Immigrant Workers: Front-Line Fighters Against the New Global Capitalism

The slogan “immigrant rights are workers rights” is not mere rhetoric. The defense of migrants and refugees, the vast majority of whom are poor workers, is pivotal to the struggle of the entire global working class.

In recent years the international media has been full of stories on the rising tide of immigrant workers in the global economy, their struggles, trials and tribulations, and the widespread repression and hostility they face everywhere from authoritarian states and xenophobic publics. Some of the stories from around the world that have made headlines are: the crisis, largely contrived, of Central American child migration to the United States, along with the openly racist tirades by U.S. president Donald Trump against Mexican immigrants as “rapists and criminals”; the tragedy of thousands of Africans drowning in the Mediterranean as they attempt to reach Europe and the escalating right-wing violence these migrant workers face once they get there; pogroms against Southern African immigrant workers in South African cities; and the suicide of dozens of internal migrant workers in China’s coastal sweatshops, among others. Around the world, borders are militarized, states are stepping up repressive anti-immigrant controls, and native publics are manipulated into scapegoating migrants for the spiraling crisis of global capitalism. Yet everywhere, immigrant justice movements and migrant worker struggles are also on the rise. 

Capitalist globalization in recent decades has displaced millions and turned them into refugees from economic collapse, social strife, military conflict, and climate change, resulting in an unprecedented wave of worldwide migration. In 2015, there were 232 million international migrants and 740 million internal migrants, according to the International Organization on Migration (ILO). Some of the millions uprooted are super-exploited through incorporation into the factories, farms, and offices of the global economy as precarious labor, while others are marginalized and converted into surplus humanity, relegated to marginal existence in a “planet of slums.”

The story of immigrant labor in the twenty-first century is therefore absolutely central to that of the new global capitalism and also to the struggles of the global working class. Yet the groundswell of opposition pushing back against the brutal migrant and refugee policies of the U.S. and other capitalist states around the world is driven largely by moral appeal to social justice. Such moral outrage is crucial, as it mobilizes people to action, reaffirms our humanity, and puts the criminal agents of the police state on the defensive. The uncompromising defense of migrant and refugee rights must be at the very core of any progressive agenda or socialist project at this time of global capitalist crisis. Yet, in the larger strategic perspective, the movement to defend these rights must move beyond moral persuasion alone by advancing an analysis of the political and structural forces that drive the war against migrants and refugees.

Global Capitalism and Migrant Labor

To understand the escalating war on migrants and refugees and to develop effective resistance strategies we must analyze the role that migrant labor plays in the global capitalist economy. Perhaps the most pressing problem the capitalist system faces is how to secure a politically and economically suitable supply of labor.  But what does securing “suitable” labor mean? In the first place, it means uprooting people from their land and other means of livelihood, or what is known as primitive accumulation, so that they have no other choice but to work for capital if they want to survive. Second, it means generating a large enough pool of labor so that this pool can be dipped into as needed and later these same workers can be disposed of when not needed. Third it means generating the means and conditions to deploy that labor wherever it is needed around the world. Finally, it means developing systems of repression and ideological hegemony to assure that workers are tightly controlled, disorganized, disciplined and obedient.

Central to the formation of the world capitalist system was the creation of a world market in labor over the past five hundred years. Securing a suitable labor supply has historically been a key function of colonialism and imperialism. Dominant groups have created and constantly recreated this market over the past five centuries of world capitalism through the most violent and destructive processes imaginable. The formation of this market has involved mechanisms such as the kidnapping and forced removal of some twenty million Africans to the New World; the internal transfer in this New World of tens of millions of indigenous populations; the displacement from their lands of millions of European peasants by the forces of capitalist expansion and their migration around the world as laborers; and the so-called second slavery of millions of “coolie” labor from India and China who, under the weight of colonialism, from the 1870s into the 1930s found themselves displaced, dispossessed and swept up by international labor recruiters by hook and crook to build railroads or work plantations in Africa, Asia, and the Western hemisphere. 

