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Original flag image by Adbusters. Or Betsy Ross, depending on who you ask

March 7, 2017


Immigration enforcement is the responsibility of the federal government. Yet Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and related federal agencies often rely on local police to help round up undocumented immigrants for deportation. That problematic lies at the heart of the rising sanctuary cities movement. Local governments in opposition to increasingly inhumane federal immigration policy under the Trump administration are passing resolutions ordering police forces under their control to refuse to aid federal agencies seeking to detain and deport undocumented immigrants.

Immigrant advocates hope that creating large numbers of such sanctuary cities—plus sanctuary campuses and sanctuary religious institutions—will stop or at least slow the latest wave of deportations until the US finally develops a more fair and rational immigration policy.

That’s not going to happen without popular support. And all too many Americans have not been provided with the information that will allow them to make an informed decision on the matter.

Citizens who back slowing or stopping immigration do so because they believe immigrants “steal jobs” from Americans, don’t pay taxes, and/or increase crime. Positions that are not borne out by major research studies. But if they looked more closely at what has actually happened on the immigration front since the early 1990s, there’s every possibility that they would join a groundswell of support for progressive immigration policy… and for something else besides: support for strong labor legislation at the national and international levels.

So it’s imperative that nativist Americans begin to understand the structural crisis that led to the current situation. The biggest precipitating factor was a so-called “trade” treaty signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It went into effect in 1994.

According to labor journalist David Bacon, NAFTA was the result of a major lobbying effort by American multinational corporations with support from CEOs in Canada and Mexico. It was sold to Congress as a remedy to the supposed dilemma of migration from Mexico (and points south) to the US. The argument was that by eliminating “barriers to trade” like tariffs and taxes on major corporations, profits would rise, the economic boats of all three countries would be lifted, more good jobs would be produced, and immigration would slow to a trickle. Because there would be no reason for anyone to leave home.
As often happens in politics, this turned out to be a pack of lies. Removing the so-called trade barriers meant that US multinationals were able to flood the Mexican market with cheap goods and services. Goods and services that Mexicans had once produced for themselves either in Mexican-owned companies or in a robust public sector that included a strong nationalized oil industry.

The Mexican economy went into immediate freefall—throwing over one million people out of work. Then the American multinationals were able to move more manufacturing operations to Mexico than ever before—where they were free of pesky labor unions and tax burdens—resulting in the loss of over 682,000 good American jobs by 2010 according to the Economic Policy Institute. Corporations that kept major factories and farms in the US were free to take advantage of a seemingly endless flood of undocumented immigrant workers who are rarely able to organize into labor unions—since one call to the feds ensures the deportation of any “troublemakers.” Canada was also badly hurt by NAFTA. Billionaire CEOs got even richer, and extended their political power significantly in all three countries.

And here’s the irony: It is precisely those Americans who lost their jobs to NAFTA and other neoliberal schemes like it who voted for Donald Trump in significant enough numbers in key states to ensure his victory.

That’s why any successful movement for immigration justice must be linked directly to the most far-sighted sectors of the labor movement in the US and abroad. The key to ending the fight over immigration is to enshrine strong labor rights worldwide; so that major corporations will no longer be able to pit workers in the US against workers in other countries in what’s been aptly called a “race to the bottom.” Spread that message widely enough, and the nativist movement will evaporate—aside from a small core of outright racists. Because if workers can make a decent living wherever they live, then immigration will cease to be an issue anywhere. And when people do migrate to the future US once a fair immigration regime is finally in place, it will be much easier to do so legally and permanently.

Which is the kind of world we all want, yes? One in which the rights of human beings to make a decent living and to move about the planet freely are respected more than the rights of corporations to maximize their profits.

This column was originally written for the Beyond Boston regional news digest showco-produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

iTunes, Google Play Music, Blubrry, Stitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube


NYC (1970)

February 22, 2017


You know we live in interesting times when general strikes get discussed matter-of-factly in an American big city newspaper. A subject which would have only been raised in a publication like the Boston Globe in recent decades to attack it.

