David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Los Angeles Turns Out for Amnesty
by David Bacon

LOS ANGELES (6/12/00) -- Immigration amnesty for people crossing the border without papers is hardly a new idea in California. In fact, the first one came with San Francisco's earthquake and fire of 1906, which destroyed the records keeping track of immigrants brought from China to work on the railroads.

"A hundred years ago my grandfather and his brother crossed the Mexican border into California illegally, buried in a hay cart," Katie Quan remembers her parents telling her. They had to sneak in, because after the rails were laid, the door to further immigration from China was slammed shut. "The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, brings bitter memories for Chinese Americans to this day, because it barred Chinese, and only Chinese, from entering the U.S."

When the fire burned down San Francisco's City Hall, it destroyed the immigration records of the city's Chinese residents. The whole community became undocumented. And when everyone was undocumented, anyone could say they had arrived legally and had their papers go up in flames. Quan's father became a legal resident as a result. Other immigrants brought relatives from China, claiming they were "paper sons," whose documents had perished in the fire.

"That is the way a very high percentage of Chinese Americans came to the U.S., including my mother's family," Quan says.

Quan, a former garment union leader, now works at the Center for Labor Research and Education at UC Berkeley. She recalled her family's history in one of a series of hearings held to gather support for the AFL-CIO's recent proposal that the country needs a new amnesty.

As the hearings, which started in March, moved across the U.S. from New York to Atlanta, Chicago, Silicon Valley, Portland, Salinas and Fresno, the crowds turning out to back the demand swelled. Amnesty has immense support among immigrants, a fact impossible to ignore last Saturday in Los Angeles when over 16,000 people poured into the LA Sports Arena, chanting "Que queremos? Amnistia, sin condiciones!" - "What do we want? Unconditional amnesty!" Thousands more gathered outside, unable to get in through the doors.

The last immigration amnesty was contained in the Immigration Reform and Control Act, passed in 1986. It allowed about three million people, who came before January 1, 1982, to gain legal status. But those who've arrived without documents since then have been trapped in the same illegal status the law fixed for those who came before.

The Urban Institute estimates there were as many as 5 million undocumented people in the U.S. just before that amnesty. Afterwards, it dropped to 2-3 million. But by 1992, it was rising again to 2.7-3.7 million. Today most estimates place the number around 6 million, but no one really knows. Fear of deportation makes undocumented people hesitant to be counted.

Neither sending the National Guard to patrol the high metal fence in Tijuana, nor beefed-up raids in immigrant communities, have been able to halt this flow of people. Nor has anti-immigrant legislation, from California's Proposition 187 to the immigration reform acts passed in 1986 and 1996.

California's experience is no different from western Europe and Japan. And when the AFL-CIO changed its position on immigration this February, it recognized that continued immigration reflects a new world reality. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that over 80 million people today live outside their countries of origin, with the U.S. home to only a small percentage. Because of growing economic inequality on a global scale, people increasingly leave and seek survival elsewhere when they cannot feed their families at home.

The AFL-CIO's reversal in position has shifted the political climate around immigration in Washington DC dramatically. Suddenly a handful of immigration bills have been introduced, ostensibly intended to legalize at least some people. Just a year ago, even discussion of limited amnesty was considered laughable among beltway lobbyists.

"It's really obvious that the change by the labor movement has made a whole new discussion possible," says Victor Narro, a staff attorney at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. "Now we have a labor movement that's on the side of immigrants, rather than one bent on trying to stop immigration, as we had in 1986." At that time, the AFL-CIO argued against immigration amnesty, and for employer sanctions, that section of the law which makes it illegal for undocumented immigrants to work.

When the AFL-CIO announced at its October convention here that the old attitude needed to be changed, it set up a hearing process to advise immigrant workers of their rights, to gather testimony about how immigration law has undermined those rights, and to forge a new labor/community/religious coalition to change the law. In addition to unions, the LA hearing was sponsored by ten churches and community organizations, from the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional (the National Mexican Brotherhood) to the Catholic Archdiocese, each kicking in at least $2500 to help pay for the huge event, and bringing busloads of people to fill the arena.

"Labor can open some doors," says Miguel Contreras, secretary of the Los Angeles County Labor Federation, "but we need community allies and a grassroots base. We have to build a rank-and-file movement for amnesty, and this huge turnout shows not only that it can be done, but that politicians who want the Latino vote had better take note."