If migration/immigration has thus been central to the creation of the world capitalist system, today it is just as crucial to the reproduction of the new global capitalism. Under capitalist globalization a new global migrant labor supply system has come to replace earlier direct colonial and racial caste controls over labor worldwide. There is a new global working class that labors in the factories, farms, commercial establishments and offices of the global economy—a working class that faces conditions of precariousness, is heavily female, and is increasingly reliant on migrant labor. The ever more rigid division of this global working class into citizen and immigrant is a new axis of inequality worldwide that fragments and disorganizes the working and popular classes everywhere. This division allows for the super-exploitation of migrant workers by transnational capital who are subject to the hyper-control mechanisms imposed by the capitalist state. For these purposes, borders must become militarized war zones, migrants and refugees must be racialized, and states must step up repressive control over these groups.

The super-exploitation of a migrant workforce would not be possible if that workforce had the same civil, political and labor rights as citizens, if it did not face the insecurities and vulnerabilities of being undocumented or “illegal.” State controls over immigrant labor are intended not to prevent but to control the transnational movement of labor and to lock that labor into a situation of permanent insecurity and vulnerability. In addition, in many countries immigrants have been denied access to basic social services and benefits, that is, to the social wage. The immigrant labor force in these countries becomes responsible for its own maintenance and reproduction, which makes immigrant labor low-cost and flexible for capital and also costless for the state compared to native-born labor.

But if global capital needs the labor power of transnational migrants, this labor power belongs to human beings who must be tightly controlled, given the special oppression and dehumanization involved in extracting their labor power as non-citizen immigrant labor. The state must play a balancing act by finding a formula for a stable supply of cheap labor to employers and at the same time for greater state control over immigrants. Reproducing the division of workers into immigrants and citizens requires contradictory practices on the part of states. The state must provide capital with immigrant labor but must also in its ideological activities generate a nationalist hysteria by propagating such images as “out of control borders” and “invasions of illegal immigrants” in order to legitimate the mechanisms of control and surveillance and to turn native against immigrant labor. 

The war on migrants and refugees is more than just labor exploitation. Global inequalities have never been more acute. The top one percent of humanity now controls over half of the world’s wealth while the bottom 80 percent must make do with just 4.5 percent of that wealth. Capitalist globalization has expanded the ranks of surplus humanity. According to the ILO report mentioned above, in the late twentieth century some one-third of the global labor forces had been made superfluous and locked out of the global economy. Even the CIA felt compelled to warn in 2002 that by the late 1990s a staggering one billion workers representing one-third of the world’s labor force, most of them in the South, were either unemployed or underemployed.

Dominant groups face the challenge of how to contain both the real and potential rebellion of surplus humanity and to deflect the tensions that acute global inequality generates. For this purpose, the corporate and political agents of global capitalism have been developing and deploying vast new systems of transnational social control and repression as they put into place a global police state. The battery of surveillance and repression against migrants and refugees is but the most exposed tip of a larger arsenal of war wielded against the dispossessed and marginalized everywhere, and ultimately against all those who do not conform to, or who face the challenge of surviving in, the global capitalist order.

As global capitalism sinks into an ever-deeper crisis of legitimacy there has been a sharp political polarization worldwide between a renascent left and a resurgent far-right that is at this time pushing a neofascist mobilization. This mobilization rests on organizing a social base among those more privileged sectors of the global working classes who are experiencing precariousness, destabilization and downward mobility as a result of capitalist globalization. The ruling groups must channel mass anxiety among these sectors toward communities that are most vulnerable and can therefore serve as scapegoats for the crisis. Relentless repression of migrants and refugees, Trump’s fanatical “build the wall” rhetoric, and the racist discourse of criminalization all serve these ends. The war on migrants and refugees and its attendant discursive and ideological dimensions draw attention away from the failures of global capitalism around the world. The backdrop to the current refugee crisis in the United States, for instance, is the second implosion of Central America, reflecting the spiraling crisis of global capitalism itself. This implosion is the result of the collapse of a new round of capitalist development unleashed on that region in the wake of the 1980s upheavals to the drumbeat of the globalization. The migrants and refugees of the 21st century are potent symbols of the catastrophe that is global capitalism. Exposing this catastrophe helps push back against the subterfuge of anti-migrant rhetoric, to identify the actual causes of the migrant and refugee crisis, and to counter scapegoating.

