When the US congress reconvenes this fall, it is expected to resume deliberations on immigration reform legislation. The House will continue to debate S.744, the bill that was passed by the Senate in June and that pundits have referred to as the “most monumental overhaul” of US immigration laws in a generation.
But immigrant rights organizations are deeply divided. Some groups have given critical support to the proposed legislation as the “best bill possible” under current conditions for the estimated 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States to normalize their status. Many others, however, have rejected what they see as a punitive Faustian bargain. They condemn the bill as an attempt to deny rights, codify repression, legitimate the criminalization of immigrants, further the militarized control of their communities and reproduce a system of de facto labor peonage.
To understand the immigration reform debate, we need to go beyond the headlines and see the big picture of the role that immigrants play in the new global capitalism system. There is more here than meets the eye. The battle over reform legislation reflects the changing patterns of domination over the “wretched of the earth,” a world increasingly under the dictatorship of corporate and military power, and the challenges and pitfalls that popular movements face in their struggles for social justice.
Global Capitalism and Immigrant Labor
The larger story behind immigration reform is capitalist globalization and the worldwide reorganization of the system for supplying labor to the global economy. Over the past few decades, there has been an upsurge in transnational migration as every country and region has become integrated, often violently, into global capitalism through foreign invasions and occupations, free-trade agreements, neoliberal social and economic policies, and financial crises. Hundreds of millions have been displaced from the countryside in the Global South and turned into internal and transnational migrants, providing a vast new pool of exploitable labor for the global economy as national labor markets have increasingly merged into a global labor market.
The creation of immigrant labor pools is a worldwide phenomenon in which growth poles in the global economy attract immigrant labor from their peripheries. Thus, to name a few of the major 21st century transnational labor flows, Turkish and Eastern European workers supply labor to Western Europe, Central Africans to South Africa, Nicaraguans to Costa Rica, Sri Lankas and other South Asians to the Middle East oil producing countries, Asians to Australia, Thais to Japan, Indonesians to Malaysia, and so on.
These transnational immigrant labor flows are a mechanism that has replaced colonialism in the mobilization around the world of labor pools, often drawn from ethnically and racially oppressed groups. States assume a gatekeeper function to regulate the flow of labor for the capitalist economy. For example, US immigration enforcement agencies, as do their counterparts around the world, undertake “revolving-door” practices – opening and shutting the flow of immigration in accordance with needs of capital accumulation during distinct periods. Immigrants are sucked up when their labor is needed and then spit out when they become superfluous or potentially destabilizing to the system.