"We really need amnesty," says Mateo Cruz, a day laborer who marched into the sports arena with 2000 other workers from LA's streetcorners, mobilized by the Union of Day Laborers. "People hire us and don't pay us. Three years ago I worked for 40 days cleaning restaurants for a contractor, and when I finally told him I couldn't go on being put off about my wages, he called the police and threatened to have me deported. I was humiliated and handcuffed. Not having papers makes bosses and police treat you really badly. I filed a complaint for my wages with the Labor Commissioner, and after 2 years I'm still waiting. Many day laborers won't even do that, because they're afraid that if they make trouble they'll be picked up by the migra [Border Patrol]."

Inside the sports arena, a procession of workers recounted similar experiences to a panel of union leaders. Maria Sanchez described the way managers at the Palm Canyon Hotel in Palm Springs fired a number of workers after they joined the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union. When forced to rehire them, the hotel suddenly decided to check their immigration status and refused to put them back to work. The workers, both documented and undocumented, responded by staying off the job until everyone was rehired. "I lost my house and my car. I sold some of my possessions so I could survive," Sanchez declared. "But we woke up. We gained self-confidence. I know that I have value and that I have rights!"

Carmen, a seventeen-year old farmworker from the Central Valley, broke down in tears as she stood before thousands of strangers, admitting that her lack of legal status kept her from going to college. "We can't even move [to a bigger house] because we don't have a Social Security number to put down a deposit and turn on utilities…Even if we could afford a nice home, we can't rent one because we are undocumented.

"Our future depends on a new amnesty," she cried out.

Ofelia Parra, a worker in Washington state's apple-packing sheds, described the mass termination of 700 undocumented workers in the midst of a Teamsters Union organizing drive, at the demand of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The drive was broken. "We've had to accept jobs at lower wages. I earned $7.51/hour at the packing plant, and now I earn minimum wage," she said. "We contribute to this society just like the people who have papers. We need an amnesty so we can work in peace and organize to improve conditions."

In Los Angeles, in an election year, the demand for amnesty has clear political repercussions. According to Fabian Nuñez, the county labor federation's political director, one million of California's 1.1 newly registered voters are Latino, and 44% of them are new immigrants. "Before 1986, a lot of these people were undocumented themselves, so they know what amnesty means and how important it is," he explains. Politicians like Assemblyman Gil Cedillo and past Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa were not only partly elected with those votes, but are former immigrant rights activists themselves.

Contreras emphasizes that LA labor doesn't see immigration law in a vacuum. "Amnesty is a means to an end -- the elimination of poverty and a better redistribution of wealth. LA is a county in crisis. Fifty wealthy families have assets of $60 billion, more than the wages of 2 million of the city's lowest-paid workers, who are mostly immigrants. But in the midst of this crisis, we also have a crisis of leadership. Elected officials see amnesty as too controversial. This hearing is a signal to them that amnesty is important to this community. It's a message to all of LA."

It's also a message that puts the Clinton administration in Washington into a quandary. It seeks to appear Latino-friendly on the one hand, while not appearing to ease up on the immigration enforcement program it's touted for seven years on the other. To at least partly solve this problem, a meeting was convened in Washington in mid-April by Henry Cisneros, past Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and mayor of San Antonio, now CEO of the Spanish-language TV network Univision and a Democratic Party heavyweight.

The meeting sought to craft a compromise short of a general amnesty and the repeal of employer sanctions -- the bedrock AFL-CIO positions. Instead, Cisneros joined Republican Jack Kemp in urging participants to support lifting the cap on the recruitment of foreign high-tech workers. In return, they predicted, pro-immigrant groups could get some limited reforms. Those include extending to Haitians and other Central Americans the liberal procedures Cubans and Nicaraguans have for getting asylum, allowing late applicants for the last amnesty to receive one now, moving the registry date for amnesty forward from the old one of January 1, 1982, and removing a provision which forces undocumented workers to return to their countries of origin, often separating their families for years, just to apply for legal status.

The number of people eligible for legalization under these proposals depends on the new registry date, but no one denies it would be far short of the 6 million undocumented people currently in the country. Some immigration activists, while acknowledging the importance of those reforms, are wary of the deal, fearing it will cut short the effort to achieve a broader amnesty.

In Silicon Valley, reservations were voiced for another reason. The computer industry's scheme to recruit more foreign high-tech workers, the H-1B visa category, is a form of contract labor tying workers' immigration status to their employers. If a contract worker is fired, they not only lose their job, but can lose their right to stay in the U.S. as well.

