Notes on the Immigrants’ Rights Movement and the Social Revolution


El grito de Hidalgo, mural by Juan O’Gorman

By Duncan Riley



Traditional socialist analyses, particularly in Europe and North America, categorize immigrants as just another kind of worker. Of course, it is widely accepted on the left that immigrants suffer a greater degree of marginalization and discrimination, and face distinct problems, such as deportation. However, ultimately, the left has traditionally seen immigrants as just one more sector of the working class, the same as native-born workers. While it is absolutely true that workers of all nations are fundamentally members of the same class, the distinct obstacles and challenges that immigrants face cause their communities to develop differently, and forge unique forms of social struggle. The radical developments in the immigrants’ rights movement, more than just another response to the ever-deepening crisis of capitalism, carry within them the beginnings of the social revolution. Immigrants of all nations are already leading the way in constructing the new society, and it is vital that the left learn from these vibrant movements.

Immigrants, upon arrival in the United States, face significant challenges. The new cultural environment is overwhelming, particularly if they do not speak English. The citizenship process is drawn-out and extremely difficult, immigrants are left with limited political and civil rights and the threat of deportation and state repression hovering over their heads. Further, due to their vulnerable position within society, immigrants face severe economic exploitation by capital, as they fear contesting labor rights violations could lead to deportation.[1] Under these hostile conditions, immigrant communities are naturally drawn closer together and organize themselves. These communal organizations are generally based on kinship or national ties, as immigrants from the same national, regional, and local backgrounds naturally gravitate towards one another. These communal ties become the basis for mutual aid, and a collectivist spirit takes root in the community.

Often times, communal ties are related to social structures in immigrants’ home countries. The case of Mexican immigrants demonstrates this most clearly. The first working-class organizations that arose in Mexico were the mutualistas, mutual-aid societies and proto-unions that formed among artisans and proletarians during the mid-19th century. The societies provided protection and support to workers amidst the instability of industrialization throughout the Porfiriato and provided an organizing base for strikes.[2] As Mexican workers migrated for work to the Southwest, they brought mutualista organization with them. They also took root among the pre-1848 Mexican populations suffering dispossession of their lands and livelihoods by the North American state and capital.[3] Equally, as capitalist logic was applied to the countryside after the enforcement of the Ley Lerdo, indigenous communal agricultural structures, the ejidos, were dismantled, their members forced off their lands. Many migrated to the north or joined the ranks of the growing working classes in the cities, infusing it with the collectivist spirit of the ejidatarios.[4] Thus, a communal ethos and ideal of mutual-aid lies at the foundation of the Mexican working class on both sides of the border.

Just as mutualistas began as mutual-aid societies but transformed into vehicles of class struggle, immigrant communal structures have transformed into platforms for social struggle. In the Twin Cities alone, campaigns bring together various immigrants’ rights groups to fight for the rights to municipal IDs and drivers’ licenses, while opposing deportations and other forms of state repression. In these actions, immigrants exercise the rights so often denied to them, and fight for inclusion as citizens. In short, the communal organization of immigrants prepared the basis for collective action against the state to conquer new rights from the hands of the powerful. The movement thus relies on democratic ambitions which refuse to accept government limits on citizenship, and the repression which enforces them, asserting the primacy of popular participation.[5] The immigrants’ rights movement thus constitutes a significant challenge to the nominally democratic bourgeois state, opposing its authoritarianism and at times forcing it to concede new rights, democratizing the national community.

What is unique about the immigrants’ rights movement, is that this democratizing struggle is not directed by any one political party but is rather the organic development of communal structures. The movement thus becomes a space for direct democracy, where members express their opinions freely, and vote on their leadership, platforms, and objectives. This free and open process contrasts sharply with bourgeois democracy, which relies on the authoritarian power of the state, and is driven by the influence of the wealthy and powerful, rather than the voice of the people. Thus, within the immigrants’ rights movement the masses can gather to participate in true democracy, exercising control over their own destinies and making their own decisions, in what Guérin calls “their apprenticeship in direct democracy from the bottom up.”[6] Within the immigrants’ rights movement the process of social revolution is already developing, as a communal and socialist alternative to authoritarianism is put into practice.

At the same time, immigrant organizations alone cannot make the social revolution. Alliances between different communities of immigrants, and between immigrants and native-born workers will be vital to any revolutionary action. It was an alliance of Mexican and Japanese workers that challenged both white supremacy and economic exploitation in Southern California during the early 20th century.[7] In the same period, it was the union of Italian and Mexican mine workers in Arizona that caused both state and capital to tremble in fear.[8] Today, immigrants’ rights movements cooperate with a wide variety of anti-imperialist and radical groups dedicated to the democratization of society. This alignment of social forces thus provides the embryo of a communal and direct democracy, which is capable of mobilizing the masses both in defense of their rights and for the conquest of power through social revolution.[9]

This social revolution, at its core, is the struggle for autonomy. It is the struggle for the right of the plebeian classes to live without being imposed upon by oligarchs and authoritarians. Immigrants, who have often seen the worst of capitalism and imperialism, and who face deep injustices in their new homes, understand the value of autonomy perhaps more than any other segment of the working classes. As such, immigrants play a leading role in constructing this autonomy in their own communities and spreading the ideal of social revolution throughout the masses. As this ideal, fiery in its cry for justice, grows ever in strength, it becomes clear that true liberty can only be realized once the arbitrary divisions that empires create among the workers are erased, and all join together in the struggle for emancipation from tyranny.



[1] Levin, Sam. “Immigration Crackdown Enables Worker Exploitation, Labor Department Staff Say.” The Guardian. March 30, 2017. Accessed January 15, 2019.

[2] Chacón, Justin Akers. Radicals in the Barrio: Magonistas, Socialists, Wobblies, and Communists in the Mexican American Working Class, 36-8. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2018.

[3] Ibid., 104-5.

[4] Ibid., 30-31.

[5] Linera, Álvaro García. Plebeian Power: Collective Action and Indigenous, Working-class and Popular Identities in Bolivia, 95.  Leiden: Brill, 2014.

[6] Guérin, Daniel. For a Libertarian Communism, 75. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2017.

[7] Justin Akers Chacón. Radicals in the Barrio: Magonistas, Socialists, Wobblies, and Communists in the Mexican American Working Class, 76.

[8] Ibid., 93-5.

[9] Álvaro García Linera. Plebeian Power: Collective Action and Indigenous, Working-class and Popular Identities in Bolivia, 255-6.

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