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Immigrant-Led Organizing Points the Way to a Better World for All Workers

Let’s follow the lead of immigrant workers organizing for a world without borders — this May Day and beyond.

Demonstrators march and rally to mark International Workers' Day, also known as May Day, on May 1, 2023, in Los Angeles, California.

“A world without borders is necessary if we are serious about ending the ravages of imperialism, the violent extraction of capitalism, and the oppressive racial social organization of our world,” writes migrant justice activist Harsha Walia.

Walia’s claim points to how the carceral, exclusionary immigration system weakens labor rights not just for immigrant workers, but for all workers. Employers use immigrant workers as a foil to foster the illusion of solidarity between owners and workers, while also strategically pushing immigrant wages ever downward to lower the wage floor for all workers. Government and employers work together to sustain this extractive regime, manufacturing illegality to reap the profits of systemic exploitation. As Walia writes, “the making of ‘illegal workers’ acts as a firewall (or border) blocking solidarity between workers.” This is why migrant justice organizing and labor organizing are inseparably connected, and neither can succeed without the other.

Immigrant labor is foundational to the narrative of the “American dream,” an often unfulfilled promise that equal opportunity will translate hard work into safety and material well-being. Economists attribute much of the post-pandemic economic revival in the U.S. to increased immigration under the Biden administration. But the reality that many immigrant workers face is bleaker, fraught with exploitation, workplace safety violations and even human trafficking — far from the promise of the American dream. The tragedy at the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore on March 26, 2024, reflects the reality of work as a nightmare for many immigrant workers.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 made it unlawful for an employer to knowingly hire or employ a noncitizen who is not authorized to work by the federal government. This encourages labor abuses on a massive scale by forcing millions of immigrant workers into an underground economy, shifting power in the workplace from immigrant worker to employer.

Noncitizens across different visa categories and income levels face workplace abuses due to employment authorization laws. White collar immigrant workers with employment visas are vulnerable to workplace abuses due to onerous requirements for changing employers or leaving the country. And the H-2A visa program widely used to bring temporary agricultural workers to the U.S. was described by a Department of Labor official as “the purchase of humans to perform difficult work under terrible conditions, sometimes including subhuman living conditions.”

But the impact of restrictive work authorization laws may fall most heavily on undocumented workers. Employers understand that legally vulnerable workers can be made to work longer hours for less pay. We work at Free Migration Project, a Philadelphia-based organization that works at the intersection of law and community organizing to promote freedom of movement as a basic human right. Cristina, a client of Free Migration Project’s, works at a laundromat 13 hours a day, six days a week and is paid under the table. She sends most of her earnings to her country of birth to pay for her mother’s lifesaving medication. After being released from immigration detention to pursue her still-pending asylum appeal, Cristina was able to obtain temporary work authorization lasting just a year. The harsh and arbitrary immigration laws made her ineligible to renew her work permit. “It made me depressed to see I couldn’t work, couldn’t earn my own money legally,” she told us. “I am trying to do everything the right way, but they won’t let me.”

To be eligible for temporary employment authorization — a “work permit” — a noncitizen must have lawful immigration status or have an application for lawful status pending. Legal pathways to status have been pared back over the years, so that now millions of noncitizens have no way to apply for lawful status and no way to get a work permit. Many of them are also at risk of imprisonment and deportation by increasingly aggressive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportation officers. Through conversations with hundreds of immigrant workers over the years, we have learned that labor abuses in occupations that heavily depend on unauthorized immigrant labor are the norm, not the exception. Our working assumption is that as many as half of all undocumented immigrant workers in the U.S. have experienced labor abuses that would meet the legal definition of human trafficking.

However, even if the work authorization regime were rescinded, noncitizens would still be vulnerable to labor abuses as long as employers could hold the threat of imprisonment and deportation over their heads. Labor laws — including laws protecting workers from discrimination based on national origin — do not and cannot adequately protect immigrant workers when ICE is ready and waiting to deport them. Harsha Walia writes:

Borders are not intended to exclude or deport all people but to create conditions of deportability, which produces immense precarity for labor. The border captures workers’ labor power for employers to exploit. Workers are kept compliant through threats of termination and deportation.

The unjust requirement that noncitizens must have official permission from the government in order to be employed should be abolished outright. Temple University law professor Jennifer Lee writes that the federal prohibition on unauthorized work “violates principles of freedom from coercion in the workplace as well as liberty-oriented principles of self-expression, security, and dignity related to work.” Congress has for decades rejected pro-immigrant federal immigration reforms in favor of increasing restrictions and enforcement. In response we must advocate unapologetically for a world we hope to see, one where the ability to safely earn a decent living does not depend on one’s arbitrary place of birth.

In the meantime, immigrant-led organizing campaigns are pushing state and local governments to explore innovative ways to integrate immigrants more equitably and effectively into their economies. Denver is considering an initiative where immigrants would be employed directly by the city, since the federal work authorization laws likely don’t apply to state and local governments. In California, a bill that would provide equal access to employment by public universities and colleges for all students, regardless of their immigration status, is making its way through the state assembly. The bill is the result of organizing by the Opportunity for All campaign, a coalition led by undocumented students in the University of California system. Law professor César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández told us he believes the Opportunity for All campaign “has the potential to upturn migrants’ access to work. Tapping the limitations of the Reagan-era Immigration Reform and Control Act, organizers and advocates are creatively pushing state and local governments to open their jobs to migrants whether or not they have the federal government’s permission to work.”

In 2017, the Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution recognizing “every person’s fundamental right to earn a living, regardless of immigration status.” The resolution was the result of organizing by the Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers’ Rights (PAUWR), a coalition of restaurant workers and advocates spearheaded by the owners of the award-winning restaurant South Philly Barbacoa. (Free Migration Project and the Temple University Sheller Center for Social Justice provided technical support to PAUWR.) Members of PAUWR later formed the Masa Cooperativa, a Philadelphia-based worker-owned cooperative that produces locally grown masa, a traditional corn product used to make tortillas, tamales and arepas.

Carmen Guerrero, an Indigenous Maya-Azteca community organizer who co-founded Masa Cooperativa, spoke to us about her prior experience working 18 hours a day for years until her health deteriorated. “It’s not an American dream, it was a nightmare for me because everything I worked for disappeared,” she told us. Masa Cooperativa worker-owners utilize ancestral techniques from Indigenous people to make the masa, as Guerrero says, “using skills we bring from our countries to build our own communities.” She has an inclusive vision for local economies, in which immigrant workers “work together with local farmers, trying to work together as a community and looking for other kinds of economic solutions, not just for immigrants but for the entire community.”

Immigrant-led organizing points the way toward a more free, fair and efficient economy in which the dignity and agency of all workers is respected regardless of place of birth. To reach this future, the carceral immigration system must be dismantled, allowing noncitizen workers to fully participate in the labor force without fear of imprisonment and banishment.

We should consider what it means to live in a world where some members are legally “less-than,” where powerful actors not only tolerate but encourage the abuse and exclusion of racialized immigrant workers. When business and government can treat immigrant workers as disposable, to be used and tossed aside once their economic value has been extracted, we can expect that others will face the same treatment before long.

Perhaps no contemporary case supports Walia’s claim that “borders maintain hoarded concentrations of wealth accrued from colonial domination while ensuring mobility for some and containment for most” more than the genocide unfolding in Palestine. This May Day, we encourage readers to join the struggle for a free Palestine however and wherever they can.