The Troubling Link Between Attacks on Immigrants and Repression of Labor Activists

Harry Blain December 5, 2018

Kirstjen M. Nielsen, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, tours the border area with San Diego Section Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott (L) at Borderfield State Park along the United States-Mexico Border fence in San Ysidro, California on November 20, 2018. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker / AFP) (Photo credit should read SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

The Repub­li­can pre-elec­tion strat­e­gy of exploit­ing the car­a­van” was irre­deemably ugly.

It’s hard to say what was worse: the shame­less and far­ci­cal fram­ing of a help­less stream of peo­ple as a nation­al secu­ri­ty threat, or the president’s off-hand sug­ges­tion that these peo­ple might actu­al­ly be fund­ed by the prime vil­lain of most anti-Semit­ic con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries: George Soros.

Few com­men­ta­tors have failed to point out the obvi­ous effects of this gut­ter-pol­i­tics play­book: the debase­ment of pub­lic dis­course on immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy; the wink-and-nudge of encour­age­ment offered to the most sin­is­ter fringes of the Amer­i­can far-right; or the aggra­va­tion of racial ani­mos­i­ty against peo­ple of col­or in the Unit­ed States.

Yet this country’s his­to­ry also points to oth­er, often over­looked ten­den­cies. Polit­i­cal­ly, insti­tu­tion­al­ly, and legal­ly, the tar­get­ing of immi­grants has almost always fig­ured promi­nent­ly in wider attacks on labor move­ments and civ­il lib­er­ties. To a large and alarm­ing extent, it’s the same sto­ry today.

Aliens and Dissenters”

The sto­ry of Amer­i­can nativism” is replete with con­tra­dic­tions and ironies.

The Protes­tants fled from the Catholics — and then oppressed them. The Irish and the Ital­ians fled var­i­ous forms of pri­va­tion in Europe — and then fought to keep each oth­er down in New York. West Coast politi­cians hat­ed the Chi­nese and respect­ed the Japan­ese in the late 19th cen­tu­ry — and then reversed the equa­tion in the 1930s and 40s. Mex­i­cans were defined as white” by the Cen­sus Bureau until 1930 — and now they’re a much-favored punch­ing bag for white supremacists. 

Almost every­one, at some point, has fought to keep some­one else out. And Don­ald Trump is far from the first to real­ize that this impulse can cut across class lines: unit­ing the hon­est Mid­west­ern auto work­er with the duplic­i­tous New York real estate devel­op­er — or, in anoth­er time, the pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor with the cyn­i­cal Wash­ing­ton legislator.

These osten­si­bly strange coali­tions have always had ratio­nal foun­da­tions: less com­pe­ti­tion, from the per­spec­tive of native” labor; and polit­i­cal rewards, from the per­spec­tive of past and present Trumps.

But this is only part of the sto­ry. Indeed, some of the strongest moments in the his­to­ry of the North Amer­i­can labor move­ment have been defined by cross-eth­nic unity.

Notably, the rise of the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World (IWW) in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry fol­lowed an unprece­dent­ed wave of immi­gra­tion through­out the pre­vi­ous four decades. This cre­at­ed a mas­sive sleep­ing giant” of unskilled urban and rur­al work­ers across the coun­try, which the Wob­blies” — at least ini­tial­ly — were able to orga­nize into a potent polit­i­cal force. From the tex­tile mills of Lawrence, Mass­a­chu­setts, to the cop­per mines of Bis­bee, Ari­zona, the IWW put extreme pres­sure on the pil­lars of cor­po­rate pow­er that had seemed so immov­able since the Civ­il War.

The abil­i­ty of the IWW to har­ness the col­lec­tive strength of immi­grant labor was not lost on its ene­mies in gov­ern­ment. Par­tic­u­lar­ly under the cov­er of World War I and the Red Scare” of 1919 – 20, the Woodrow Wil­son admin­is­tra­tion over­saw the sum­ma­ry depor­ta­tion of around 250 for­eign rad­i­cals” and the deten­tion of thou­sands more, while Con­gress soon passed leg­is­la­tion per­mit­ting the depor­ta­tion of aliens” who mere­ly sym­pa­thized” with rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideologies.

Depor­ta­tion,” William Pre­ston puts it in Aliens and Dis­senters, became the first love of those who desired to rid the coun­try of isms’” — espe­cial­ly J. Edgar Hoover at the Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion and Antho­ny Caminet­ti at the Bureau of Immigration.

Today, we may not quite be in the same hys­ter­i­cal age as the Red Scare,” but the sim­i­lar­i­ties are hard to ignore. Rogue fed­er­al agen­cies using depor­ta­tion as a polit­i­cal weapon; labor unions are fac­ing a vari­ety of attacks from all lev­els of gov­ern­ment; and broad, class-based coali­tions are inhib­it­ed by well-craft­ed elite demagoguery.

