The immigration debate in the United States almost always treats the migration of people into this country as something unique. It is not. The World Bank estimates the total number of people worldwide living outside the countries where they were born at 213,316,418 in 2010. A decade earlier, it was 178,050,184, and a decade before that, 155,209,721.
The number of people who have become cross-border migrants has increased by about 58 million people in 20 years. To be sure, the United States has become home to a large number – 42,813,281 in 2010, up from 23,251,026 two decades earlier. This increase coincided, by no accident, with the period in which the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, and neoliberal economic reforms were implemented in countries that have been the sources of migration to the United States.
Nevertheless, looking at the ways migration has affected other countries, and especially at the experiences of migrants themselves, it is clear that US exceptionalism – the idea that this country is somehow unique and different from the rest of the world – has no basis in fact.
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Why, then, is the debate over this country’s immigration policy conducted with such exceptionalist blinders?
One book that helps to remove them is The Immigrant War by Vittorio Longhi, published this year by Policy Press at the University of Chicago. Longhi is an Italian labor and immigrant rights advocate, and he’s looked at his own country, as well as France, the Persian Gulf states, and the United States. All are the recipients of large numbers of migrants.
The United Arab Emirates, for instance, has a migrant population of 3,293,264, almost triple the number 1,330,324, of two decades earlier. The UAE began exporting oil in 1962, when its migrant population was only 65,827. Today, the number of UAE citizens is only slightly more than 1.3 million. Who really produced the oil wealth of Dubai and Abu Dhabi?
France today, with about 66 million inhabitants, has 8,264,070 migrants, up from 5,897,267 about 20 years ago. Italy, with almost 61 million people, has 4,463,413 migrants, up from 1,428,219 in 1990.
Not surprisingly, Longhi finds that “even when someone does succeed in crossing a border, even when they obtain a permit and find a steady job, they are still faced with this ‘implacable war’ against migrants.” Migrants do the worst jobs at the lowest pay, he says, for which they “face xenophobic propaganda that is so functional to what Michel Foucault would call ‘biopower,’ or the ‘subjugation of bodies and the control of populations.'”
Longhi quotes Foucault because he sees anti-immigrant hysteria as part of a system of control. But what makes Longhi’s view more than just one more litany of abuse are two elements. He sees this control – the way migrants are employed – as a system for extracting profits, not just the bad acts of evil people. And he shows that migrants can and do resist. “They change from being passive victims to become new, conscious social agents, capable of fighting for their own rights and contributing to the revival of a wider protest.”
US readers will be startled, especially by his examination of the Persian Gulf, where the system of social control is the most elaborate and is based on labor contracting through guest worker programs. Undocumented migration exists in the Gulf, but at levels much lower than in the United States or Europe.
Longhi describes a brutal system in which “the social exclusion, terrible living conditions and abuse reserved for migrants are possible thanks to the entry quota mechanism, to the criterion of kafala (sponsorship), which binds the migrant to a short-term contract with a sole employer.” As a result, while the average per capita income of a Qatari citizen is $88,000, a contract construction worker from Nepal gets $3,600, and a Filipina domestic worker $2,500.
The point is clear. An elaborate system for contracting labor exists to produce huge wage differentials, and therefore profits for employers. The consequences for workers are disastrous, despite the fact that families and whole towns in countries like the Philippines or Nepal have become dependent on the money sent home out of those low wages.
Longhi also describes a reality even less well known – the rebellions of migrant workers in the Gulf, and the support they’ve received, not only from European unions, but from the barely-legal unions in those countries themselves. Protests in Bahrain, for instance, were organized with the help of that country’s new union federation. Its leaders were among those demonstrating in the Pearl Square protests in Manama, put down by its monarchy with bloody violence.
Longhi interviewed Majid Al Alawi, the country’s former minister for employment for a decade, who lost his job when the protests started. Al Alawi, who’s lived in the UK, sought to reduce the gulf between migrant and citizen workers. “We must start to ask ourselves whether these are really temporary contracted workers or whether they are migrant workers and establish what kind of life plan lies behind their move. These young people are spending the best years of their life here, continually renewing short-term contracts and putting up with terrible conditions. How can a situation of this kind really be considered temporary?”
Good questions for US immigrant rights activists too. Al Alawi’s observations are far in advance of those voiced in the current US Congressional debate over immigration reform. Instead of considering Al Alawi’s question – how to integrate migrants into the communities where they live and provide a decent longterm future, the US Congress is moving in the opposite direction. Its current proposals would erode the priority give to permanent residence and the migration of families, which was a hallmark of the way the US civil rights movement reformed immigration policy in 1965. Instead, Congress is crafting an immigration system oriented toward providing a labor supply for employers, at wages they want to pay.
Longhi then turns to Europe. In France, he describes rising labor militancy among immigrants similar to that taking place in the United States. In one of several examples, “between May and June 2007,” he relates, “more than 50 African waiters and cooks went on strike and occupied the Buffalo Grill of Viry-Chatillon.” These savvy workers gained leverage by mounting their protest during the presidential election campaign, (as the Dreamers did in the United States) and got the support of French unions. In the end, they forced the employer to give them permanent jobs.
Raymond Chaveau, coordinator for work among “sans papiers” [undocumented] workers for the CGT, the traditional left labor federation, says employers use the lack of legal status to create “reserves of low-cost labor,” which he describes in the classical Marxist term as “the industrial reserve army.”