Migrant Repression and Militarized Accumulation

Criminalization and militarized control over immigrant labor reflects a broader militarization of the global economy. Beyond the United States, major sectors of the transnational capitalist class are becoming dependent on local, regional, and global violence, conflict, and inequalities. In fact, they push for such conflict through their influence on states and in political and cultural systems. This militarized accumulation, or accumulation by repression, as I have termed it, is characteristic of the entire global economy. We are now living in a global war economy that is dependent on perpetual state organized war making, social control, and repression. While the old-style military Keynesianism, which refers to expanding military budgets to offset stagnation in the capitalist economy, is still in place, the concept of militarized accumulation points to the more expansive role that generating war, repression, and systems of transnational social control now play as they move to the very center of the global economy. The global police state spans systems of mass incarceration, immigrant detention and deportation, refugee control systems, the construction of border and containment walls, mass surveillance, urban policing, the deployment of paramilitary and private mercenary armies and security forces, and so on.

Repressive state controls over migrants serve several functions for global capitalism. First, state repression and criminalization of undocumented immigrants makes them vulnerable and deportable, and therefore subject to conditions of super-exploitation and hyper-surveillance. Second, anti-immigrant repressive apparatuses and social control systems are themselves ever more important sources of accumulation, ranging from private, for-profit immigrant detention centers, to the militarization of borders, and the purchase by states of military hardware and systems of surveillance. Third, the anti-immigrant policies associated with repressive state apparatuses help shift the focus away from the crisis of global capitalism, converting immigrant workers into scapegoats for the crisis. This deflects attention from its root causes and undermines working-class unity.

The new systems of social control and repression are enormously profitable at a time when the global economy is facing a deep structural crisis of what political economists call over-accumulation. This refers to massive pile ups of surplus accumulated capital (profits) that cannot find outlets for profitable reinvestment. As uninvested capital accumulates, enormous pressures build up to find outlets for unloading surplus. A convergence forms around global capitalism’s political need for social control and repression and its economic need to perpetuate accumulation in the face of stagnation. If it is evident that unprecedented global inequalities can only be sustained by ubiquitous systems of social control and repression, it becomes equally evident that apart from political considerations, the transnational capitalist class has acquired a vested interest in war, conflict, and repression as a means of accumulation. As war and state-sponsored violence become increasingly privatized, the interests of a broad array of capitalist groups shift the political, social, and ideological climate towards generating and sustaining social conflict and in expanding systems of warfare, repression, surveillance and social control. 

Hence, the so-called wars on terrorism and drugs, the hot wars around the world, and the persecution of migrants, refugees and gangs (and poor, dark-skinned, and working-class youth more generally) amount to vast programs for global accumulation through militarization and repression. The war against migrants and refugees is an ever more important source of accumulation for transnational capital in a double sense. First, every phase of it has become a wellspring of profit making, from private, for-profit detention centers and the provision of services inside public detention centers such as healthcare, food, phone systems, to other ancillary activities of the deportation regime, ranging from government contracting of private charter flights to ferry deportees back home, and the equipping of armies of border agents. Second, if this war opens vast new outlets for unloading surplus it also provides capital with the opportunity to intensify exploitation and to place downward pressure more generally on workers’ wages.

