Immigration and Imperialism

By Una Tolca
Immigration and imperialism are joined at the hip. This is why Workers’ Voice fights for the freedom of movement of working people across borders and their full civic and economic rights in the global imperialist north. Against the imperialist exploitation that forces people to migrate in the first place, we fight against foreign debt, all unequal trade agreements such as NAFTA, and for agrarian reform and the expropriation of US capital in Latin America.
Over the course of the history of this country, immigration policy in the United States has grown increasingly restrictive. But, notwithstanding periods when very strict immigration laws were put into place, the capitalist class in control of the United States has not deviated from a pattern of generally favoring immigration. This “favoring” attitude should not be understood as being welcoming, given that borders remain porous but also selective and repressive. Despite the Trump hiatus, this attitude favoring immigration has been consistent across Republican and Democratic governments: it is clear that the bipartisan regime as a whole is opposed to both permanent mass deportations and closing borders, on the one hand, and pre-WWI style open borders, on the other. Rather, there is an overall bipartisan agreement on maintaining the flow of controlled immigration, with the flexibility to deport when pushed by domestic economic pressures, but generally aiming to keep migrants coming. When deployed, restrictions are in fact porous, mainly because employers in the US want them to be that way, and oppose restrictions on their ability to hire low-paid workers. Right now, US capitalism feels a pressing need to feed labor to two key industries: high tech and agribusiness. Dissenting opinions within the bourgeoisie currently come from politicians in states whose economies do not rely on these industries, and which are not currently the drivers of the American economy as a whole.
For socialists, the bordered nation state is a creature of the capitalist class, a form of territorial appropriation of people and nature. Under imperialist rule, borders do not generally impede the free flow of capital even if sometimes protectionist measures are enacted. What they do instead is suppress the free movement of workers. The capitalist class of the imperialist powers today benefits hugely from this. This is because borders create wage differentials — differences in the global rates of exploitation, basically — which give them the flexibility to increase their profits by replacing high-cost domestic labor with cheap foreign workers, be that through importing them under oppressive conditions or exporting production altogether (“outsourcing”).
All this means that national borders under the capitalist class are a way for the bosses to organize and impose their rule on working people within territories, creating divisions and corroding class solidarity through the promotion of patriotic ideologies. Patriotism propagates the illusion that the best friends of the working class are not the workers and the oppressed of other countries but rather the ruling class of one’s own. It works to minimize the identification of working people and the oppressed here with the struggles of working people internationally, and domestically by fostering the mistaken notion that it is the foreigners, as opposed to the employers’ choices, who take “American” jobs here or abroad.
This is not to deny the existence of national and cultural identities vested within national borders. On the contrary, because we stand for the right of self-determination of peoples, we can foresee a future in which such identities may persist even with the complete replacement of capitalist state power with workers governments globally. Under such circumstances, we would respect the rights of all nationalities to maintain their national borders even while advocating for the dissolution of these borders so working people are able to move, live, and work where they choose.
In order to make gains in the meantime, as workers build their revolutionary consciousness and confidence through struggle, immigrants in the United States and migrants on the move have a lot to accomplish. Breaking from the patronage of the Democratic Party and the non-profit apparatus is necessary to create an independent movement capable of leading the fight for full political and economic rights. But such a movement will need the support of all workers, who in turn have everything to gain from the powerful shot in the arm that immigrants from Latin America in particular can inject into working class struggles due to their numbers and the revolutionary traditions in their home countries.

