[URBANTH-L]Two Reviews of David Bacon's book, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants

Angela Jancius, Ph.D. jancius at ohio.edu
Fri May 8 10:09:37 EDT 2009

A belated happy May Day!   - AJ

The Immigration System: Maybe Not So Broken
by David L. Wilson

Reviewed on MRZine.org, http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/wilson270409.html

David Bacon, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and 
Criminalizes Immigrants, Beacon Press, 2008.  Hardcover, 261 pages, $26.95.

With the Obama administration reportedly set to push for immigration reform 
this year, the debate on immigration seems likely to start up again.  If 
it's anything like the debate we got from the mainstream media in previous 
years, we can expect something remarkably shallow and repetitious.  We'll 
hear the two sides agree that "the system is broken" and that the United 
States must "stem the tide" of undocumented immigrants.  Then the hard right 
will insist on a vast expansion of existing enforcement measures, while the 
"left" will propose a compromise based on a modest increase in enforcement 
coupled with a limited amnesty for the current undocumented population and a 
guest worker program for future immigrants.

If we want a more productive discussion this time around, we should start 
off differently, with some basic questions: If we don't want undocumented 
workers in the United States, shouldn't we ask why they come here?  If we're 
planning to expand enforcement, wouldn't it make sense to ask what results 
we've gotten from the billions of dollars we've already spent on enforcement 
over the last two decades?  And why do we so rarely hear the views of the 
people most directly affected -- the 12 million undocumented immigrants 

These are exactly the questions veteran labor journalist David Bacon 
addresses in his latest book.  (Disclosure: David Bacon gave advice and 
other help with a book of which I'm a co-author and provided one of his 
photographs for the cover.)

Much of Bacon's answer is right there in his title: Illegal People: How 
Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants.  He argues that 
undocumented workers come here largely because of the neoliberal economic 
policies that the U.S. elite has vigorously pushed on our southern neighbors 
over the past 30 years, disrupting local economies and forcing millions to 
seek employment outside their countries.  At the same time, he says, U.S. 
legislators were passing laws that tightened restrictions on immigrants from 
these countries.  These restrictions haven't stopped immigration; instead, 
they've created a class of "illegals" who are forced to keep their heads 
down as they work for less pay in brutal conditions -- involuntarily 
providing downward pressure on the wages of native-born workers.  In short, 
he shows us a system that lets U.S. corporations profit from globalization 
in countries like Mexico and then profit again by exploiting globalization's 
victims when they seek work here.

It's easy enough to document this process with statistics and academic 
studies, and Bacon does his share of that.  But he also brings the 
statistics to life by providing the other element missing in the immigration 
debate -- he tells us about the experiences and opinions of actual 

-- Juan González (not his real name) worked at the giant Cananea copper 
mine, which the Mexican government sold in 1990 for a fraction of its value 
to the Grupo México corporation as part of a massive privatization program 
promoted by the United States.  González was fired in 1998 because of his 
role in a strike against the new owners.  Blacklisted and unable to find a 
decent job in his home state of  Sonora, he ended up becoming an "illegal" 
working in an Arizona warehouse.

-- Luz Domínguez and Marcela Melquíades worked for years cleaning hotel 
rooms in Emeryville, a small city on the San Francisco Bay.  Their employers 
had no problems with their lack of legal status until the city council 
passed a living wage ordinance and some hotel employees complained their 
bosses weren't in compliance.  Management then discovered problems with the 
workers' documents and fired them.

-- Edilberto Morales is the only survivor of a September 2002 accident that 
killed 14 immigrant forestry workers when their speeding van ran off a 
wooden bridge into Maine's Allagash River.  The workers were employed 
through the U.S. government's H2 guest worker program.  The U.S. Labor 
Department found that the employer, Evergreen Forestry Services, had failed 
to ensure the workers' safety and fined Evergreen $17,000 -- but the company 
never lost its certification for the H2 program.

Bacon brings together the system's different aspects in the person of 
Representative James Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin.  Sensenbrenner 
is best known as the author of HR 4437, an ultimately unsuccessful bill that 
would have made felons of undocumented workers like González, Domínguez, and 
Melquíades.  But Sensenbrenner has other interests in the issue.  His family 
founded the Kimberly-Clark Company in the early 1900s, and the family trust 
continues to be an important shareholder in the papermaking giant.  Many of 
the workers who plant and fell the trees that ultimately become 
Kimberly-Clark's paper are hired through the H2 program by forestry 
companies like Evergreen, which employed Morales and his 14 coworkers. 
Kimberly-Clark's Mexican subsidiary is closely associated with Grupo México, 
which fired González from the Cananea copper mine.

