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Midwest immigrant rights activists meet in Chicago
Building from the bottom up

By Lee Sustar | May 26, 2006 | Page 11

CHICAGO--Immigrant rights groups from across the Midwest met here May 20 to reaffirm a position of calling for full legalization of undocumented workers and reject the so-called compromise legislation on immigration reform pending in the U.S. Senate.

The meeting, held in the UNITE HERE union hall, was the first in a series of regional meetings planned at a national meeting held April 22 at the same location.

"We consolidated the movement, at least on a regional basis," said Jorge Mújica, a leading member of Chicago's March 10 Movement, named for the day of the mass immigrant rights march that ignited a series of protests around the U.S. that culminated on May Day. As a result, he said, the next action in the Midwest, a May 28 vigil to protest the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, will be held at sites throughout the region.

Coming just days after George W. Bush announced plans to militarize the border and the U.S. Senate voted to build a wall there and impose English as the "national language," the meeting allowed activists to assess the latest developments.

But according to Nativo López, president of the Mexican American Political Association, the regional meetings shouldn't be seen as a response to the legislation, but rather an effort to build "permanent, organic relationships and an organization of immigrants in the plants, in the schools, in the neighborhood, fighting not just on immigration rights, but on labor rights, education rights, etc."

At the same time, the meeting marked out the differences between the left and right wings of the immigrant rights movement. For example, the decision by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the National Immigration Forum to support the compromise legislation named for Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel and Mel Martinez is "an absolute travesty and a betrayal of the mass movement," López said in an interview.

The Hagel-Martinez bill would create three tiers of immigrants and require some 2 million people to leave the U.S. and re-enter only as part of a guest-worker program.

In reality, said Martín Unzueta of the Chicago Workers Collaborative, the undocumented workers barred from the U.S. won't leave for fear of being barred from returning. The result, Unzueta said, would be a repressive "immigrant hunt."

María Pizarro, an activist in the March 10 Movement and the AFSCME union in Chicago, pointed out during the meeting that the right wing of the Republican Party is internally divided over a guest-worker program. As a consequence, the Democrats are trying to "solve" the problem by backing a bill that would provide business with guest workers, who would lack full civil rights.

The guest-worker proposal is backed by UNITE HERE and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)--which López called a "crass, lowest common denominator approach" that the SEIU wants to "to shove down the throats of immigrant workers."

"We absolutely repudiate" this approach, López said. "We stand for continuing to build this movement from the bottom, and immigrants should have the final say over what they're willing to compromise for and how far they're willing to fight."

For his part, the March 10 Movement's Mújica, was also critical of NCLR and LULAC. If those groups continue to back Hagel-Martinez, "I think that it's going to be the last straw for them," he said.

Another leading member of the March 10 Movement, José Artemio Arreola, said after the meeting that the NCLR and LULAC "never come back to the base to ask what we want" and are oriented instead on getting "resources from foundations and from the government."

While a majority of those at the meeting were from Latino organizations, there were representatives from the SEIU, UNITE HERE, the UFCW unions as well as other immigrant groups.

One of them was Malik Mujahid of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, which mobilized several thousand Muslims for the May Day march. "A learning process has begun for the Muslim community to learn about its neighbors, particularly the Latino community," he said, "and also about the labor unions and their historical movement."

Mujahid said that the main Islamic groups in Chicago recently held a meeting to discuss proposed Senate legislation. The consensus at the meeting, he said, was that Hagel-Martinez and various proposals to improve it were "compromises of the weak, without any strength, and must be rejected."

If there were supporters of the Hagel-Martinez proposal at the meeting, they didn't openly advocate it--although in a discussion of tactics, some asserted a need to let the political process play out in Washington before taking a definitive position.

Another regional meeting of immigrant rights activists was held May 21 in Atlanta. Others are set for June 10 in Seattle and June 17 in Los Angeles.

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