VOICES OF IMMIGRANTS MUST BE HEARD
Wednesday 03 May 2006
On Monday, May 1, over a million people filled the streets of Los Angeles, with hundreds of thousands more in Chicago, New York, and cities and towns throughout this country. Immigrants feel their backs are against the wall, and are coming out of their homes and workplaces to show it.
In part, their protests respond to HR 4437 - the Sensenbrenner bill - that proposes to eliminate all social space in which undocumented immigrants can work, survive, and provide for their families.
The protests do more than react to a particular Congressional agenda, however. They are the cumulative response to years of bashing and denigrating immigrants generally, and Mexican and Latinos in particular. The protests seem spontaneous, but they come as a result of years of organizing, educating, and agitating - activities that have given immigrants confidence, and at least some organizations the credibility needed to mobilize direct mass action.
This movement is the legacy of Bert Corona, immigrant rights pioneer and founder of many national Latino organizations. He trained thousands of immigrant activists, taught the value of political independence, and believed that immigrants themselves must conduct the fight for immigrant rights. Most of the leaders of our movement today were students or disciples of Bert Corona.
Together, these factors have produced a huge popular response, a fightback like we've never seen before.
Unfortunately, however, these protests are also being used in Washington DC to justify compromises which betray the interests of immigrants and working people generally. Some more liberal Washington legislators, and their coterie of beltway lobbyists, even claim credit for the marches, or at least use them to justify their proposed compromises. But people have poured into the streets, not to support these proposals, but driven by fear of the harm they will do.
All of the various compromises offered in the Senate have repressive Sensenbrenner-type measures within them. The three-tier Hagel-Martinez legalization program, for instance, would produce a codified caste system, a sort of Bantu Apartheid that is un-American, and would rip our families apart. The Democratic Party's answer to the Sensenbrenner bill has been the McCain-Kennedy immigration proposal, which contains huge guest worker programs and increased workplace raids to punish the undocumented for the crime of working.
The huge number of immigrants and their supporters in the streets find these Senate compromises completely unacceptable. We will only get what we're ready to fight for, but people are ready and willing to fight for the whole enchilada. This is not the best that we can get, and we have nothing to lose.
Our greatest problem is that the Democratic Party is unwilling to stand and fight to oppose the repugnant idea of second-class status, in its haste to make a deal. National advocacy organizations claiming to represent immigrants are showing signs that they will accept these deals as well. At the same time, Washington legislators and lobbyists fear the growth of a new civil rights movement in the streets, because it rejects their compromises and makes demands that go beyond what they have defined as "politically possible."
People are willing to fight for more, and are making far-reaching demands. The immigration debate must be resolved by immigrants themselves, and their voice must be paramount - not the voice of the politically well-connected.
Much of the leadership of Washington's liberal hierarchy has already accepted the McCain/Kennedy proposal, and further Senate compromises, with no real consultation with immigrant workers. They have become compromised by ties to political parties and large corporations, all of which have more powerful voices than those of immigrants. This elitist approach has been rejected by millions of people in the last month's marches and demonstrations who want a voice in the decisions that will affect their lives.
These ties have never been honestly discussed with immigrant communities. Before the latest marches, those ties led these organizations to tell us not to stop work, leave school, or buy anything for just a single day. Yet it is obvious that the national debate has changed only because of our willingness to do those very things.
The May 1st actions highlighted the economic importance of immigrant labor. Undocumented workers deserve legal status because of that labor - their inherent contribution to society. The value they create is never called illegal, and no one dreams of taking it away from the employers who profit from it. Yet the people who produce that value are called exactly that - illegal. All workers create value through their labor, but immigrant workers are especially profitable, because they are so often denied many of the union-won benefits accorded to native-born workers.
The average undocumented worker has been in the US for five years. By that time, these workers have paid a high price for their lack of legal status, through low wages and lost benefits. The Senate compromises would have them pay even more - fines for legalization, as though they were criminals. These compromises would then have them wait over a decade to gain real legal status, not even considering the millions who would not qualify, and would then be deported.
Undocumented workers deserve immediate legal status, and have already paid for it.
On May 1st, immigrant workers demonstrated their power in the national immigration debate. Their absence from workplaces, schools and stores sent a powerful message that that they will not be shut out of this discussion, and that corporate-funded national organizations do not speak for them.
They are rescuing from anonymity the struggle for the 8-hour day, begun in Chicago over a century ago by the immigrants of yesteryear. They are recovering the traditions of all working people.
Nativo Lopez is President of the Mexican-American Political Association and the Hermandad Nacional Mexicana
David Bacon is a California photojournalist who documents labor, migration and globalization. His book The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border was published last year by University of California Press.
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