The Modern Immigrant Rights Movement

Originally published by the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy

Posted on: 14/01/2012 by 

By David Bacon

Editor’s Note: This is the third and final installment of a three-part series on migrant rights by journalist and immigration activist David Bacon. This article is taken from the report “Displaced, Unequal and Criminalized – Fighting for the Rights of Migrants in the United States” that examines the origins of the current migratory labor phenomenon, the mechanisms that maintain it, and proposals for a more equitable system. The Americas Program is proud to publish this series in collaboration with the author.

Development of the Immigrant Rights Movement to 1986

Before the cold war, the defense of the rights of immigrants in the U.S., especially those from Mexico, Central America and Asia was mounted mostly by immigrant working class communities, and the alliances they built with the left wing of the U.S. labor movement. At the time when the left came under attack and was partly destroyed in the cold war, immigrant rights leaders were also targeted for deportation. Meanwhile, U.S. immigration policy became more overtly a labor supply scheme than at any other time in its history.

In the 1950s, at the height of the cold war, the combination of enforcement and contract labor reached a peak. In 1954 1,075,168 Mexicans were deported from the U.S. And from 1956 to 1959, between 432,491 and 445,197 Mexicans were brought into the U.S. each year on temporary work visas, in what was known as the “bracero” program. The program, begun during World War Two, in 1942, was finally abolished in 1964.

The civil rights movement ended the bracero program, and created an alternative to the deportation regime. Chicano activists of the 1960s – Ernesto Galarza, Cesar Chávez, Bert Corona, Dolores Huerta and others – convinced Congress in 1964 to repeal Public Law 78, the law authorizing the bracero program. Farm workers went on strike the year after in Delano, California, and the United Farm Workers was born. They also helped to convince Congress in 1965 to pass immigration legislation that established new pathways for legal immigration – the family preference system. People could reunite their families in the U.S. Migrants received permanent residency visas, allowing them to live normal lives, and enjoy basic human and labor rights. Essentially, a family- and community-oriented system replaced the old labor supply/deportation program.

Then, under pressure from employers in the late 1970s, Congress began to debate the bills that eventually resulted in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. That debate set in place the basic dividing line in the modern immigrant rights movement. IRCA contained three elements. It reinstituted a bracero-like guest worker program, by setting up the H2-A visa category. It penalized employers who hired undocumented workers (“employer sanctions”), and required them to check the immigration status of every worker. And it set up an amnesty process for undocumented workers in the country before 1982.

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