I. Biden’s dead end

From an immigrant perspective, there is no difference in strategy between the two parties of US imperialism. Despite growing restrictions on entry, often-brutal attacks against migrants, and bursts of extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric, immigration policy in the United States has remained open as the fundamental accord of the bipartisan regime. Neither party wants to shut off the valve of the flow of labor into the United States, which sustains capitalist profits and makes it easier for the capitalists to seed divisions in the working class. This capitalist and bipartisan consensus on immigration has a long history.
The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, President Biden’s proposed immigration reform,  is merely the latest chapter of a long and consistent history.  This history, which has shaped US immigration policy since the country’s beginnings, reveals a dual tendency toward increasing the flow of immigration while restricting the legal rights of immigrant workers.  Biden’s legislation proposes  expanding access to family-based green cards; increasing refugee caps to 125,000 by 2022; boosting the number of employment-based green cards; eliminating  country quotas to “diversify” the immigrant population; giving DACA recipients and people on TPS a path to citizenship,[1] along with the much-touted 8-year path to citizenship for all undocumented people currently residing in the United States.[2] On the other hand, like all of its “benevolent” predecessors, Biden’s Act would further increase the surveillance of the US-Mexico border, eschewing  fences and Trump’s useless wall in favor of drones and other modern technology. (It bears remembering here that some of the biggest donors to the Democratic Party are Silicon Valley and alt-finance, two of the principal architects of the surveillance state).
The prospects of real reform are remote for two main reasons. One is the dramatic spike in the number of migrants at the frontier, pushed there by despair and lured by illusions that this government will welcome them. It is estimated that by September a million single adults will have arrived at the southern gates of the United States, along with 820,000 families and 200,000 unaccompanied minors. Biden does not want to encourage migration by giving legal entry to the majority of these people and faces a special dilemma with the doubling of young detainees to 18,000 in just one month (relative to February): on the contrary,he insists that “the border is closed,”a mantra emphasized by his vice president on her Central America visit. Biden has now capped it at 62,000, still short of his own 120,000 proposal to Congress. This Biden policy is  a continuation of the Trump-era Title 42 emergency declaration, which presented COVID-19 concerns as a reason for restricting entry. But the “closed border” boast is not likely to last in the long term, even if Biden does wind up holding firm on that line. There is pressure on the Democrats to react repressively given the sudden spikes in migrants arriving at the border . The Democrats need to play a difficult balancing act between satisfying their disgruntled left ranks with reform and assuaging fears from conservative nationalists that they are about to open the border.
The second reason that the proposed immigration reforms are likely to die in Congress is Biden’s commitment to bipartisanship. It is not that “the Republicans” as a bloc will oppose the reforms; they are no longer a bloc, divided as they are between the rising far right and the old guard. In other words, the fundamental bipartisan agreement on immigration remains, despite the rhetorical outbursts and policy excesses of Donald Trump and some Republicans. Pressured by their right wing and proto-fascist bases, this party is in crisis and likely to shift and/or split. For the moment, the mainstream of the party has not indicated a radical departure against immigration altogether. This does not mean, however, that Republicans will support Biden’s bill: to cater to their more fractious right-wing bases, they will oppose it, hoping to water down its more pro-immigration features. Biden has the option of legalizing the undocumented by executive order, but he will never exercise it as this would require that he simultaneously calls for mass mobilizations and even strikes to counteract the force of the legal challenges it would face, and he is not about to risk losing control of such mobilizations or the likely radicalization they would lead to. Biden is instead committed to bipartisanship, to negotiating with his opposition in Congress. Given these factors, it is unlikely the legislation will pass at all in its current form.
But let’s imagine that these measures pass and stay. While they could improve conditions for some, they are far from a solution for the millions of undocumented immigrant families in the country and the border. Two-thirds of undocumented immigrant adults in have been in the U.S. more than 10 years, and half for more than 15. Seen in this light, Biden’s requirement that they wait another eight years while holding a job and paying taxes without interruption (under current conditions, a rare feat even for the citizen and resident working class) to opt for citizenship is onerous at best.
Moreover, these “benefits” come accompanied with a displacement of the repression of migrants away from the US border and onto the backs of the governments of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. This is the mandate of Kamala Harris: to dangle the carrot of economic aid in front of the noses of the already repressive governments of Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, Nayib Bukele, Alejandro Giammattei and Juan Orlando Hernández in exchange for their harsh enforcement of migratory barriers at their own borders. A carrot these governments will accept, even though the “aid” is anything but a disinterested donation: all aid is contingent on the adoption of developmentalist models that prioritize the involvement of (read: the appropriation of resources and of the value created by workers by) US corporations in the region, which is partly responsible (together with intervention) for the immiseration of Central Americans and Mexicans in the first place. Far from magnanimous, the four-year 4 billion dollar aid packet for the so-called Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) will bring greater involvement of the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, while simultaneously “reducing the barriers to private [non-Chinese!] sector investment” and “modernizing” customs procedures– in other words, by demolishing whatever barriers remain to the appropriation of resources by US capital. This is part of that other bipartisan accord: restoring the dominance of the United States in its “backyard,” this time against the intrusion of China.