But to give the Globe’s Shirley Leung—an occasional target of my ire—credit where it’s due, she did just that in her recent column about three calls for general strikes against the policies of the Trump administration. One fairly small, hastily organized “Day Without Immigrants” strike last Thursday, and two upcoming one-day strike calls: “A Day Without a Woman” on March 8 (International Women’s Day), and a second “Day Without Immigrants” on May 1 (May Day, the international workers’ holiday) that are likely to be much larger affairs.

It’s fairly obvious why Leung is suddenly interested in the strongest tactic in labor’s arsenal. She’s a bit of a feminist and was supportive of Hillary Clinton, and like many people fitting that description is now considering political action that would have been unthinkable for her only three months agone. That’s fine. She gets some things wrong, but interviews some experts that know their stuff, and does her audience a service by discussing the concept of a general strike at all.

To review, a strike occurs when working people withhold their labor for any reason. A general strike occurs when massive numbers of workers from more than one industrial sector withhold their labor in a city, state, region, or nation. The difference is that a strike is typically called to demand redress in a single workplace or industry. A general strike is called to cause serious economic disruption aimed at bringing corporations and the government to their knees on a single issue, a group of issues, or even to overthrow the current political economic system itself. US strikes are usually called by labor unions, general strikes by coalitions of labor unions and left-wing political groups.

The problem for organizers considering the tactic is that general strikes are basically illegal. At least for labor unions. Leung briefly mentions that the Oakland General Strike of 1946 was the “last” general strike. But she didn’t say why. Turns out that the main reason there have been no “official” general strikes since then is because the Oakland action was part of the massive five-million worker national strike wave of 1945-46—in total, the largest sustained protest of any kind in American history.  The strike wave won some victories. Then triggered a political backlash by a coalition of major corporations and right-wing legislators, leading directly to the passage of the anti-labor federal Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. The law specified a number of political economic tactics unions were henceforth banned from using, including: jurisdictional strikes, wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, secondary boycotts, secondary and mass picketing. Long story short, those types of strikes, boycotts, and pickets translate to a general strike. Not that the many general strikes prior to 1947 were treated as legal either, but after 1947 there was little ambiguity as to their legality.

Does that mean that the American labor movement just rolled over? No. It took decades for corporations and their political allies to crush it down to the diminished state it languishes in today—when only 10.7 percent of the US workforce is unionized (down from a high of almost 35 percent in 1954). And does that mean that there have been no actions like a general strike since 1946? Again, no. There have been subsequent general strikes if you include the major wildcat strikes of the 1970s and accept that the 2006 immigrant boycott (that Leung does mention) was essentially a general strike in some cities.

Wildcats are strikes organized by union workers against their employers … and two forces that often collude with bosses: the government and their own union leadership. The most recent major wave of wildcat strikes occurred in the 1970s. Some of them were large enough in some locales to be considered general strikes—especially where strikers drew support from other unions. Particularly the 1970 National US Postal Workers Wildcat Strike (200,000 workers in 15 states), the 1970 Teamsters Wildcat Strike (500,000 workers, mostly east of the Mississippi River), and the 1974 Wildcat Miners Strike (26,000 workers in West Virginia and Virginia). Some of the wildcats dragged on for weeks. For comparison, the Oakland General Strike involved 100,000 workers over a couple of days (although it wasn’t called as a traditional strike, and had elements of a wildcat).

As for the 2006 May Day immigrant action, “The Great American Boycott,” its title in Spanish was “El Gran Paro Estadounidense”—meaning “The Great American Strike.” In practice, as it involved multi-industry boycotts and strike actions, the 2006 mass walkout for immigrant rights can be viewed as a general strike. Over 1.5 million people participated. But since they were mostly immigrants, many American citizens, Leung included, don’t think of it as a strike at all. Certainly it wasn’t as strong as the 1945-46 strike wave, or the 1970s wildcat strikes. But in immigrant cities like LA and Chicago it definitely had significant political and economic impact. If it had gone on longer than a few days, many citizens would likely have felt those effects nationwide.

So the question is: Will the upcoming one-day strike calls have as powerful a political economic effect as a classic general strike? Probably not. In that case, will they be as powerful as a major wildcat strike? Not just yet. How about the 2006 Great American Boycott by immigrants? Will they be that big? That’s probably the sweet spot. The recent Women’s Marches were able to pull an estimated minimum of 3.3 million people out on a weekend when many participants weren’t working. Do a third of those numbers on a workday, and you’ve reached the lower estimate for the 2006 immigrant strike.