Far from being broken, our immigration system actually seems to work quite 
well for people like James Sensenbrenner.  Whatever the CEOs and politicians 
say in the media, it's hard to see what interest they would have in fixing 
it, and in fact their proposals usually look more like a blueprint for 
increasing the pressure on immigrant workers while using guest worker 
programs to regulate and streamline the exploitation.

What is the solution for the rest of us?  Most discussions of reform focus 
on legislation, and Bacon addresses the issue, highlighting the pro-worker 
features of HR 2092, introduced by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of 
Houston in 2005 (reintroduced in 2009 as HR 264).   But Bacon's emphasis is 
more on what immigrants and their allies are doing on the street and on the 
shop floor.

He tells about the activists the media's immigration debate pointedly 
ignores: Pablo Alvarado, who uses leaflets and Mexican corridos to organize 
day workers on Los Angeles street corners; Ana Martínez, who applied union 
organizing skills she learned in her native El Salvador to a 1993 strike by 
United Electrical (UE) workers in Pomona, California; state legislators, 
unions, and activists from the African American and immigrant communities 
joining together to empower workers through the Mississippi Immigrant Rights 
Alliance (MIRA).  The great May 2006 demonstrations for immigrants' rights 
may have been unprecedented, but they were a natural result of this sort of 
incremental organizing over the years.

For Bacon, as for many immigration activists, the real reform will come from 
these immigrant organizers and from citizens who recognize that their 
interests lie in solidarity with their immigrant neighbors and coworkers, 
not with the Sensenbrenners.  Instead of accepting the mainstream media's 
superficial framing of the immigration debate, people who are serious about 
these issues should read Illegal People -- and then go join some "illegal 
people" on a picket line or at a march for immigrant rights this May Day.
David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of 
Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, July 2007).

Don't Pity the Poor Immigrants, Fight Alongside Them
Michael D. Yates
Reviewed in Monthly Review, June 2009

David Bacon, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and 
Criminalizes Immigrants (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 261 pages, $25.95, 

In this compelling and useful book, David Bacon lays to rest the 
anti-immigration arguments of the xenophobes and racists who bombard us 
every day in the press, on televison, and on radio talks shows with the 
vicious assertion that immigrants, mainly those from Mexico and Latin 
America, are the cause of all our economic and social problems.

I will get to Bacon's arguments shortly, but what makes the book especially 
good is its interweaving of analysis and individual immigrant biographies. 
When CNN's premier immigrant basher, Lou Dobbs, refers every evening to 
"illegal aliens," he intentionally depersonalizes them and makes it easier 
for his audience to accept his demonization of what are, as Bacon indelibly 
shows us, ordinary and often heroic human beings. Consider these immigrants 
whose stories Bacon

Luz Dominguez is a Mexican woman. She came to the United States because she 
couldn't support her family in Mexico City. She does backbreaking work 
cleaning rooms in a California hotel. Her father, after a lifetime of 
construction labor in Mexico, has come to live with her. She sends money 
back home so her daughter can attend college. She is undocumented, not 
through choice but because it is not possible for a person such as herself, 
an unskilled Mexican woman, to obtain the necessary documents. The United 
States imposes strict and extremely meager quotas on such potential 
immigrants. She has been a good citizen in the United States. She works 
hard, pays her bills, pays taxes, even puts money in a social security 
account from which she will never be able to withdraw money. The fact that 
she has a Social Security number but is an undocumented immigrant 
constitutes, according to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement 
(ICE), "identity fraud." She could be deported or sent to prison for this. 
But as Bacon tells us, "There is no evidence to suggest that the genuine 
holder of a Social Security number is harmed when someone else uses that 
number on the job. After all, an employer will be depositing extra money 
into the true cardholder's account, and the worker using the incorrect 
number will never be able to collect the benefits those earnings accrue." If 
the number does not belong to anyone, the money deposited in this new 
account will just go into the Social Security fund. So, ironically, 
undocumented immigrants are subsidized the social security system, to the 
benefit of all of us, including Lou Dobbs.