"I was hired by a software company in Los Angeles that sponsored my visa," Kim Singh, a former H-1B worker, told the AFL-CIO's Silicon Valley hearing. "In every paycheck the company would deduct 25% of my salary. When I questioned this practice, I was told that I would get this money when I left. But I never got it." At another company in Torrance, Singh's H-1B coworkers labored seven days a week with no overtime. A third company in Silicon Valley rented an apartment for Singh and three other contract workers for $1450/month, and then deducted $1450 from each of their paychecks.

While Singh was able to change jobs and eventually obtain a normal visa, "other programmers stayed at the company because the employer had their passports and they were intimidated."

"Why aren't the companies training workers here for those jobs?" asks Linda Chavez-Thompson, AFL-CIO executive vice-president. While H-1B workers are paid considerably more than the minimum wage, "it still is like the old bracero program," she asserts. "Companies use this program to keep workers in a position of dependence. And because they're often hired under individual contracts, U.S. labor law says they don't even have the right to organize." Eliseo Medina, executive vice-president of the Service Employees International Union, was at the Cisneros meeting, and says the AFL-CIO doesn't support the H-1B program.

But both political parties are competing to woo the huge campaign contributions flowing from the computer industry, and in Congress there's overwhelming support for giving Silicon Valley employers the workers they want.

Other industries are not far behind. Employers around the country complain they can't get their labor needs supplied with just citizens, or legal residents already here. Growers have bills in Congress to expand their "guestworker" program, and remove restrictions protecting workers. The garment industry and others dependent on immigrants also want contract labor.

Last year in Nebraska, the INS itself conducted its largest workplace enforcement program ever, intended to build support for these programs. After driving over 3000 undocumented workers from the state's meatpacking plants, INS midwest direct Mark Reed stated in an interview that "we depend on foreign labor, and we have to face the question -- are we prepared to bring in workers lawfully? If we don't have illegal immigration anymore, we'll have the political support for guestworker [contract labor programs]."

The political problem for labor, as defined by its political strategists in Washington, is that some employer support is necessary to get a pro-immigrant bill through Congress. But if the price for that support is a chain of contract labor programs, instead of an immigrant workforce legalized by amnesty and freed from employer sanctions, immigrant workers could wind up more chained than ever.

"I'm not convinced there is a labor shortage," says Medina, one of the main AFL-CIO leaders pushing for the new immigration policy. "We don't support lifting the cap on H-1B. If companies were willing to pay fair wages, they'd have all the workers they want.

"What we do need," he continues, "is workplace enforcement of worker protection laws, instead of employer sanctions. We want a general amnesty, covering all the people who are here now. In addition, many Mexicans would rather stay at home, but companies pay starvation wages in the maquiladoras, and wind up creating the very conditions forcing people to come here. So as long as people continue coming, we need to deal with that. One idea is a rolling date, so that people who have been here a certain amount of time could apply for amnesty. The AFL-CIO hasn't adopted this yet - so far we're just talking."

Despite its limitations, Medina called the Cisneros meeting "a good first step," because it brought together a widely disparate group of employers and unions, political conservatives and immigrant rights advocates.

"This is the time to be bold," urges John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. "I'm not against incremental steps, but we have to push amnesty and get rid of sanctions. In the legislative process we'll wind up bargaining, and what we get will depend on how strong our coalition is. But if someone had told me 3-4 years ago that we'd be taking this position today, I'd have thought they were out of their minds."

That describes pretty well the experience of at least one speaker at the LA forum, the grandfather of the immigrant rights movement, Bert Corona. In one of the most emotional moments of the huge rally, Corona was helped across the stage, in steps made halting by his age, and given credit for years spent trying to convince the labor movement that defending immigrants was in its best interest.

Corona started campaigning against employer sanctions and immigration raids in the 1960s, long before the 1986 law was passed. He got a cold shoulder from the AFL-CIO's former leaders in Washington. During those years, a rally like Saturday's hearing would have been inconceivable. Corona would certainly never have been an honored guest.

"There is no mine, no bridge, not a row in the fields nor a construction site in all the United States that hasn't been watered with the tears, the sweat and blood of immigrants," Corona reminded the huge crowd in Spanish. "We demand an amnesty for the workers who have made the wealth of this country possible. Amnesty is not a gift, but a right, for those who have contributed so much, and should be free of any conditions reinforcing the hard exploitation of our past. It means achieving real equality "

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