By Gerald Meyer
The cross-continental region that was to become the United States possessed an incomparable bounty of arable land and natural resources of all types linked together by navigable river systems flowing into ice-free harbors. However, for the conquistadores, of every nationality, it was a profitless wasteland because not enough people were available for wage-labor, which, unlike chattel slavery, requires free movement of the laborers. The abundance of land allowed European settlers to escape being tethered to capitalist relations of production. US ruling elites resolved this conundrum through the imposition of a terrible triad: the dispossession of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, and the super-exploitation of immigrants. In toto, these antihuman processes produced primitive accumulation of capital, which allowed for the construction of a plantation system in the South and a capitalist—first commercial, later industrial—system in the North. Though much disguised, all three exploitative systems are still operative. This brief review will explore the third of these phenomena—immigration
During the initial stages of the European conquest, a source of reliable labor was gained through the institution of indentured servitude, which tied workers for periods of five or more years to a master. On a smaller scale, in the Hudson River Valley, there evolved a modified feudal system that attached agricultural workers to estates. Though not abolished by the US Constitution, these practices (unlike slavery) faded away. By working in subsistence farming, craft production, and small distributive and commercial businesses, most native-born Americans could shield themselves from absorption into the process of producing surplus value for owners. The only possible source of wage workers without the resources to work independently was immigrants. Owners could take advantage of immigrants’ precarious social and legal status. Their lack of the language and of familiarity with the culture also made it more difficult for immigrants to form unions and seek redress through the political process. In these ways, immigrants became, and remain, the third pillar in the structure of the American capitalist system of super-exploitation
As long as industry did not rapidly develop, a small-but-steady stream of immigrants from Great Britain and what would become Germany enabled the US economy to gradually grow without disrupting the social and political arrangements of the “free” states. Spurred by the Civil War, an unprecedented frenzy of industrialization began to transform the country. (To a remarkable extent, the South remained outside of this process.) The only way American capitalism could further develop was through the massive influx of immigrants. Initially, these immigrants came from northwestern Europe. In pre-Civil War America, Irish agricultural laborers bringing with them a militant Catholicism and Germans arriving with fervent beliefs in secular radicalism gave rise to the Know Nothing Party. Its absorption into the Republican Party provided Nativism with a more respectable and lasting home. However, the flow of immigrants from these sources proved inadequate to feed the burgeoning capitalist system. The dark satanic mines and mills of the Gilded Age could further expand only by the introduction of much larger throngs of immigrants.
The new phase of immigration began around 1880. Millions of “New Immigrants” —Eastern European Jews and Italians, mostly from Southern Italy, as well as Slavic peoples of many nationalities, who, like the Southern Italians, had mostly been peasants—started to arrive. The current crisis centering around America’s immigrant population can best be understood as a later phase of this long history.
The New Immigrants’ cultures were distinct from each other and, more pertinently, from that of the dominant Anglo-Saxon population. Governmental agencies, religious and secular institutions, and the commercial press met these newcomers with defamation, discrimination, and coercive acculturation. Their very ways-of-being were viewed as socially subversive and their inclination towards radicalism as politically subversive. Inflamed by hysteria incubated by The Great War, the New Immigration Laws of 1920 to 1924 drastically reduced the number of immigrants who could enter the United States. Congress now based that right on nationality quotas, calculated as a tiny percentage of the population of these nationalities residing in America in 1890, a date prior to the arrival of most of the New Immigrants. Overnight, the numbers of Jews and Italians allowed to legally enter the US fell below ten thousand per year. For Greeks and other smaller nationalities, that number fell to less than one thousand. By contrast, the quotas for northwestern European nationalities were enormous. This formula codified a pre-existing social reality: In addition to hierarchies based on class and race, the United States government had codified a hierarchy based on nationality, where the Anglo-Saxons were dominant and the nationalities comprising the New Immigrants were reduced to a subaltern status. Earlier, Congress had enacted laws excluding political radicals and the Chinese.
This disgraceful system remained in place until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, which abolished nationality quotas. The impulse for this liberalized immigration law came from the Catholic Church and the AFL-CIO, which had a very large Catholic membership, as a means of giving European Catholics a greater chance of entry. Within a few years, it became evident that Latinos and Asians, not Europeans, were entering the US in unprecedented numbers. In tandem with this occurrence, annually one-million (mostly Latino and Asian) undocumented immigrants began arriving. Today, there are 44 million foreign-born people living in the US, comprising 13.5 percent of the population. By adding their American-born children to this amount, these figures rise to 64 million people, that is, close to 20 percent of the US population.
In totally unexpected ways, the demographics of the US began to radically change. In many places, minorities were becoming the majority. Many working-class and middle-class white people experienced this change as a threat to their social position. Increasingly, these groups were joined by political conservatives who feared that the non-European immigrants would naturally drift into the ranks of the Democratic Party. This is the background to Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign, and the wider Nativist movement he personifies.
The dilemma for the Right is that the Nativist demands of its base to deport the more than ten million undocumented people living in this country and restrict further immigration threaten not only the profits of the owning class, but the functioning of vital sectors of the US economy, such as agriculture and construction, that are dependent on immigrants, whether documented or not. Business interests want to harness these immigrants to their profit-making mechanisms, but they also fear that they will become a powerful political force whose natural allies are other disaffected, exploited people.
America’s immigrants are victims of social hostility, discrimination, and police misconduct. The Left has a responsibility to help provide defense from these attacks. But the immigrants also represent a powerful force for social and economic progress. Here too, the Left, if there is any real meaning to that designation, must act in solidarity with the immigrant communities to create coalitions with African Americans, Native Americans, and progressive white people, to advance a people’s agenda that includes insuring that everyone in this country has access to quality education and healthcare, that their work environments are safe, and that they are fairly treated by the police. In the process of doing this work, we will find that, on the whole, our new immigrants are politically more advanced than their American counterparts and more willing to take steps to achieve these demands. The broadest demands are those which have the greatest potential for bringing into the same arena working people of different races and ethnicities.
All the actions we take should be aimed at building the organizations that carry them out. The ranks of activists must be constantly expanded and replenished or these activities will inevitably wane. Local, spontaneous events are not likely to create broad movements that link disparate communities. From the start, political activities must embrace large numbers of people and organizations from various communities. Also, tactics that bring protesters into direct confrontation with the police are anathema to immigrants without documentation and even for many documented immigrants, who fear police scrutiny that could jeopardize relatives and friends who are not documented. It is critical that white progressives include leaders from the immigrant communities in the organization of demonstrations, campaigns, etc., from their initial stages. Differences in political styles, use of language, etc., must be appreciated. It’s really all about building relationships based on mutuality, equality, and trust. These are the antidotes to the Nativist poison spewing from the ultra-right.
We are many, they are few – but only if we go out into the political arena with attitudes and practices that engender a sense of solidarity encompassing all those active in the struggle against the menace of American fascism. This is the best that the Left has to offer the beleaguered immigrant communities and the best the Left can hope to gain for its fight against rapacious capitalism and its inevitable offspring—war.