II. The meaning of oppression and the struggle against it

The reason why immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and the rest of Latin America as well as the semi-colonial world must have the freedom to migrate to and remain in the United States is historical and democratic, not economic, utilitarian, or humanitarian. Both migratory patterns and various immigration control efforts must be seen within the broader phenomenon of imperialism. Following the announcement of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the United States established direct or indirect control over half of Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico and several other territories, subjecting these places to exploitation by US agribusiness and other extractivist industries. In later years, conquest and direct exploitation were replaced by destructive free-trade agreements, rising levels of foreign debt, and the imposition of austerity measures throughout Latin America, all to the benefit of the same imperialist capitalist class. Immigration to the United States would be much less attractive without these destructive policies.
US imperialism has many methods for extracting wealth from Latin America. Two key methods have been the imposition and mandated repayment of mounting foreign debt and unequal trade agreements such as NAFTA. Repayment of the foreign debt is a major impediment to the growth capacity of underdeveloped capitalist economies: in Mexico’s case, servicing its 114 billion dollar debt costs it upwards of 52% of its GDP. Inevitably, the capitalist class extorts these funds from public programs that once benefited the working class and the peasantry. Meanwhile, NAFTA, which went into effect in 1994, and the reforms that led up to it, opened up Mexico for foreign investment and thus the repatriation to the capitalists of the source countries for the capital. Equally important, together with the passage of NAFTA, the United States pressured an all-too-willing Mexican ruling class to roll back major gains of the twentieth century’s agrarian reform that had sustained Mexico’s peasantry and rural producers while simultaneously flooding the country with heavily subsidized US-grown crops. This led to a prolonged crisis in the countryside  leading to a mass exodus of people from rural areas to the cities and ultimately across the border to the United States.[3] It is imperial policies and the collaboration of domestic capitalists and governments in semi-colonial countries that are thus responsible for the emigration of millions to the global north.
The fact that the ruling class prefers to let immigrants in to constantly renew the labor force in the United States does not stop it from making the conditions of immigrant life precarious. On the contrary, precarity is a condition for immigration: the need of the capitalist class as a whole to attract and expel immigrants at the same time is the fundamental contradiction underlying what on the surface appears to be only an inconsistency within the immigration policy of the United States. But the reality is that all capitalists benefit from the presence of immigrants, particularly the 11 million undocumented and the “double labour market” this creates.[4] In such a market, on the one hand there are the integrated workers – US citizens and some of the 35 million legalized immigrants – and on the other an entire sector of temporary or grossly underpaid work, often paid in cash under the table, that is designed to be filled only with undocumented immigrant labor. This gives employers as a whole maximum flexibility, which consists of the ability to hire and fire at will, to dictate wages unilaterally, and to avoid payroll taxes and other costs associated with regular labor or, alternatively, to hire integrated workforces when needed. Meanwhile, the presence of the undocumented sector helps depress conditions for the integrated working class, which is threatened with either the outsourcing or the deterioration of its jobs.
This dual labor market is in fact imperial, not national. The United States imports 328.86 billion dollars’ worth of agricultural, mineral and manufactured goods produced in Mexico, accounting for 14% of all US imports (only China exports more to the US, accounting for 20% of the latter’s imports). All of these imported goods are produced under wage scales that are kept much lower than in the United States by means of the border and the continued subjugation of Mexico as a semi-colony of the United States through the imposition of NAFTA, foreign debt, and other unequal economic relations. Without the constriction of movement over the border, Mexican working conditions and compensation would rise to meet the standards present in the US, something neither the Mexican nor the US capitalist class want.
