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WHAT WE THINK
Grassroots initiatives against HR 4437 get a mass response
Dawn of a new movement

March 31, 2006 | Page 3

THE MASSIVE mobilizations for immigrant rights across the U.S. mark the dawn of a new movement--and set a fighting example for everyone fed up with the relentless attacks of Corporate America, Congress and the White House.

The 1 million-strong march in Los Angeles May 25--coming two weeks after a demonstration of 300,000 in Chicago--was overwhelmingly working class, reflecting the importance of immigrant labor in the U.S.

With protests continuing into the next week--tens of thousands of high school students across California walked out of school on Monday, Cesar Chavez Day--the mainstream media finally took notice.

"The demonstrations embody a surging constituency demanding that illegal immigrants be given a path to citizenship rather than be punished with prison terms," the New York Times--belatedly--observed. "[Their demands are] being pressed as never before by immigrants who were long thought too fearful of deportation to risk so public a display."

Many of those who jammed downtown LA carried handmade signs with a straightforward, compelling demand: Equal rights for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

The huge march was spurred by a vicious anti-immigrant bill sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and passed late last year by the House. Sensenbrenner's bill would turn undocumented immigrants into felons--making it one of the most vicious attacks in the long and shameful history of immigrant-bashing in the U.S.

So when mainstream politicians failed to stand up to Sensenbrenner, grassroots groups took the initiative--and found a mass response.

Now Democrats are scrambling--bowing to the right's demands for a crackdown on immigration while still seeking votes from immigrants themselves. The result is a "compromise" bill before the U.S. Senate that drops Sensenbrenner's aim of criminalizing immigrants, but still consigns them to second-class citizenship as "guest workers" and continues the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.

With the full Senate out to restrict rights in one form or another, it's all the more important for the new immigrant rights movement to put forward its own agenda.

That means demanding amnesty for undocumented workers--both legal recognition of the equal rights of immigrants who toil in tough jobs for low wages, and opportunities to become U.S. citizens if they so choose. Anything less than amnesty rewards business with a cheap, vulnerable labor force and denies immigrant workers equal protection under the law.

In putting forward the demand for amnesty, immigrant rights activists can build on the legacy of the great social movements in U.S. history.

With the mobilization of Mexican Americans at its center, the new movement could revive the legacy of the radical Chicano Power movement that erupted among young people of Mexican descent in the late 1960s in California and the Southwest. In fact, the walkouts by Latino students today echo the 1968 walkout in East Los Angeles to protest racism and discrimination.

Today, the scale of immigration from Mexico, the rest of Latin America and Asia have put the issues that students fought for in the 1960s at the center of U.S. politics, with anti-immigration legislation creating an explosive new mix.

Many of today's immigrant rights activists see their struggle as a new civil rights movement--emulating the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which not only shattered Jim Crow racial segregation laws in the South but inspired other movements as well.

The weight of the working class in the immigrant population, in turn, creates the potential for involving organized labor. In fact, the protest in Chicago was billed as a "general strike"--with thousands of workers staying away from work to attend.

While the big unions are divided on the specifics of immigration legislation, labor's shift in recent years to a pro-immigrant rights position is a major step forward from the days when unions sought to exclude immigrants.

The labor-backed Immigrant Freedom Rides of 2003 mobilized tens of thousands of people across the country around a demand for legal status for all immigrants, a clear path for citizenship, the right of immigrants to reunite with their families and new workplace protections for all workers. Importantly, the AFL-CIO is a cosponsor of the April 10 national day of action for immigrant rights.

Like previous social movements, the new immigrant rights movement will have to contend with various Democratic Party efforts to contain, demobilize and divide the struggle--opposing demands for amnesty, for example. Standing up for this demand--and continued mobilizations--will be key to building the movement.

There are other challenges as well--including outreach to Arab and Muslim immigrants, who already face the kind of repression that the Sensenbrenner bill would bring to bear on all immigrants.

Potentially, the movement can break the logjam of U.S. politics, in which the Republicans launch attack after attack with little or no response from the Democrats. The mass protests in LA, Chicago and other cities show the possibility of fighting back--with a mobilization of working people to defend their rights.

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