Immigrant Rights on the Global Stage

What if the U.S. immigrant rights movement saw itself as yet another key actor in the global fight for dignity in this age of globalization?

By Francis Calpotura Jun 21, 2006

The march was less than halfway done when my aging knees began to swell. I’d lost my contingent from Oakland, and was marching with Leo and his family from Sacramento. I was drawn to the sign he was carrying that read, "History Says Immigration Is, Will Be, Has Been, Always Was RACIAL!!! Indians, Africans, Mexicans, Asians." It stood out from the rest. He must have had help making it, since Leo didn’t speak a word of English.

"Todos somos humanos…vivir por mi familia (We’re all human beings…to live for my family)," he answered when I asked him his reason for skipping work to join the San Francisco march.

Leo was carrying his 6-year-old son on his shoulders, waving a Mexican and American flag in each hand. I asked them to go ahead and found a place on the sidewalk to rest.

Watching thousands of marchers pass by, I asked myself, "How can this movement that has brought millions to the streets hold Leo’s vision at its core?"

I have no illusion that the legislation that will come out of Washington will fall far short of this vision. It will extol "hard-working immigrants" who earn the right to become citizens, but its central purpose will be to provide brown-skinned labor to maintain the standard of living that Americans have been accustomed to. Surely for Leo, and for the vast majority of people who took the streets to assert their humanity on May 1, a Washington-inspired solution will seem dim compared to the brightness of their vision.

But their aspiration finds kinship with what was happening in Bolivia that same day.

"The time has come, the awaited day, a historic day in which Bolivia retakes absolute control of our natural resources," said President Evo Morales in a dramatic press conference to announce the nationalization of the country’s oil and gas industries, marking the end of decades of unimpeded access by multinational corporations.

"The looting by the foreign companies has ended," Morales declared. And with this declaration, Bolivia courageously decided to assert its dignity against those who have trampled on it.

Despite the sea of U.S. flags waving before me, I wondered if Leo’s message carried the true nature of what was happening. What if this march was part of a global social movement in response to what this country has done to families and the nations they were born into? What if we were to look at the current immigration reform debate facing the U.S. right now as a piece of the growing revolt against the impact of globalization (a.k.a. neoliberalism) that the U.S. champions worldwide?

The International Forum on Globalization defines neoliberalism as "the present worldwide drive toward a globalized economic system dominated by supranational corporate trade and banking institutions that are not accountable to democratic processes or national governments" where once-public entities are privatized (like utilities, education, even gas and oil manufacturing), markets are deregulated and economies restructured to respond to the demands of international markets rather than meet the basic needs of society. As one economist terms it, globalization is simply "modernization" on steroids that has forever changed the world we live in.

This is the global stage on which the debate over immigrant rights is playing out. Economic policies pursued by the champions of neoliberalism in the halls of Washington, D.C. and in the boardrooms of giant corporations have produced displacement of people unseen in human history. During the past 30 years, more than 200 million have left their countries, and billions more have traveled from rural areas to cities looking for work. Significantly, one-third of all immigrants came to the United States in the 1990s alone as a consequence of the profound economic shifts brought about by globalization.

Large-scale migration is a world issue that is remaking countries and regions. Roughly 30 percent of Frankfurt’s population is immigrant. Amsterdam by the year 2015 will be 50 percent immigrant. The Philippines exports 2,300 workers per day to work in every corner of the world. Ten percent of Salvadorans now live outside the country. And Africa is by far home to the largest number of refugees from within the continent.

This has all happened in my lifetime, when millions of people have been forced to leave their countries in order to survive.

If our displacement was brought about by decades of maltreatment under the dictates of U.S.-crafted policies, and that we’ve paid for it with our broken families and with the ravaged natural resources of our countries, and that we’re relegated to work in treacherous jobs and to live in squalor in urban America, then we have more than "earned" the right to be here. In fact, we’re due.

It is indeed ironic, even painful, to petition for recognition as a full human being from those who strip us of our humanity.

Evo Morales and millions of our brothers and sisters in Latin America show us dignified examples of asserting our collective humanity in the face of globalization–a stance and attitude instructive to the conduct of our movement in the years to come.

In 2000, thousands of residents in Cochabamba, Bolivia took back control of their water utility that had been privatized to San Francisco-based Bechtel Corporation. They protested water rates that increased by as much as 200 percent, and the loss of sovereign control over a basic human commodity. One of the first acts of the Morales Administration in 2006 was to form the Ministry of Water, charged with ensuring the public’s interest in the allocation of water rights.

In order to "help reclaim economic independence," Argentine President Nestor Kirchner repaid the country’s remaining debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) three years before its due date. As it has done with economies around the world, the IMF prescription of privatization of banks and utilities, devaluation of local currency and forced fiscal savings to go to servicing the debt rather than to help stimulate the local economy has been an economic straight-jacket for Argentina. "It has left us with 15 million people or more living in poverty," according to Kirchner.

Morales and Kirchner are two of eight presidents elected in Latin America in the last six years who have assumed power largely on the promise to curb the impact of globalization in the region. They rode the crest of popular movements in their countries that have forcefully asserted their humanity in the face of globalization’s economic juggernaut: campaigns to reclaim water rights in Bolivia, land occupations of Brazilian farmers to transform idle lands into productive farms, fighting the encroachment of unwanted development projects by indigenous communities in Honduras and many more efforts by ordinary people who, taken as a whole, have sparked a global movement for change.

What if the U.S. immigrant rights movement saw itself as yet another key actor in the global fight for dignity in this age of globalization? How would that influence what we fight for, and who we fight with?

First, we have to replace the moniker "immigrant" with the term "displaced"–casting our lot with the millions in motion around the world. My mother came to the United States from the Philippines not because she wanted to be separated from her eight children and husband. It was the only viable option for survival. Or in the case of the more than one million Southeast Asians in the U.S., they were uprooted as a direct consequence of U.S. military intervention in the region.

This standpoint allows for a more structural analysis of immigration–who benefits and who loses and the historical context in which it happens. The current discourse on immigration reform, even from our side of the fence, takes a perceptibly ahistorical bent that makes us seem to magically appear in dead-end jobs and live in ethnic enclaves out of nowhere. Our "self-worth" is intricately tied to an allegiance to America without asking (nay, demanding!) accountability for displacing us in the first place. At worst, this line of deferential petitioning for our humanity reinforces the racial hierarchy from which the system is built–we are deserving of citizenship because we are loyal and work hard, unlike those uppity U.S.-born Latinos and Blacks. Claiming our worth because "immigrants built this country" ignores the painful history of slavery and the deadly machinations of current-day racism.

But as "displaced communities," we can seek solutions that promote economic security rather than displacement, whether in our countries of origin or in our communities here. An immediate claim is to demand a "transition plan" for the displaced for being forcibly evicted from our homes and communities. We can fight for this alongside the survivors of Katrina who are facing the end of their housing subsidies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) due to institutional negligence that displaced thousands of Black people from their homes. The immigrant rights movement can help lift campaigns that work for affordable housing, defend and extend public benefits from being privatized and gutted, hold corporations accountable to standards of good behavior both here in the U.S. and in the rest of the world, and apply its moral suasion to enact public policies that embrace people’s full humanity.

The emerging immigrant rights movement can stand for all of these–just like what our brothers and sisters around the world are doing to dismantle neoliberalism.

"Ya Basta! Enough is enough!" On the eve of a sea-change in this country, immigrants in the United States, along with millions around the world, have a unique opportunity to influence the course of history.

Our demand for dignity isn’t a modest plea for recognition, but a historically-resonant claim for justice.

Francis Calpotura is the founder and director of the Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action.