Immigrant-Led Organizing: Pioneering a More Equitable Future for All Workers

In an impassioned call to action, migrant justice activist Harsha Walia declares that the fight against oppressive immigration systems is integral to the broader struggle for labor rights. Her perspective sheds light on the undeniable link between the exploitation inherent in the carceral, exclusionary immigration system and the erosion of labor rights affecting all workers, both immigrant and native.

Immigrants have long been exploited as a means to drive down wages and weaken labor solidarity. This strategy not only harms immigrant workers but undermines the wage standards and working conditions for all. The exploitation is systemic, crafted through laws that criminalize “illegal workers,” effectively creating a subclass of workers who are ripe for abuse. This manipulation fractures worker solidarity and maintains a status quo beneficial only to employers and those who profit from the oppression.

The narrative of the “American dream” contrasts sharply with the reality many immigrants face—a reality marred by exploitation, unsafe working conditions, and the constant threat of deportation. This grim picture was tragically illustrated by the recent disaster on the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, highlighting the perilous conditions many immigrant workers endure.

Moreover, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 has exacerbated these issues by criminalizing the employment of undocumented immigrants, thus pushing millions into an underground economy where exploitation is rampant. The law shifts power dramatically in favor of employers, enabling widespread labor abuses, including conditions that often meet the legal definitions of human trafficking.

Despite these challenges, there is a robust movement led by immigrants striving for a fairer and more just economy. Immigrant-led organizing has spurred initiatives at local and state levels aimed at integrating immigrants more equitably into the workforce. For instance, in Denver, a proposal is being considered to employ immigrants directly by the city, circumventing federal work authorization laws. Similarly, in California, legislation is advancing that would allow all students, regardless of immigration status, to be employed by public universities and colleges.

These movements are not just about reforming an unjust system—they are about reimagining what a just system looks like. For example, the Philadelphia City Council’s resolution recognizing every person’s fundamental right to earn a living, regardless of immigration status, was a direct result of grassroots organizing by the Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers’ Rights. Such efforts have tangible impacts, as seen in the formation of Masa Cooperativa, a worker-owned cooperative in Philadelphia that not only provides employment but also fosters community and cultural preservation among immigrant workers.

The efforts of these pioneering groups highlight the potential for a more inclusive and equitable economy, one where workers are valued not for their compliance and exploitability but for their contributions and humanity. The path forward involves dismantling the current carceral immigration system and replacing it with one that acknowledges and upholds the rights of all workers.

As we consider the implications of this struggle, it’s essential to recognize that the exploitation of immigrant workers is a symptom of broader economic and social policies that value profit over people. The fight for immigrant rights is fundamentally a fight for human rights. It challenges us to envision a world free from the artificial divisions that undermine solidarity and perpetuate inequality.

This May Day, let us stand in solidarity not only with immigrant workers but with all who are oppressed by an unjust global system. Let us draw inspiration from the tireless efforts of those who fight for a world where every worker’s dignity is recognized and protected.