Juan Gonzalez was a copper miner in Cananea, just seventy miles south of 
Arizona. Copper mining has a long history in Mexico. The first mines were 
owned by U.S. companies, but the Mexican government took majority control in 
the early 1970s. Like all mining, copper production is dangerous work, and 
the miners struggled long and hard to form unions to protect themselves and 
secure higher wages. They faced extreme repression, but often in concert 
with miners in the United States (many of them Mexican), they managed to 
secure some victories. As one miner put it, "When we have problems, there 
are no borders. We all have to work to survive." However, when neoliberalism 
raised its ugly head in the late 1980s, Mexico's national industries were 
placed on the chopping block, sold to wealthy private interests at bargain 
basement prices. The new owners were Mexican, but they had deep connections 
with large U.S. corporations, and it was the U.S. government, in league with 
these same businesses, that had pressured Mexico and scores of other poor 
countries to introduce the "free market" reforms that are the hallmarks of 
neoliberalism: cut government social spending, slash employment, privatize 
national enterprises and public services, attract foreign capital with tax 
and other concessions, make unionization difficult, and so forth. When these 
"reforms" led to the closing of a miners' hospital, a large reduction in the 
workforce, gross violations of the collective bargaining agreement, and the 
company's refusal to continue maintaining a dam and operating the town's 
water works, the miners struck. When the strike ended (the miners had 
occupied the mine but were convinced to leave when union leaders feared that 
they would be killed by the Mexican soldiers who had taken over the town), 
Juan Gonzalez was blacklisted. After a year of unemployment, he walked 
across the desert into Arizona. As Bacon says, "The line of applicants for 
visas, which would have allowed him to work in the United States legally, is 
many years long, and he'd already exhausted his family's resources." Juan 
risked his life in the desert to come to a place that, before it was stolen 
by U.S. military might, was part of Mexico. Now he is a criminal.

Edilberto Morales is from a small town in Guatemala, a few miles from the 
Mexican border.. When coffee prices fell in the late 1990s, he tried to 
migrate north. Twice the Mexican police sent him back, more than $2,000 in 
debt-he had had to borrow money to make the journeys. He then contacted a 
man who arranged for men to go to the United States to work under the H2-B 
visa program that allows private companies to hire temporary foreign workers 
for a fixed period of time. The contact man was a former paramilitary 
member, a right-wing killer who had helped the government and employers 
fight a revolutionary movement of peasants and workers. After the United 
States orchestrated a coup against reformist president Arbenz in 1954, 
Guatemala's ruling class waged relentless war against the poor, killing more 
than 100,000 and forcing hundreds of thousands more to flee the country. 
Ironically, the paramilitary man had received political asylum in the United 
States. He worked for Evergreen Forestry Services, a large labor contractor; 
his job was to recruit H2-B workers to plant trees that would be used to 
make paper. Morales ended up in Caribou, Maine, where he lived in three 
rooms above a gun shop with five other men. He worked ten or eleven hours a 
day in the damp chilly woods of northern Maine, paid $25 to plant 1,000 
seedlings. No lunch break, no pay for overtime, nothing left after food and 
lodging deductions. One morning, a tire blew out on the truck that 
transported him to work. The truck hurtled into a river, and Morales was the 
only survivor. Fourteen men died. One of the businesses that contracts with 
firms like Evergreen is the paper company, Kimberley-Clark. This storied 
company was founded in 1906; the next year Frank Sensenbrenner became 
president. Frank's grandson and an heir to the family business is Wisconsin 
congressman, James Sensenbrenner. This wealthy politician is on the far 
right, and in 2005 he sponsored and pushed through the House of 
Representatives one of the most draconian immigration bills in the nation's 
history. Bacon describes its provisions:

His bill, HR 4437, would have made federal felons of all 12 million 
undocumented immigrants in the United States, criminalizing teachers, 
nurses, or priests who helped them, and built a seven-hundred mile? wall on 
the U.S.-Mexican border to keep people from crossing. The bill never passed 
the Senate, but its wide margin of approval in the House was a vivid 
demonstration of how deep congressional and anti-immigrant hysteria had 

It is unimaginable that Mr. Sensenbrenner is unaware of Kimberley-Clark's 
use of immigrant labor and of how the low wages of this labor have helped to 
make him rich. He must also know that his family's business connections 
include powerful Mexican companies, including copper enterprises, whose 
policies help force workers across the border. Yet, he traveled across the 
United States promoting his anti-immigrant agenda. Sad to say, his hypocrisy 
went unmentioned in the media.