The war on immigrants in the United States provides a textbook case study on militarized accumulation and accumulation by repression. The day after Donald Trump’s November 2016 electoral victory, the stock price of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA, which later changed its name to CoreCivic), the largest for-profit immigrant detention and prison company in the United States, soared 40 percent, given Trump’s promise to deport millions of immigrants. Earlier in 2016, CCA’s CEO Damon Hiniger reported a five percent increase in first quarter earners as a result of “stronger than anticipated demand from our federal partners, most notably Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” as a result of the escalating detention of immigrant women and children fleeing violence in Central America. The stock price of another leading private prison and immigrant detention company, Geo Group, saw its stock prices triple in the first few months of the Trump regime (the company had contributed $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration and was then awarded with a $110 million contract to build a new immigrant detention center in California). Hundreds of private firms from around the world put in bids to construct Trump’s infamous U.S.-Mexico border wall.

As the United States has led the way in capitalist globalization it has also led the way in the construction of the new transient labor system.  During the 1980s eight million Latin American emigrants arrived in the United States as globalization, neoliberalism, and U.S. intervention induced a wave of outmigration from Latin America. This was nearly equal to the total figure of European immigrants who arrived on U.S. shores during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and made Latin America the principal origin of migration into the United States. Some 36 million immigrant workers were in the United States in 2010, at least 20 million of them from Latin America. 

The U.S.-Mexico border was already by the end of the twentieth century one of the most militarized stretches of land in the world, with ten guards for every mile for the length of the 2,000-mile border. Many stretches along the frontier are akin to a war zone. U.S. president Donald Trump’s fanatical campaign to “build the wall” was distinct in rhetoric only from the border militarization pursued by his predecessors, Democratic and Republican alike. The government claims a hundred-mile wide “constitutional suspension zone” inside the entire U.S. border in the name of immigration control, including the coasts, encompassing some 200 million people. In this zone the state claims the power to set up checkpoints, to determine anyone’s status, to conduct stop and search at will and to seize and copy laptops and cell phones.

In the 1990s, the U.S. Congress and the Department of Defense set aside the U.S.-Mexico border for the development of high-tech military and security industrial development. Researcher Juan Manuel Sandoval trace how the border region has been reconfigured into a “global space for the expansion of transnational capital” centered around high-tech military and aerospace related industries, military bases, and the deploying of other civilian and military forces for combating “immigration, drug trafficking, and terrorism through a strategy of low-intensity warfare” on the U.S. side along with the expansion of maquiladoras (sweatshops), mining and industry on the Mexican side in the framework of capitalist globalization and North American integration. He shows how the border region has become a single integrated site of intensive militarized accumulation that is in turn integrated into the larger worldwide circuits of global capitalism.

Undocumented immigrants constitute the fastest growing sector of the U.S. prison population and are detained in private detention centers and deported by private companies contracted out by the U.S. state. As of 2010 there were 270 immigration detention centers that caged on any given day over 30,000 immigrants and annually locked up some 400,000 individuals, compared to just a few dozen people in immigrant detention each day prior to the 1980s—that is, prior to the launching of capitalist globalization and the new transnational systems of labor recruitment and control associated with it. Under the Obama presidency, more immigrants were detained and deported than at any time in the previous half century. Detentions and deportations then escalated further under Trump, thus continuing the pattern in place since the 1980s. Since detainment facilities and deportation logistics are subcontracted to private companies, capital has a vested interest in the criminalization of immigrants and in the militarization of control over immigrants—and more broadly, therefore, a vested interest in contributing to the neo-fascist anti-immigrant movement.

A month after the draconian anti-immigrant bill in Arizona, SB1070, became law in 2010 (the first in a spate of such state laws), Wayne Callabres, the president of Geo Group held a conference call with investors and explained his company’s aspirations. “Opportunities at the federal level are going to continue apace as a result of what’s happening,” he said, referring to the Arizona law. “Those people coming across the border being caught are going to have to be detained and that to me at least suggests there’s going to be enhanced opportunities for what we do.” The 2005 annual report of the CCA stated with regard to the profit-making opportunities opened up by the prison-industrial complex: “Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities…The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.”