Frankly, both the March 8 and May 1 strike calls could be big. Both are aimed at constituencies that have demonstrated ability to turn out in large numbers. And neither call is led by labor unions that can’t easily call general strikes; so there is an opening to do so. But they will only be powerful to the extent that they threaten the established political order. And there the differences between the two events become clear. The March 8 Day Without a Woman strike is being called by some of the same forces that organized the Women’s Marches in January. Forces that, as I’ve previously written, are directly connected to the neoliberal Clintonite wing of the Democratic Party. Folks who just lost an election because they refused to put working people’s needs over corporate profits.

But the May 1 Day Without Immigrants strike call is being organized by Movimiento Cosecha—a fast-growing coalition of militant young left-wing immigrant organizers. They are potentially limited by their focus on immigrant communities. However, they were recently screwed by the Democratic Party and the Obama administration—which both failed to respond to their demand that all 11 million undocumented immigrants be granted legal status before Trump came into office. So they are less likely to heed the siren call of Democratic leaders to tone down their protests when they become inconvenient for the Dems’ corporate backers, and therefore far more likely to actually build their May Day effort into something approaching a general strike than the March 8 organizers are.

Their call to action makes that intent quite clear:

One day is just the beginning of a season of strikes and boycotts. We know that each time we strike for a day, we will build power. And the more days we strike, the stronger we will feel. The more desperate those in power become. The more the elite will want business to return to normal. They will be forced to figure out a way to give us permanent protection. And in the process, we will win the dignity and respect that we deserve and demand.

Ultimately, debates over whether major work stoppages are “real” general strikes aren’t the point. What matters is “boots on the ground,” and the ability of organizers to translate their numbers into political and economic gains. Any coalition that can pull millions out of work and into the streets against the Trump administration will write a new chapter in both American political and labor history. Which could be just the game changer our incipient movements for democracy need. But if there turns out to be more than one such coalition, so much the better.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

iTunes, Google Play Music, Blubrry, Stitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube



Joint Committee Meeting of the Cambridge City Council to Discuss Immigrant Representation and Resources, May 12, 2016. Photo by Jason Pramas. Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas.

Joint Committee Meeting of the Cambridge City Council to Discuss Immigrant Representation and Resources, May 12, 2016. Photo by Jason Pramas. Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas.

May 23, 2016


We live in strange times. On the one hand, the United States is a more diverse society than at any other point in its history. On the other, we’re witnessing a presidential campaign where Donald Trump has captured the Republican nomination in part by whipping up hysteria against immigrants. It’s an old game in American politics—with roots stretching back to the Know Nothing movement (originally, and ironically, called the Native American Party) in the mid-1850s and even further to the founding of the Republic. Blame the victim and ignore the actual oppressors. But it’s working quite well with white voters who have every reason to be angry in the ongoing economic downturn. And are casting about for someone to blame.

That’s why it’s refreshing to see an initiative taking shape in Cambridge to expand immigrant rights at the local level. Last week, City Manager Richard Rossi announced that a city Commission on Immigrant Rights and Citizenship that was created at the high water mark of immigrant rights activism nationwide in 2006 is at last searching for candidates to fill its 11 seats. That is an interesting development on its own merits. Especially given the apparent commonplace of dormant municipal committees. But the story of how the commission’s reanimation came to pass is even more interesting.

There are a significant number of immigrants in Cambridge. No surprise, given its world-famous universities, the large population of foreign born scholars they attract, the enterprises that set up shop nearby to avail themselves of those scholars, and the many immigrant service workers attracted to jobs connected to the university-driven economy (although most of them cannot afford to live where they work given a housing market that has become wildly expensive since rent control was defeated by the real estate industry in 1994). Not that a sizeable immigrant community is a new development, as previous generations of immigrants found work in the city’s once-strong industrial sector and put down deep roots that persist today in neighborhoods like East Cambridge and North Cambridge. Still, the percentage of immigrants has been on the rise again in Cambridge for some time.