By organizing, restaurant workers – “this reserve army in the kitchen” – have won increasing numbers of permanent jobs – 6,000 in 2007, 12,000 in 2008, and 13,000 in 2009. Their example has something important to say to the US labor movement. Instead of accepting a status in which workers had no rights to their jobs – the equivalent to the lack of “work authorization” that has led to the firing of thousands of undocumented workers in the United States – the French unions negotiated with the government to make undocumented immigrants’ jobs permanent. In 2011, a group of eleven unions presented petitions for 4,000 workers and regularized 3,000.
In addition, they opposed the “Besson law,” touted as a way to stop work on the “black market,” but which imposed new immigration restrictions and reduced workers’ access to legal assistance. The last measure is similar to the denial of access to legal aid programs in the United States for undocumented workers.
Longhi describes a “war against immigrants” taking place in the Mediterranean Sea, whose unadmitted effect, not unlike that of the US wall on the Mexican border, is to make death a penalty for crossing. From 1994 to 2011, a total of 5,962 people died trying to cross the channel from North Africa to Sicily alone. Some 4,500 are still missing, like those who die, unnamed, in the Sonora desert in southern Arizona and California.
Longhi asks, “What would happen if the 4.5 million immigrants living in Italy decided to down tools for a day?” But he then takes his question an important step further: “And if the millions of Italians who are tired of racism supported their actions?” In fact, these were the elements of a manifesto of Italy’s “A Day Without Us” movement of 2010, showing the kind of cross-fertilization that is taking place among migrants and migrant social movements internationally.
In one of the book’s most inspiring passages, Longhi recounts the way farm workers in Puglia and Calabria defied crew bosses to demand changes in conditions. One immigrant, Ivan Saignet from Cameroon, said “The first day I had to sleep on the ground because the tents were already occupied by my companions. That was a shock. I had never seen such a thing, not even in Africa.”
Even in this conservative area of Italy, unions and progressive people came out to support the strikers and forced the employers to employ workers directly instead of using labor contractors. The union for farm workers is now trying to spread the system to other parts of Italy.
Longhi’s arguments are most convincing when he makes a strong case for the way the activity of migrants themselves, especially when it’s supported by unions and progressive social organizations, can win important improvements. At the end of his examination, he goes beyond these descriptions, first to describe the kind of solutions generally centered on the enforcement of international agreements, like UN conventions 97 and 143, which mandate the protection of migrant rights, and calls for the negotiation of new measures.
From a US perspective, this argument raises important questions. The United States has not signed the UN convention on the rights of migrants and their families, and the attitude of successive administrations, and even more so of Congress, is that international agreements only bind the government if it agrees with the results. The US immigrant rights movement is affected by this attitude, to the extent that it has mounted no major campaign to win ratification of Convention 143 in particular. It makes little effort to examine the impact of trade agreements, or to look at the danger of the inclusion of new international guest worker programs as part of the WTO trade negotiations. US immigrant rights advocates will wake up soon in a world they will hardly recognize as a result.
But Longhi’s perspective raises another question as well. US immigration reform proposals are based on the premise that employers should have a ready supply of labor at “competitive” or “market” wages, and that the purpose of immigration policy is to assure it. Arguments that the flow of migrants must be managed, even in their own interest, dovetail uneasily with this perspective.
“There is no other way of providing protection and rights for migrants in a uniform way on a global level than to combine principles and supranational reference regulations with building up consent in individual countries,” Longhi says. Yet he also argues that “the supranational structure under consideration is something other than the institutions or agencies imposed by the richest countries, such as the IMF or the World Bank are for the movements of capital, and the WTO is for the movement of goods and services.”
Perhaps it is easier for a European, with an experience of strong social democratic and left parties and trade unions, to envision an international structure in which workers have influence. As a result of that strength, within the European Union, labor has great mobility, and workers can move relatively freely from country to country, although in the wake of the economic crisis, some governments have sought to erode that. The big barrier is the wall around Europe, restricting the inflow of workers from North Africa and Asia. And like US immigration policy, European policy has swung between ideas of making the movement of people easier, or at least decriminalizing it, and throwing up new barriers.
The US experience, however, is that the effort to establish systems for managing the flow of migrants has led to contract labor programs like the notorious bracero scheme of the 1940s and ’50s, or the equally abusive H2A and H2B guest worker programs of today. And in fact, in his chapter on the United States, Longhi eloquently summarizes the critiques of organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Close to Slavery.” At the same time, however, he says that “the challenge for the Obama administration today is to get a global immigration reform soon, centered on an efficient system of permits for qualified work, granting an amnesty for a large proportion of illegal jobs, and reinforcing controls on the border.”
Progressive US immigrant rights activists have been very critical of this combination of proposals, called “comprehensive immigration reform,” because of its heavy emphasis on anti-immigrant enforcement and guest worker schemes, in tradeoff for legalization.
The alternative proposed by many progressive activists is the termination of guest worker programs entirely, giving migrants residence visas and protecting their ability to reunite their families, while renegotiating the trade agreements that lead to the displacement of communities and the forcible migration of their inhabitants.
This is a long argument in the immigrant rights movement, and Longhi shows us that it is being debated internationally as well. Further, he points to some solutions that the US movement hasn’t considered seriously. But this book’s greatest virtue, and the places where Longhi really becomes an eloquent advocate himself, is in the descriptions of how all over the world migrants are organizing and fighting for their rights. That’s the true hope for the future.