Publication International / Transnational - Western Europe - Migration / Flight Displaced, unequal and criminalized

Fighting for the Rights of Migrants in the United States. By David Bacon for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.



Policy Papers


David Bacon,


November 2011

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A political alliance is developing between countries with a labor export policy and the corporations who use that labor in the global north. Many countries sending migrants to the developed world depend on remittances to finance social services and keep the lid on social discontent over poverty and joblessness, while continuing to make huge debt payments. Corporations using that displaced labor share a growing interest with those countries’ governments in regulating the system that supplies it.

Increasingly, the mechanisms for regulating that flow of people are contract labor programs—called “guest worker” or “temporary worker” programs in the U.S., or “managed migration” in the UK and much of the EU. With or without these programs, migration to the U.S. and other industrial countries is a fact of life. Despite often using rhetoric that demonizes immigrants, the U.S. Congress is not debating the means for ending migration. Nothing can, short of a radical reordering of the world’s economy.

Nor are the current waves of immigration raids and deportations in the U.S. intended to halt it. In an economy in which immigrant labor plays a critical part, the price of stopping migration would be economic crisis. The intent of immigration policy is managing the flow of people, determining their status here in the U.S., in the interest of those who put that labor to work.

Migrants are human beings first however, and their desire for community is as strong as the need to labor. The use of neoliberal reforms and economic treaties to displace communities, to produce a global army of available and vulnerable workers, has a brutal impact. Existing and proposed free trade agreements between the U.S. and Mexico, Canada, Central America, Peru, Colombia, Panama, South Korea, and Jordan not only do not stop the economic transformations that uproot families and throw them into the migrant stream—they push that whole process forward.

On a world scale, the migratory flow caused by displacement is still generally self-initiated. In other words, while people may be driven by forces beyond their control, they move at their own will and discretion, trying to find survival and economic opportunity, and to reunite their families and create new communities in the countries they now call home. But the idea of managing the flow of migration is growing.

It is the contention of this paper that these global economic forces are driving the development of U.S. immigration policy. Increasingly, the political fault lines that divide the U.S. immigrant rights movement are determined by decisions to either support this general trend in policy, and its political representatives in Washington DC, or to oppose it and create a social movement for equality and rights based in the communities of migrants themselves.

The development of a labor supply and labor management system to govern the flow of migrants, that is, of people, requires increasingly ferocious enforcement. With the criminalization of work for undocumented migrants a quarter century ago, along with the resurrection of a contract labor program for migrants, in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the parameters were set for the debates over immigration policy that continue to the present. Today immigration raids and enforcement actions, harsh and racist legislation, and the hysteria that comes with all this, are sweeping our country. Today’s migrants have become needed low-wage labor and criminals at the same time.

This paper will outline first the global economic forces driving displacement and migration, and their impact on communities. It will then outline the basic structure and purpose of U.S. immigration policy, and the basic proposals for changing it. It will examine the division between mainstream, Washington DC-based supporters of corporate immigration reform and community- and labor-based groups who call for an alternative, and finally it will outline their proposals for an alternative based on human and labor rights. We begin with the examination of one particular stream of migrants, of indigenous people from Oaxaca, both because their experience is similar to others, but also because organizations in the communities involved have articulated a sophisticated analysis of the system in which they move.