Bacon draws a number of conclusions from these stories. First, these 
workers' circumstances were determined not by their desires and actions but 
by a complex panoply of forces, all intimately tied to the essence of the 
capitalist world economy, namely the accumulation of capital: the incessant 
and malevolent drive by businesses large and small to make as much money as 
possible and to expand capital here, there, and everywhere. Capitalists in 
the United States use their political power to shape an imperial government 
that enforces, through its diplomatic and military might, the actions of the 
large and therefore most influential corporations. When Latin American 
nations gained political independence from Spain, the United States quickly 
asserted its power and soon dominated the new governments and economies. It 
found all too willing allies among the traditional landed elites and then 
among nascent local industrialists. The United States turned a blind eye to 
military dictatorships, standing ready to support them with guns and troops 
whenever an insurgency threatened stability. Local elites were happy to go 
along for a piece of the cash pie. Whether Luz, Juan, and Edilberto were 
happy mattered not a bit. Their job was to work and obey. If their small 
plots were taken by the coffee growers, they had to move. If the factory in 
the city shut its doors, they had to move. If these things happened because 
their government had signed a trade agreement with the United States, they 
still had to move. They could organize and fight back, and they did, but the 
odds were heavily against them. If they weren't killed, they'd probably have 
to move. People have to eat; if they can't get food at home, they have to 
move. If the food is in the United States, they will move there. The choice 
isn't really theirs. The decisions were made for them, by forces beyond 
their control. As Bacon says, "globalization [meaning capitalism] creates 

Second, the large influx of immigrants to the United States has been good 
for business, and corporate leaders know it. From it inception several 
hundred years ago, capitalism and displaced labor have gone hand-in-hand. 
One of capitalism's hallmarks-wage labor-would not have been possible 
without the forcible eviction of peasants from their land. The industrial 
development of the United States was built upon the theft of peasant land 
and the peasant bodies. Without slaves and poorly paid workers dispossessed 
in Europe, along with land taken by force from Native Americans, U.S. 
capitalism would have been impossible. The system relies upon pools of 
utilizable labor-a reserve army-to keep wages low enough to guarantee 
profits. The fact that workers leave Mexico helps Mexican capitalist by 
removing an unneeded surplus population that might cause and has caused 
trouble (the same is true for the money immigrants send back home). These 
same workers provide cheap labor in the United States, especially in 
occupations that native workers have abandoned as they have moved up the job 
ladder. In the absence of immigrants, who would clean motel and hotel rooms, 
cook and wash dishes in restaurants, build houses, care for children, 
perform gardening and other yard work, drive cabs and limousines, deliver 
groceries, clean vegetables and flowers in greengrocery basements, remove 
asbestos from buildings, process our meat and poultry, and harvest our 
crops? Besides these types of labor, immigrants also work, usually through 
special visa programs, as computer programmers, engineers, nurses, and 
school teachers. Here there are often native workers available but, alas, 
they want too much money. Employers go after the cheaper and, in effect, 
indentured (if they make waves for the employer, the boss can have them 
deported simply by firing them) foreign workers. U.S. employers have no 
intention of pressuring the government to stop the flow of immigrants, legal 
or otherwise. Bacon makes crystal clear, through several case studies, that 
employers only want their workers deported when they have the temerity to 
organize. It is surely not coincidental that the infamous ICE raids on 
Midwestern beef and Carolina pork processing plants occurred in the middle 
of union organizing campaigns. And what do employers propose to solve the 
immigrant "problem?" They want "guest workers," through a legislated 
arrangement similar to the old Bracero program that brought Mexican laborers 
to the United States from 1942 to 1964. "Bracero" is Spanish for "arm," an 
apt phrase given that the employers who contracted for the workers were 
interested in their "arms," that is, their capacity to work hard. Bacon 
devotes a section of the book to a thorough skewering of this program, its 
modern but more modest equivalent in the H2-A and H2-B visa systems, and all 
guest worker schemes. Each one is based upon the short-term and intense 
exploitation of workers, who have no rights under such programs and find 
that whatever a guest worker law promises in of terms wages and work 
conditions will be honored only in the breach. Such programs prohibit 
workers from bringing their families with them, thus saving employers and 
communities any monies that might have to be paid to workers so that they 
could support their spouse and children and funds that localities might have 
to spend for schooling, health care, and like. What this all amounts to is 
the treatment of labor as a "just-in-time" inventory, available just when 
needed and sent back home when not.