Looking at the 2010-2014 estimate data from the US Census Bureau American Community Survey for Cambridge, out of a population of 106,844, an impressive 30,075 residents or 28.15 percent are foreign born. Placing the city in the top dozen Massachusetts municipalities for immigrant population, according to a report by The Immigrant Learning Center.  Of that total, the number of voting age non-citizen residents is 17,333 or 18.41 percent. Meaning that close to 20 percent of Cambridge residents have no representation in city politics. A statistic that includes an unknown number of undocumented immigrants—who have all been officially welcomed to Cambridge since it renewed its status as a sanctuary city for refugees and migrants without papers in 2006.

Since the early 1990s, there have been a number of attempts by immigrant advocates and the Cambridge City Council to give documented immigrants a voice in local elections by instituting non-citizen voting in local elections.  Each time, the effort ran into the same problem: it was not possible to enact such a city ordinance without the state legislature passing a home rule petition first. And the legislature has long been conservative on such matters—partially due to the anti-immigrant constituencies of many suburban and rural politicians. As such, no plan for including undocumented immigrants in a Cambridge municipal voting ordinance has ever been floated. Having precisely zero chance of passing muster in the legislature under current conditions.

Despite the difficult political hurdles to surmount at the state level, Councillor Nadeem Mazen has expressed interest in taking a fresh shot at making it possible for documented immigrants that have not yet become naturalized citizens to vote in city council and school committee races. His approach, however, has been somewhat different than that of his predecessors.

Mazen and his aide Daniel Schwartz have organized advocacy groups on several issues—including non-citizen voting. Emmanuel “Manny” Lusardi, a retired retail executive who strongly identifies with his family’s immigrant roots, got involved in the non-citizen voting advocacy group early on, and soon recruited Sylvie de Marrais—a recent Boston University graduate and restaurant server with a passion for expanding immigrant rights—to work with him. Noting what he calls her “exceptional organizational and leadership abilities,” Lusardi encouraged de Marrais to become the group’s leader.

Understanding that it remains difficult to get a home rule petition passed on even documented non-citizen voting, the advocacy group began looking for some stopgap measure that would get more immigrant representation in Cambridge city government sooner rather than later. A few weeks back, they hit upon the idea of organizing a push for a non-voting immigrant representative on the council. While looking into its feasibility, however, they started studying the positive experience of Boston and other cities that had established immigrant affairs offices. Mazen and other city officials liked that approach, and the non-citizen voting advocacy group then started organizing to create a Cambridge immigrant affairs office.

Not long after, they discovered the never-activated Commission on Immigrant Rights and Citizenship, alerted City Manager Rossi, and were gratified last week when he announced a search for the 11 members needed to get it in motion. Later that week, Mazen convened a joint meeting of three city council committees to discuss immigrant representation and resources in Cambridge. It was attended by councillors Dennis Carlone, Jan Devereux, and Timothy Toomey, Vice Mayor Marc McGovern, Mayor Denise Simmons, a number of city officials, and special guest An Le of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Advancement in Boston.The arc of the resulting discussion bent towards empowering the new commission to work on a variety of tasks—including better coordination of city services for immigrants, and organizing an annual Immigrants Day at Cambridge City Hall—and ordering a study of an aspect of the non-citizen voting plan that could slow immigrants’ naturalization processes if an agreement isn’t worked out with US Citizenship and Immigration Services. But the various motions agreed upon at the meeting towards those goals will need to be passed by the full council in the coming weeks before they can be operationalized.

The non-citizen voting advocacy group—now called the Immigrant Advocacy Group of Cambridge—will certainly have a tough time getting all of its expanding agenda of reforms enacted in a period of anti-immigrant rhetoric and tight budgets at all levels of government. Even in the so-called “People’s Republic.” But its activists have done a fine job out of the gate. And its working relationship with a sitting politician seems to be an innovation worthy of notice. With the Commission on Immigrant Rights and Citizenship slated to start meeting in the fall, and forward motion on a non-citizen voting ordinance and an immigrant affairs office, the advocacy group offers a political model that both democratizes and humanizes the debate over how our cities and towns should treat immigrants—whether documented or undocumented. A model that other municipalities should think seriously about emulating.

