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Activists Pan Dems' Approach; Say Another Immigration Policy Is Possible

Grassroots groups don't like the Democrats' proposals for comprehensive immigration reform.

Editor's note: Below, David Bacon reports that some activists at the U.S. Social Forum were sharply critical of the approach Obama endorsed in his recent immigration address. You can also read Marcelo Ballvé's piece on immigrants' rights activists who received Barack Obama's immigration address more warmly  here. Finally, you can read a complete transcript of Obama's remarks  here.

Thousands of left-wing activists just spent a week at the US Social Forum in Detroit, gathered again under the banner "Another World is Possible." Among them hundreds added a new subtext: "Another Immigration Policy is Possible!"

This theme was especially popular among grassroots organizations in immigrant communities. Today, nontraditional worker centers are spreading across the US, including ones for day laborers, domestic workers, farm workers and other low-wage immigrants. Most are Spanish-speaking migrants from Mexico and Central America, but many also come from the Philippines, India, Pakistan, China and the Caribbean. If anyone should be in favor of immigration reform, these groups should be. Yet, instead of embracing the proposals made in Washington by Rep. Luis Gutierrez and Sen. Charles Schumer, they reject them.

The Social Forum was over by the time President Barack Obama made a speech about immigration policy a week later, but the forum's message could as easily have been given to him as well. There are no significant differences between Obama's ideas and those of Gutierrez and Schumer.

These grassroots groups don't like the proposals for new guest worker programs. They have been fighting raids, firings and increased immigration enforcement for years, and are angry that the Washington proposals all make enforcement heavier. They want the border demilitarized. And they believe any rational immigration reform must change US trade policies that displace people in other countries.

Washington's proposals for immigration reform all have a similar structure. They assure a managed flow of migrant labor to employers at low wages, through expanded recruitment by contractors in countries like Mexico. Immigrants must work to stay, and those who aren't working must leave. To force the flow of undocumented workers into this program, the Washington bills all increase penalties for working or crossing the border without visas. And as the carrot, they propose limited legalization for undocumented people currently in the US.

These proposals originally came from large corporations in the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, and were then supported by some unions and civil rights groups. These groups argued that corporations would never support legalization if they weren't guaranteed a future flow of displaced people.

It's not uncommon in Washington to hear arguments that "Mexicans would rather come to the US as braceros than die in the desert on the border," or even "Mexicans are so desperate to migrate, they don't care what kind of visa they have."

In Detroit, it was obvious that immigrants do care. They don't want to be used just as cheap labor, and want rights and equality with the people living around them. "We need a better alternative," says Lillian Galedo, director of Filipino Advocates for Justice.

Renee Saucedo, who was born in Mexico and today directs the day labor program in San Francisco, says the biggest problem with the Washington consensus is that "it continues to mischaracterize migration as a 'criminal,' or 'illegal,' issue, rather than as a consequence of economic trade agreements and political repression that displace millions. Employers want to keep it this way to ensure their supply of cheap, vulnerable, exploitable labor."

The Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB), with an indigenous membership on both sides of the Mexico/US border, has historically opposed contract labor, or guest worker programs. "Migrants need the right to work, but these workers don't have labor rights or benefits," says FIOB's binational coordinator, Gaspar Rivera Salgado. "It's like slavery." Many FIOB members are farm workers, and some remember the abuses of the old "bracero" program.

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