Immigrant Rights and the Fight for Independent Working-Class Politics

Originally published on 8/22/2020


By E.J. Esperanza (Immigrant Rights Activist)

(presentation to the April 25 Expanded Organizing Committee meeting of Labor and Community for an Independent Party / LCIP)

It’s with great enthusiasm that I join you all here today.

I join you as a removal defense attorney, yes, but first and foremost, as an undocumented lawyer fighting tooth and nail for our community.

As has been said, the problems facing working-class people have seldom been more dire, and seldom has the need for a truly independent working-class political party been more necessary.

Nowhere is this question more pressing than in the immigrant community. There is no question more important for us to properly address at this time.

As you know, immigration was the Trojan horse that Trump rode to the White House — under the sham of putting American workers first. It has been central to his first term. It’s been key to fomenting the reactionary forces of White Supremacy in this country — forces that have become reinvigorated under this administration.

No two ways about it: This administration’s attacks on immigrants have been ruthless. Every day, I witness what amounts to ethnic cleansing of the clients and families that I represent.

– From the administration’s Zero Tolerance Policy, where 5,500 children were separated from their parents, and where hundreds remain unaccounted for, as if they had evaporated into thin air.

– To the January 2019 Migrant Protection Protocols – better known as the Remain in Mexico Policy – where 60,000 asylum seekers (parents and children) are forced to live in crowded and dangerous camps along the border, exposed to violence, rape, and kidnapping, not to mention the raging COVID-19 pandemic. This policy was upheld shamelessly by the Supreme Court on March 11, 2020.

Other examples mount:

– The administration’s Muslim Ban, which the Supreme Court upheld in June 2018;

– The administration’s executive order (9/5/2017) rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program – a program of which I am a beneficiary. This has left 800,000 undocumented youth in limbo and exposed to deportation. A case currently pending before the Supreme Court with a decision is expected any day now. [Note: On June 18, the Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration’s cancellation of DACA because of the method Trump used, leaving open the possibility of its rescission in the future. — The Editors]

– The administration’s policy a few days ago (4/23) halting most legal migration to the United States from all countries for 60 days under the pretext of protecting American workers from the swelling unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is no question in the immigrant community about the real threat presented by the Trump administration. We know – we’ve spent every waking hour fighting it.

But more important, there is a growing awareness in the leadership of the immigrant rights movement that the Democrats are no “lesser evil.” This is an assessment borne out by experience and 15 years of struggle against Democrats and Republicans alike. It’s a perspective that any true working-class party must foster. It would be a missed opportunity not to heed these lessons from the immigrant rights movement.

First, we must be clear that the Trump administration did not create the deportation regime under which we are living today. Trump has enacted no new laws. His administration has merely enforced existing laws drafted and signed into law by the Clinton administration, in the infamous Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. These laws gave unprecedented power to the federal government to militarize the border, criminalize immigrants, and detain and deport families on a mass and unprecedented scale. We in the immigrant rights movement know that we must abolish these laws enacted by the Democratic Party.

Second, the immigrant rights movement knows all too well that the laws created by the Clinton administration were turned into an effective and efficient deportation regime by another Democrat – the Obama and Biden administration – during the Great Recession, as a means to discipline and divide the working class at precisely the same time that the Obama administration and the Democrats – who had control of both houses of Congress – were bailing out the banks in the largest swindle in American history.

The sophisticated machinery that leveraged for-profit detention centers and state-of-the-art surveillance technology was the work of the Obama and Biden administration, and their administration alone. Its aim has been to militarize the border and establish a deportation militia in the interior under Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that could effectively leverage and commandeer every local law enforcement agency in the country, every database, to identify, to track, to detain, and to deport immigrants on a mass scale.

Obama and Biden deported nearly 3 million immigrants in eight years, deporting on average nearly 400,000 immigrants a year. In comparison, Trump has deported far fewer, and has yet to deport more than 260,000 immigrants in any given year.

The infamous detention of children at the border is also a policy that began under Obama and Biden, back in 2014, which received much less attention than Trump’s policy.

Trump inherited this machine.

Now Trump hasn’t reached the record numbers of deportations seen under Obama not because the Democratic Party has resisted in any meaningful or substantial way – on the contrary, every appropriations bill increasing funding for ICE and CBP, for private detention centers, and for militarizing the border has been approved by the Democrats, including in the House of Representatives, which the Democrats now control.

In fact, and notably, in the fight against Trump, the immigrant rights movement has increasingly come up against the Democrats, as they have failed to espouse the movement’s demands and pose any real resistance to Trump. This is a significant development. Let us remember that the immigrant rights movement was largely under the thumb of the Democrats during the Obama administration, and mass mobilizations against deportations were rare in comparison to what the movement has achieved under Trump.

The crisis exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic has only sharpened this opposition between immigrant activists and Democrats. As COVID-19 spreads into detention centers, hundreds of immigrants have gone on hunger strike across the country. From Northern California, Central California, Southern California, to Colorado, to Louisiana, an unprecedented wave of hunger strikes has swept the country, largely ignored by the media.

We also have secured important court injunctions recognizing that detention is a death sentence for immigrants under this pandemic, something that was tragically confirmed with the passing of Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia at the Otay Mesa Detention Facility, the first COVID-19 death in ICE custody. Over 10,000 immigrants have secured releases due to this growing movement in the last several weeks. Detentions are at a 10-year low, down to 29,000 at the present moment. In comparison, there were nearly 50,000 immigrants in ICE custody at the peak of the Obama and Biden administrations.

During COVID-19, the immigrant rights movement has secured victories precisely by opposing and mobilizing independently of the Democrats in California, Colorado, Louisiana, Texas, and beyond.

Specifically, local struggles to close private detention centers have gained unprecedented victories under the COVID-19 pandemic, pitting Democrats in the pockets of private detention centers against an increasingly independent immigrant rights movement.

Places where the immigrant community had previously been unorganized – like the Central Valley in California, rural regions in Louisiana, Vermont, and Texas – have seen important battles taking on private detention centers and the Democrats alike.

In these localities, local Democrats have time and again sided with the Private Detention Centers, posing the question for immigrants to run their own candidates locally in a way never seen before. In rural places like McFarland, Bakersfield, and Adelanto in California, and Williamson County in Texas, the question of an independent working-class party has been urgently presented by the limitations of the Democratic politicians that sit in power locally. Just in McFarland two days ago, Latino Democrats sided with CORE CIVIC, a detention corporation, to expand an immigration jail by 350 percent after CORE CIVIC paid off the Democratic politicians. It’s in places like these where the conditions to run independent labor candidates are ripening.

So as we fight to liberate our people from detention centers, the question of independent working-class politics is posed to the immigrant rights movement during a Presidential Election where Biden represents no “lesser evil” to immigrants anywhere.

This independence is unprecedented and unheard of in any other movement today. No other movement is more ripe for independent working-class politics than the immigrant rights movement is today. Overcoming the NGO structures will be an obstacle, but not an insurmountable one

No effort to build an independent working-class party will be successful without tapping into the fight for immigrant rights and making this fight central to its formation, both in deed and words. Just like no working-class party will be successful without the Black community. I am encouraged by the Baltimore brothers and sisters, by Brother Clarence Thomas, joining this effort. The immigrant rights movement looks to the Black community. I look forward to working together more intently and joining in this fight for an independent working-class party. Let’s seize this opportunity.

Thank you.

Photos above:Activists demanding release of all detainees from ICE detention centers are arrested at protest in Sacramento, Calif.

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