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Activists ready for Chicago meeting
What's next for the movement?

August 11, 2006 | Page 4

LEE SUSTAR looks at the political questions facing the immigrant rights movement.

MOBILIZING FOR protests, organizing for voter turnout in the fall elections and building grassroots organizations will be the focus of an immigrant rights activists' meeting in the Chicago suburbs August 11-13.

Activists from 38 states are expected, representing dozens of organizations, including leaders from local and national labor unions, said José Artemio Arreola, a leading member of Chicago's March 10 Movement, which is hosting the conference. "We are mobilizing for Labor Day, and how to do another national day of action for the end of September, before Congress comes back into session," said Arreola.

Linking the immigrant rights movement to organized labor will be a major focus of the event, said Arreola, himself a member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, and currently on leave from his job as a school custodian in a Chicago suburb to work for SEIU's Illinois state council to continue organizing for immigrant rights.

Arreola expects at least 10 SEIU locals to attend the Chicago conference. Organizers also anticipate a strong turnout from the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and the UNITE HERE hotel and textile union.

Labor backing was key in Chicago and some other cities that saw mass protests for immigrant rights last spring, culminating in the Great American Boycott on May Day that brought millions of people into the streets for huge marches and shut down packing houses, landscaping companies, textile factories and other industries where Latino immigrants are concentrated.

Nativo López, president of the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA), on tour to promote the conference, said the Teamsters are seeking to link with the immigrant rights movement's efforts to organize the 15,000 mostly immigrant truck drivers in the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach--workers who shut down the port on May Day.

"I am proposing a similar approach to the UFCW for their campaigns at Wal-Mart and Smithfield Foods," López said. "If labor wants to make inroads in these campaigns, they need to get right with the immigrant rights movement."

The task of the Chicago conference, López said, is to "build mass organizations of immigrants" and "strengthen our coalition with the unions and the churches" in order to tap the potential shown by the mass marches of the spring.

López proposes holding a referendum-style survey among immigrants--distributing a detailed summary of current legislation that can be used as both an educational and organizational tool in immigrant communities. Outreach for this initiative will include a focus on non-Latino immigrant groups, he said, citing as an example an alliance between MAPA and the American Muslim Council in California.

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Building grassroots organizations

UNTIL NOW, López said, the immigrant rights movement has failed to "create an organizational space for people to find a home--to organically connect with the movement other than to heed the call for the next mass action."

Those mobilizations were sparked by legislation passed by the House of Representatives known as HR 4437, which would have criminalized the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., as well as those who provide assistance for them, including teachers, health care workers and others.

With that bill currently stalled in Congress, states and local authorities have passed a raft of anti-immigrant legislation of their own, from laws in Colorado and Georgia that limit immigrants' access to social services, to new laws in Hazelton, Pa., that makes English the city's official language and would impose fines on landlords for renting to undocumented immigrants.

Resisting that backlash--and standing up to anti-immigrant vigilantes like the Minutemen--will be a major focus of the conference, according Arreola, as well as voter education and turnout.

Non-citizens, he said, can participate in get-out-the-vote efforts as well. But as conference organizers point out, even if the Republicans are defeated in the fall, it won't mean an end to anti-immigrant legislation.

The March 10 Movement is among the activist groups also opposed to the "compromise" legislation backed by the Democrats, which calls for a guest-worker program. "We want full workers' rights, the right to choose your employer, and benefits like pensions," Arreola said.

Nativo López agrees. He anticipates that a key debate at the conference will be on whether to accept guest-worker programs as part of immigrant legislative reform--what he called "legal residence in exchange for giving up legal rights."

The question of guest workers has divided organized labor itself, with SEIU and UNITE HERE backing the current proposal for a guest-worker program, a bipartisan bill known as Hagel-Martinez after its Senate sponsors. That legislation would force 2 million immigrants to leave the U.S. immediately and millions more who have lived in the U.S. more than two years and less than five to exit and re-enter.

For undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. more than five years, there is a "path to citizenship"--one that is long, expensive and difficult. Those who apply and are accepted will gain legal status for six more years until they become citizens--as long as they pay fines and penalties and learn to speak English. The bill would also create a guest-worker program for 200,000 low-wage immigrants each year and increase fourfold to 650,000 the number of visas for high-tech workers.

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Apartheid for immigrants?

ALL THIS amounts to "institutional apartheid," according to Ana Avendaño, associate general counsel at the AFL-CIO and director of the federation's immigrant-worker program.

"One of the most dangerous things about having split the labor movement and playing the role that SEIU and UNITE HERE did is that they have given more weight to the anti-immigrant forces who control this debate," she said. "It gives the right wing, essentially, carte blanche to do whatever they want."

In fact, John Wilhelm, president of the hospitality division of UNITE HERE, spoke in June at a press conference to promote the bill, alongside its Senate sponsors as well as a representative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, an anti-union right-wing lobbying group that advocates for tax cuts for big business and the wealthy.

A guest-worker program, however, is far from the only measure in Hagel-Martinez that immigrant rights organizers find objectionable. The proposed legislation also retains many of the repressive features in the House version, including bans on immigrants with three misdemeanor convictions, or "aggravated felonies," like the use of fake documents and Social Security numbers.

In addition, the number of Border Patrol agents would more than double to 25,300 by 2011--and agents would gain the authority to arrest, detain and deport immigrants stopped within 100 miles of the U.S. and Canadian border, without a hearing before a judge or an immigration board. And the border would also see the installation of a 370-mile-long, triple-layered fence, along with 500 miles of additional barriers.

With the debate on immigration in Congress taking place between corporate interests and immigrant-bashing right wingers, immigrant rights activists see an opportunity--and the necessity--to change the terms of debate.

"The immigrant rights movement is still very young," Nativo López said. "We need to build trust between different coalitions and groups to make sure the message of the immigrant is still dominant, but we're not making the sectarian mistake of refusing to meet with churches and unions that don't have an identity of views with us on legislation. We have to be open, creative and flexible, and push for immigrants to create mass organizations."

For more information on the conference, visit or call 877-7-MARCHA.

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