Cambridge residents who would like to get active with the group should check out its Facebook page.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director. Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.



Untitled drawing

Image by Kent Buckley

January 13, 2016


Over 100,000 undocumented immigrants from Central America have entered the US since 2014—seeking to escape what the mainstream media like to vaguely call “violence and political instability.” And they have been living in abject terror since the Obama administration’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began deportation raids against 121 of their number in December. Raids which come just as right-wing Presidential candidates whip up hysteria against immigrants and refugees. As if these “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are somehow the cause of our many societal woes.

These latest ICE raids against undocumented immigrants are reprehensible, and anyone who believes in democracy should oppose them. Especially because—as has been pointed out repeatedly by immigrant advocates—many of the people getting deported stand a good chance of being killed by reactionary governments or gangs if they’re forced to “go back where they came from.”

But also because Americans all bear some responsibility for electing governments who have made a series of decisions over the last century that have resulted in the immiseration of the countries that undocumented immigrants have left.

Such immigrants come here largely fleeing poverty—created by US hemispheric policy aimed at increasing profits for American multinational corporations and in maintaining control over the region. Time and time again, in each of the countries at the center of the current crisis—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—and many other countries besides, the US has moved to crush governments that show any sign of pursuing political and economic democracy.

For example, leaders like then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the rest of the Obama administration backed a coup d’etat in Honduras in 2009 against the popular government of President Manuel Zelaya. To the great benefit of the Honduran military, a small number of elite landowning families, and some huge American corporations.

The country is now essentially run by criminals, and has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Similar processes continue in Guatemala. And in El Salvador. Which finally has a progressive government, but which faces a hostile US Congress, truculent local elites, and greedy multinational corporations. Plus, major gangs like MS-13 that owe their existence to US machinations in the region.

It’s worth noting that once here, undocumented immigrants (and refugees) almost universally work hard, pay taxes, and contribute to their communities. So arguments that they are somehow stealing something or “taking jobs” from American citizens and documented immigrants remain ludicrous on their face.

The only way out of this dilemma is to not only institute a humane and just immigration system—a hard enough challenge in the present political moment—but also to enshrine the “right to move” freely between nations in international law. And ultimately the even more democratic “right to the world” that Vassar College professor Joseph Nevins recently explained as follows:

A right to the world complements a “right to the city”—the right to radically remake places and those who inhabit them in ways that are inclusive and socially and environmentally just and sustainable—that many on the political left champion. A right to the world envisions more than a right for those who already inhabit a place, however. It also seeks a right to a just share of the earth’s resources and to a sustainable “home,” and a right to traverse global space, especially for the globally disadvantaged.

In other words, a right to a world where people mired in structural poverty and violence—like the current wave of immigrants from Central America or the even larger wave of refugees from Syria—would have the freedom to move to countries where they have the possibility of building a new life. And the right to have their basic needs met wherever they go. Without being branded “illegal” and treated like criminals for doing what any one of us would do in the same circumstances.

Readers looking to help stop the latest round of ICE raids, and to work on the long-stalled federal immigration reform process, should get in touch with the Mass Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and their network of allied immigrant organizations right away.

Those who want to fight for the right to move and the right to the world are going to have a less straightforward path—as they’ll have to help build a new movement for migrants rights from the ground up.

A good start towards that larger goal would be to join the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in pushing the US to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Steps beyond that will likely take a decades long fight.

For Americans feeling swayed by the anti-immigrant election rhetoric dominating both the news and paid campaign advertisements, I can only say this: take a careful look at the history of US relations with other nations in the Western Hemisphere and around the world. Notice what our political and corporate leaders did to those countries over the last century, and then reflect on where most immigrants and refugees are coming from. And why.

Then you might better understand why I’m saying that Americans owe immigrants and refugees a much better deal than we’ve been giving them of late.

It also wouldn’t hurt to remember that anyone who isn’t Native American is basically descended from immigrants. But please don’t embarrass us all by thinking that every one of your ancestors came here “legally.”  Or that this land wasn’t stolen lock, stock, and barrel from its rightful owners.

If you’re looking for a book to read up on these and related matters, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is still a fine choice.

La lucha continua.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.