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WHAT WE THINK
New movement for immigrant rights shakes U.S. politics
The power of protest

April 7, 2006 | Page 3

THE ERUPTION of a new mass movement for immigrant rights has changed the shape of U.S. politics.

By a conservative count, at least 1.5 million people took to the streets last month in demonstrations across the country to protest vicious legislation that would criminalize undocumented immigrants and anyone who assists them. The huge protests showed that it is possible to organize resistance to the right's agenda.

Now, the week following the historic million-strong march in Los Angeles has shown a new face of the struggle. A wave of student walkouts spread from school to school, city to city and state to state--clear across the country, from California to Virginia, and Texas to Michigan.

These walkouts further illustrate the explosive character of the new movement. Organizers of the immense marches in Chicago on March 10 and then LA on March 25 still struggle to explain how their little-noticed protest calls ballooned into perhaps the largest demonstrations ever seen in either city.

The initiatives to protest HR 4437--the criminalization legislation sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and passed last year by the U.S. House--came from the grassroots. They caught on so widely because anger at the threat posed by the anti-immigrant right--from the Minutemen vigilantes patrolling the border, to the bigots in Washington demanding a 700-mile border wall--has been building for months, without an outlet.

Now, with the example of the mass marches burned in their minds, people feel like they can take a stand. It is a lesson that shouldn't be lost on other struggles and other movements--that the discontent simmering away below the surface in Bush's America can be turned to action.

"I've always been proud to say that I'm Hispanic," said an LA high school student who attended the March 25 demonstration, and then helped organize a walkout at his school the following week. "But on Saturday, I thought: Whoa. We can do something. And we can do it right."

For years, anti-immigrant forces have had their way in pushing harsher policies in Washington, with little opposition or notice. But last month's marches changed that. Political leaders are being forced to take a stand.

Thus, in Chicago, for example, the city council last week passed a law confirming a two-decades-old order by the mayor that Chicago police and other city officials won't cooperate in enforcing federal immigration policies.

In Washington, the immigration issue is playing out as a battle between different wings of the Republican Party. Make no mistake, though: The marches shook up the debate. "This issue has got the attention of Hispanics like no other issue in history," admitted Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

But to McCain--as well as virtually every Democratic senator--this is an opportunity to drum up support for alternative legislation, supported by big business, which drops the Sensenbrenner bill's ugliest provisions, but keeps increased militarization of the border as an accompaniment to a guest-worker program and a "path to citizenship" that's filled with restrictions and punishments, such as fines.

Last week, House Republican leaders hinted that they would be open to a compromise between the Sensenbrenner bill and the proposal pushed by McCain, along with Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). That would please the Bush administration, which would like to deliver the guest-worker program for Corporate America, while keeping its right-wing base happy.

But the deal is far from done. Some Republicans in the Senate are threatening a filibuster of the McCain-Kennedy-Specter proposal--the very people who hyperventilated at the least opposition to the Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

As usual, the media has depicted the two sides in the current congressional wrangle as the outer limits of the debate on immigration. But the movement for immigrant rights will suffer if it accepts this limitation. The McCain-Kennedy-Specter bill consigns the undocumented to second-class citizenship through a guest-worker program and tight restrictions on opportunities to gain legal status.

As AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson wrote in an op-ed article in the New York Daily News: "Tragically, all immigration reform proposals currently circulating in the halls of Congress fail to protect even the most basic rights of immigrant workers and their families."

Second-class citizenship--whether imposed through the right's proposals for criminalization or maintained with guest-worker programs--makes immigrant workers "easy prey for unscrupulous employers," Chavez-Thompson wrote. "That in turn drives down working standards for all Americans and creates an undemocratic, two-tiered society."

No one who marched last month to oppose the immigrant bashers--or who saw or heard about the demonstrations and was inspired by them--should accept half-measures and pro-corporate compromises. The only acceptable immigration reform is unconditional amnesty for undocumented workers and unrestricted opportunities to become citizens for those who want to.

April 10 has been set as a national day of protest by a coalition that includes the AFL-CIO, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Day Without an Immigrant Coalition in Philadelphia and others. Actions are coming together for this and other dates around the country.

By building for the biggest possible turnout, we can send a message loud and clear: We won't tolerate the racist scapegoating of the Sensenbrenner bill, and we won't settle for the big-business alternative of McCain-Kennedy-Specter. We want amnesty, civil rights and justice.

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