The tar­get­ing of immi­grants isn’t car­ried out just for the fun of it, but it is inti­mate­ly linked to a long and igno­ble record of labor repres­sion in the Unit­ed States.

The Slip­pery Slope for Civ­il Liberties

Due process is so often the first casu­al­ty of these attacks on for­eign rad­i­cals.” Free speech isn’t far behind.

Just as Emma Gold­man was deport­ed for the dan­ger” posed by her anar­chist beliefs, a long list of activists — main­ly asso­ci­at­ed with pro-immi­grant Sanc­tu­ary” move­ments — have faced the same threat from Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) in our time: Jean Mon­tre­vil and Ravi Rag­bir in New York; Daniela Var­gas in Mis­sis­sip­pi; José Enrique Bal­cazar Sanchez and Zul­ly Vic­to­ria Pala­cios Rodriguez in Ver­mont; and Maru Mora-Vil­lal­pan­do and Bal­tazar Abur­to Gutier­rez in Wash­ing­ton State.

Briefly strip away our instinc­tive cit­i­zen-alien” dis­tinc­tions and con­sid­er what’s hap­pen­ing here: Peo­ple in the Unit­ed States are non-vio­lent­ly chal­leng­ing the actions of its gov­ern­ment, and being met with not just offi­cial indif­fer­ence, but hos­tile intimidation.

It would be awful­ly naïve to expect such repres­sion to be con­fined to those with­out the pro­tec­tions of cit­i­zen­ship. It’s no coin­ci­dence that Alien” and Sedi­tion” Acts often come in pairs, as in 1798, 1918, and 1940. The dis­mal, unceas­ing fact is that when we allow the gov­ern­ment to chase down unruly for­eign­ers with lit­tle to no regard for their civ­il lib­er­ty, a wider spi­ral of state-spon­sored law­less­ness is set in motion.

Peo­ple like J. Edgar Hoover learned what they could get away with dur­ing their wild cru­sades against alien sub­ver­sion,” and lat­er applied many of the same meth­ods against their home-grown foes. Joseph McCarthy and Mar­tin Dies first put small num­bers of for­eign­ers under the spot­light of their inqui­si­tion in search of Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties,” but end­ed up ruin­ing the careers of at least ten thou­sand peo­ple for­ev­er tar­nished as dis­loy­al” by anony­mous alle­ga­tions and Kafkaesque pub­lic questioning.

This ten­den­cy of civ­il lib­er­ties vio­la­tions to spread hasn’t eased with time — nor has it been con­fined with­in U.S. borders.

As Eric Orms­by points out in a recent Colum­bia Law Review arti­cle, the extra-legal Guan­tanamo Bay prison régime began not after 911, but as a deten­tion cen­ter for Hait­ian asy­lum seek­ers in the 1990s. The vic­tims of Hungary’s emer­gency” leg­is­la­tion aimed at deter­ring” asy­lum seek­ers from Syr­ia have not just been the des­per­ate exiles, but also Hun­gar­i­an cit­i­zens whose homes can now be searched by police with­out a war­rant if they are sus­pect­ed of har­bor­ing refugees.” The 2015 Aus­tralian Bor­der Force Act promised to pun­ish not just boat peo­ple” seek­ing refuge in the sparse­ly pop­u­lat­ed con­ti­nent nation, but also work­ers in off­shore deten­tion facil­i­ties want­i­ng to share their sto­ries with the media.

As these poli­cies have increased in terms of both vol­ume and com­plex­i­ty, their impacts on human rights gen­er­al­ly have grown,” Orms­by con­cludes. There is lit­tle rea­son to assume that domes­tic civ­il lib­er­ties will nec­es­sar­i­ly escape unscathed.”

The Dan­ger of Compromise

This is a gen­tle way of say­ing that the sit­u­a­tion is urgent. Cal­lous fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion and reck­less troop deploy­ments to the South­ern bor­der are signs of an embold­ened admin­is­tra­tion uncon­strained by the half-heart­ed com­plaints of Repub­li­cans in Congress.

The lead­ers of the Democ­rats — who have tak­en over the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives — are promis­ing com­pro­mise and bipar­ti­san­ship with the exec­u­tive branch. This might be pos­si­ble and desir­able on a whole range of issues. But com­pro­mis­ing on the rights of immi­grants would amount to an astound­ing betray­al of their courage, com­mit­ment, and trust.

And, as his­to­ry and com­mon sense tes­ti­fy, it won’t just be immi­grants who ulti­mate­ly suffer. 

This arti­cle first appeared on For­eign Pol­i­cy In Focus.

Har­ry Blain is a PhD stu­dent in polit­i­cal sci­ence at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter, CUNY (City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York).
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