A third conclusion that flows from Bacon's book is that anti-immigration 
politics have little basis in fact. If we look just at undocumented 
immigrants, we find that they pay their own way. They add more to the 
national income than they take from it. They pay taxes, all sorts of taxes, 
including sales and excise taxes, payroll taxes, property taxes, and yes, 
income taxes. They get little in return for these taxes; they are much less 
likely than similarly-situated natives to receive health care, education, 
public assistance, police protection, and all other publically provided 
services. As noted above, they do not often compete directly with native 
workers for jobs. By any reasonable standard, they face harsher work 
regimens and enjoy fewer protections on the job than do native laborers. 
They commit fewer crimes than natives. What all of this means is that the 
crusades being waged against "illegal aliens" have ulterior motives. Lou 
Dobbs and Tom Tancredo know that employers will never be harshly prosecuted 
for hiring undocumented workers, and they do not want them to be. Rhetorical 
attacks on employers play well with the masses, and this is why they do it. 
What the hysteria they foster does accomplish is to divide working people by 
making part of the working class the "other," a quasi-criminal element that 
can be used to hide the true horrors of this economic system, one that the 
immigrant bashers love and profit from. Whatever divides workers makes it 
hard for them to form the one thing that employers and their xenophobic 
allies really hate-unions.

Some of the most informative parts of Illegal People examine the many 
struggles immigrants have waged to improve their circumstances. Often in 
alliance with, or a part of, labor unions (in the United States and in their 
home countries), worker centers, and community groups, they have engaged in 
mass demonstrations, organized boycotts, rode in cross-country caravans to 
publicize their conditions, and formed labor unions. Immigrants have drawn 
on their experiences in their home countries, as well as the history of 
militant labor action in the United States, to forge creative responses to 
the daily oppression they face. Workers in hotels and meatpacking plants, 
day laborers, janitors, agricultural workers, limousine drivers, 
greengrocery workers, cab drivers, and may others have shown that the 
immigrants of the United States are a force for progressive change. They 
have been the backbone of the labor movement, and any hope of union 
revitalization will have to be built upon their actions. Bacon describes the 
often hostile relationship between the main labor federations and 
immigrants. The AFL-CIO finally decided to champion the immigrant cause in 
2000, no doubt in part because immigrants are so often stalwart unionists. 
There is still a long way to go before there is a full embrace, but at least 
a start has been made. One crucial issue is the relationship between black 
workers and immigrants. Bacon says, in a chapter titled "Blacks Plus 
Immigrants Plus Unions Equals Power," "In big U.S. cities, African Americans 
and immigrants, especially Latinos, often seem divided by a political 
calculation in which each community fears that any gain in jobs or political 
clout can only come at the expense of the other." He then goes on to recount 
the remarkable achievements of united black and Hispanic workers in the 
Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance. The two groups have worked together 
in the alliance to organize immigrant workers, enforce union contracts, 
force casinos to stop using labor contractors and hire directly, get people 
aid after Hurricane Katrina, protect immigrant workers from firing and 
deportation, and fight for immigration reform in the state legislature. If a 
coalition of black and immigrant laborers can cooperate and win victories in 
Mississippi, think of what could happen on a national level.

It is heartening to Bacon that significant sections of organized labor have 
allied themselves with immigrants. But he argues that more needs to be done. 
The movement of people across borders is going to continue. It may ebb and 
flow as economic conditions change. Not as many migrants are coming to the 
United States from Mexico now because jobs are much more scarce here than 
before the Great Recession struck. However, there will be no long-term trend 
of falling migration. A statement of principles is therefore in order. I 
think David Bacon would agree (and he discusses most of the items below in 
the book) that we must insist that:

o       All government harassment of immigrants must stop.
o     An immediate amnesty must be declared by the federal government for 
all undocumented workers and a direct and speedy path to    permanent 
residence or citizenship made available.
o        The border fence on the U.S.-Mexican border must be demolished.
o        All guest worker programs must be rejected.
o    Workers must be free to move across borders in search of work or for 
any other noncriminal purpose.
o    Immigrants have as much right to be in the United States as anyone 
else, especially considering that actions taken by U.S. businesses and the 
U.S. government drove them across the borders in the first place.
o        The country's labor laws must be vigorously enforced and more 
worker-friendly laws be enacted.
o The government must guarantee good health care, decent education, and an 
adequate minimum wage for all people.
o The federal government stop all military aid and weapons sales.
o        Trade agreements be negotiated by teams that include worker 
representatives and include labor and environmental standards that are on a 
par with all other parts of the agreements.

Neither Bacon nor I is under any illusion about the achievement of these 
objectives, short of widespread labor rebellion in the United States and in 
the rest of the world. However, just putting them forward as first 
principles, educating working people around about them, and publicizing them 
at every opportunity will put us where we need to be: foursquare for the 
working class-all of it. 

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