Anti-immigrant rhetoric, racism, and periodic legislative attacks on the conditions of immigrant populations (with measures such as the infamous 1994 Proposition 187 in California, which would have denied access to public education and healthcare for the undocumented) are vital to hyperexploitation. The anti-immigrant and racist right performs an essential job for capitalism: it creates the atmosphere of fear that it hopes will prevent the hyperexploited from rebelling and tries to pit non-immigrant against immigrant in order to prevent the development of solidarity and class consciousness.  The liberal bourgeoisie pretends it is innocent in the creation and maintenance of the “psychological wage”[5] that imperialism artificially gives citizen workers by barring foreign workers from the enjoyment of economic and civil rights afforded by citizenship, and offers token platitudes, describing racism as a moral problem that society must curb, often placing blame solely on “deplorable” working-class racists. But racism and xenophobia are not moral or humanitarian problems – they are political. To the extent that these attitudes infect the working class, it is not because sectors of it are inherently bigoted: their attitudes are cultivated by a bourgeoisie that wishes to maintain the illusion that workers’ problems are caused by foreigners, not capital. The liberal bourgeoisie can issue as many token statements against racism as it wants, but at the end of the day it remains one of its primary beneficiaries.
Immigrants have fought back against this intolerable situation, and they have been key to the organization of the working class in the United States. Given the high immigrant composition of the working class in the early history of the United States, most of the class struggle until WWI was in fact the struggle of immigrants to defend themselves and their communities against capital and the repressive state. On the West coast, agricultural workers began organizing across ethnicities under the influence of the International Workers of the World, which united Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Mexican migrant agricultural workers in California in unified strike actions such as the 1903 strike won by the IWW-led Japanese-Mexican Labor Association against the sugar beet growers of Oxnard, California.
The interracial organizing of the IWW left a mark that would also characterize the United Farm Workers, which formed during the historic agricultural workers’ strike in the grape fields of Delano, California in 1965. Filipinos, Mexicans, and Chicanos were at the forefront of these labor struggles in the 1970s and 1980s, which spread beyond California to the north and throughout the Southwest, resulting in unionization and improved working conditions throughout the region. Unfortunately, César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and the leadership of the UFW and other organizations quickly became  coopted by the Democratic Party. This limited the transformation of immigrant-worker militancy into a mass political movement capable of forcing the ruling class to grant immediate and unconditional citizenship rights to all immigrants.
On May Day, 2006, millions of immigrants took to the streets or otherwise refused to go to work nationwide to push back against anti-immigrant legislation and to demand citizenship rights. In total, protests took place in over 150 cities and across the country, the largest being in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City. This action honoring International Workers’ Day was the first national political strike in recent memory in the U.S., revitalizing and bringing the working class tradition of May Day back home to the country where it began. This year, as thousands of Central American and other migrants press against the southern border of the United States demanding to be let in, May Day demonstrations were held all over the country. However, the strike component has yet to be revived.
The power of the immigrant working class is undeniable. But equally undeniable is the fact that this power is squandered as long as immigrant activists remain tied to the Democratic Party and non-profits, such as LALDEF (Latin America Legal Defense Fund) that provide services to communities in exchange for their political subservience and their renunciation of mass mobilizations and strikes as means of struggle. In fact, a key reason why the upswell of immigrant protest since May Day 2006 has not yet congealed into an independent political movement of immigrants in alliance with the citizen working class is that an important sector of its leadership actively sabotages radical action and calls for greater moderation and reliance on Democratic patronage. The first task, therefore, is for immigrant and non-immigrant workers to create their own class organizations that are independent from the bipartisan system and capable of conquering working class power, leading the struggle for a workers’ government.

