County, check out No One is Illegal:

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