It was revealed in 2017 that some 60,000 immigrants held in Geo Group detention centers were being coerced into performing all sorts of labor to upkeep the company’s facilities in exchange for $1 a day in pay. By relying on the free work of the detainees, charged a lawsuit filed against the company, Geo Group maintained an entire facility in Colorado with just one janitor on the payroll. The government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency also turned to privatizing flights deporting immigrants. One of several companies contracted by ICE, CSI Aviation, received more than $300 million in contracts to provide ICE with air passenger service in the three years from 2014 to 2016. A government report found that ICE was often paying for charter flights that were mostly empty. Not just detention and deportation, but everything in between, from food, phone systems, and other services provided to the detention facilities, are contracted out to private companies. This includes government contracts to private companies for GPS ankle monitors placed on detainees released on bond, even though the detainees must themselves pay hundreds of dollars a month to wear the monitors.

Immigrant Justice at the Cutting Edge of Working-Class Struggles

As anti-immigrant scapegoating and racism heightened in the latter part of the twentieth century, so too did resistance on the part of immigrants and their supporters. Immigrant workers have played a prominent role in labor struggles. In the United States, an immigrant justice movement dates back decades and had been building as part of the Central American solidarity activities of the 1980s. This movement then exploded into mass protests in the United States in spring 2006, triggered by the introduction in the U.S. Senate of a draconian piece of draft legislation, known as the “Sensenbrenner bill,” named for the sponsoring senator, that would have criminalized undocumented immigrants and their supporters. These mass protests of spring 2006 helped defeat the bill but also sparked an escalation of state repression and racist nativism and fueled the neo-fascist anti-immigrant and white nationalist movements.

The election of the openly racist and anti-immigrant Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016 resulted in a sharp escalation of fanatical anti-immigrant hysteria as part of the Trump regime’s strategy to scapegoat immigrants for the crisis. But beyond scapegoating, the criminalization of immigrants, the increase in raids and detentions, and “build the wall” rhetoric were part of a larger strategy to disarticulate political organization and resistance among immigrant communities. It was not surprising that the wave of detentions, and deportation of immigrants from Mexico and Central America as Trump took office targeted in particular labor and community activists among the undocumented immigrant community. U.S. rulers appeared to be pushing forward with the effort to replace the system of super-exploitation of undocumented immigrant labor with a mass “guest worker program” (read: labor peonage) that would be more efficient in combining super-exploitation with super control. Indeed, while the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrant workers in California escalated in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the use of “guest workers” in that state’s $47 billion agricultural industry increased by 500 percent from 2011 to 2017.

A mass immigrant rights movement is at the cutting edge of the struggle against transnational corporate exploitation. Granting full citizenship rights to the hundreds of millions of immigrants around the world would undermine the division of workers into immigrants and citizens and weaken capital’s ability to divide and exploit the global working class. That division is a central component of the new class relations of global capitalism, predicated on making “casual” and “flexible” a mass of contingent workers—immigrant and native alike—that can be hired and fired at will, de-unionized, and forced into precarious work conditions, job instability, a rollback of benefits, and downward pressures on wages. The strategic challenge of the immigrant justice movement in the United States, as elsewhere, is how to achieve the hegemony of the mass worker base within the movement. This would certainly involve, among other things, a much more militant and sweeping commitment on the part of trade unions to organize immigrant workers and to prioritize the defense of immigrants in their political work. It would also involve wresting the immigrant rights political agenda away from the Democratic Party and the Latino Establishment, although this discussion is not something I can take up here (but see here). 

The expanding crisis of global capitalism opens up grave dangers—for immigrants and for all of humanity. It also opens up opportunities. To reverse this anti-immigrant onslaught, we must not turn to the political parties of the status quo (e.g., the Democratic Party in the United States), to the transnational capitalist class, or to the halls of establishment power. Instead, we must turn to the mass base of this movement—the communities of poor immigrant workers and their families who swell the cities and rural towns of the world. Defense of migrants and refugees is at the frontline of the pushback against a global political economy that has thrust us into permanent warfare and state repression while depriving us of an economy that could meet the needs of humanity. The refrain “immigrant rights are workers rights” is not mere rhetoric. The defense of migrants and refugees, the vast majority of whom are poor workers, is pivotal to the struggle of the entire global working class.