III. What we fight for

Socialists believe that workers have the right to live and work where they wish; we are for full freedom of movement for workers, regardless of whether there is a “legitimate reason” (imperial exploitation of their home countries) for their migration. Under capitalism and imperialism, only finance has full freedom of movement, breaking down obstacles one by one through political and economic means such as unequal trade agreements, pressures to “open up” economies to importations of goods and investment, sanctions and other means. We stand for the rights of all workers and oppressed peoples from the despoiled global south to migrate to the imperial north, with the same economic, social, and political rights as native-born workers who have in one way or another benefited from the imperial ventures of their nation’s capitalists. In the United States, this means that we fight for the right of all immigrants to immediate and unconditional full citizenship and for their equal economic rights.
Because the root cause of migration to the United States is imperialism sucking the wealth out of Latin America through direct appropriation of land, water and resources, as well as unequal trade agreements and foreign debt, revolutionaries must address the problems of migrants internationally. This means that on both sides of the Rio Grande we fight for the cancellation of the foreign debt and the repeal of NAFTA and all similar treaties, as well as for the expropriation of land owned by US capital in Latin America, in addition to a policy of complete full agrarian reform.
In the US, socialists also fight for an end to all ICE raids and other policies that instill terror among immigrant communities. Ultimately, we seek the abolition of ICE altogether, but this requires a greater level of independent organization and mobilization. Like the demand for the abolition of the police, this latter task cannot be accomplished without a direct confrontation with the system it defends. Like the police and the army, ICE is part of the executive, armed power of the capitalist system. It is an organization that defends private property and the private appropriation of the value that workers create. Abolishing any of these bodies, therefore, cannot be accomplished through moral appeals, as their sole function is to brutally repress the working class. Abolition of ICE, moreover, is not a task for immigrants alone: it can only be accomplished through mass independent and revolutionary action by the working class as a whole.
Neither is the fight for full economic rights for immigrants in the United States a fight for immigrants alone: all workers must support the right of all immigrants to organize and form unions. This joint struggle would enable the entire working class in the United States to push back against anti-union legislation and conditions in right-to-work states, recovering the right to organize and to strike.
The main obstacle to all of this in the United States is the lack of a mass organization of the working class capable of directing its struggles not merely against the bipartisan regime but against imperial capitalism as a whole. Workers’ Voice/La Voz de los Trabajadores fights to build such an organization, with which it would be possible to build a workers government. Such a government would be a government where immigrants and racial minorities would be overwhelmingly represented, given the current composition of the working class in this country and the commitment of its own ruling class to maintaining a policy that sustains immigration.
With a government of the workers this country could reverse its imperial relationship to Latin America. Instead of strings-attached aid such as what Kamala Harris proposes to Central American governments and Mexico in exchange for their harsh restriction of the passage of migrants through their territories, it could create an international works program, sending brigades of US workers to build infrastructure, construct workers’ economies, and prop up rural and urban production all without sacrificing the environment. Only a government by and for the working class will be able to place workers of all nationalities on equal footing, partners in the construction of a society organized for the good of the many instead of the profits of the few.


  1.  DACA: Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals resulted in renewable two-year grants of protection from deportation—plus work permits and identity documents—for approximately 700,000 illegal aliens who arrived in the country as children. TPS: temporary protected status for citizens of countries at war or undergoing humanitarian crises, created by Congress in 1990, under Reagan. See
  2. /2021/01/20/fact-sheet-president-biden-sends-immigration-bill-to-congress-as-part-of-his-commitment-to-modernize-our-immigration-system/ Also:
  3.  Fernández-Kelly P, Massey DS. Borders for Whom? The Role of NAFTA in Mexico-U.S. Migration. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 2007;610(1):98-118. doi:10.1177/0002716206297449
  4.  Claude Meillasoux, Maidens, Meal and Money. Capitalism and the Domestic Community (1981), 120-123.
  5.  W.E.B. Dubois used the phrase “psychological wage” to explain the consciousness-corroding tangible and intangible benefits white workers received during 19th century Reconstruction by virtue of their whiteness and that helped drive a wedge between them and blacks, giving the former a sense of superiority. Black Reconstruction in America (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1935, 720)

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