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Immigrant rights activists gather in Chicago
"A step toward organizing our side better"

August 25, 2006 | Page 4

LEE SUSTAR reports from an important national meeting of immigrant rights movement leaders in Chicago.

LINKING IMMIGRANT rights to organized labor, building grassroots organizations, and opposing anti-immigrant legislation--whether sponsored by Republicans or Democrats--were the key themes of the National Immigrant Rights Strategy Convention held August 11-13.

The conference succeeded in its aim of drawing 400 delegates, most of them activists from cities across the U.S. Many of the attendees had been key to the spring mobilizations that culminated in the Great American Boycott on May 1, when millions of immigrants and their supporters marched, stayed away from their jobs or both.

The call for the conference, made by the Chicago March 10 Movement, was based on points of unity that include opposition to guest-worker programs and the militarization of the U.S.-Mexican border that are included in current legislative proposals for immigration "reform."

This appeal brought together leaders of the mass marches in Los Angeles and Chicago and other big cities. Also in attendance were activists from smaller cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul, Rochester, N.Y., and Providence, R.I., as well as the South, which has seen a surge of Latino immigration in recent years.

A variety of immigrant workers' struggle were represented at the conference, from the fight being waged by Chicago activist Elvira Arellano against deportation over the use of false documents in order to stay with her 7-year-old son; to strikers from the Lechner & Sons industrial laundry near Chicago; to Arizona Latino organizers fighting against the state's harsh new anti-immigrant laws.

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THE MOOD was upbeat as scores of neighborhood, community and labor activists met one another for the first time to share experiences, debate and strategize. "It has been a success to gather as many groups to affirm the principle that to work toward legalization for all, we need to start to build real organization at the national level, as well as at the local level," said Ariella Cohen of the No One Is Illegal Coalition in New York. "This is the first step to organize our side much better."

There were some tensions, however. A women's caucus formed in response of the lack of women speakers at the event and a feeling that women in the movement too often encountered sexist behavior, according to Ghanooni and other women. The women's caucus report was received respectfully, and steps were taken to implement affirmative action within the movement.

Similarly, attendees of a student and youth caucus complained about a lack of representation in the presentations at the conference and plan to assert themselves in the future.

This didn't threaten an underlying sense of unity, though--partly because most conference attendees adhered to the left-wing points of unity, and partly because the likely failure of "compromise" immigrant rights legislation currently before Congress has thrown leftists and moderates back into the same camp.

Thus, after voting to found itself as the National Alliance for Immigrant Rights, conference delegates voted to mobilize for Labor Day actions in key cities with expectations of broad support from organized labor.

In fact, the strong link between organized labor and the new immigrant rights activism was in evidence at the Chicago conference.

On hand were representatives of key labor organizations, including the head of the United Food and Commercial Workers' (UFCW) campaign to unionize the Smithfield Food poultry plant in Tar Heel, N.C.; the head of UFCW's anti-Wal-Mart corporate campaign; the Laborers' director of immigration policy; and staffers and members from several Service Employees International Union (SEIU) locals.

Also in attendance were representatives of the Teamsters' campaign to organize truck drivers in the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach, where immigrant drivers shut down the country's largest port on May 1. The UNITE HERE delegation was comprised of more than a dozen mostly Latino officials and organizers from the manufacturing side of the hotel and textile workers union. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee sent a top official as well.

"The community and the unions that are here are proceeding with respect," said Jorge Mújica of Chicago's March 10 Movement. "Nobody from the outside can come in 'to democratize' the unions--they are part of the movement. At the same time, the unions should find a better means to be linked with the bases of the immigrant community."

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THE PRESENCE of labor, however, brought into the Chicago conference a debate on whether supporters of immigrant rights should back proposed bipartisan Senate legislation, called S 2611.

Originally known as Hagel-Martinez after its Senate sponsors, the bill would militarize the U.S.-Mexican border, create a three-tiered classification of immigrants, allow some undocumented workers an eventual path to citizenship, force others to apply for guest-worker status and require an estimated 2 million people to leave the U.S. immediately.

The bill has the backing of mainstream "progressive" Latino organizations, such as the National Council of La Raza. Labor, however, is divided, despite the fact that the AFL-CIO Executive Council voted to back amnesty for undocumented workers six years ago.

The AFL-CIO these days doesn't promote its amnesty position. It does, however, strongly oppose S 2611 and recently announced a "partnership" with the National Day Labor Organizing Network--although the agreement doesn't mean union membership for day laborers themselves and apparently doesn't obligate the federation to provide funds for organizing those workers.

The picture in the breakaway Change to Win coalition is mixed. The Teamsters, for example, are opposed to S 2611 because it includes a guest-worker program. For their part, UNITE HERE staffers in the Midwest are operating more or less in defiance of their international union by organizing alongside those opposed to S 2611.

The situation is similar in SEIU, the force behind Change to Win, which represents more immigrants than any other union, but supports S 2611 anyway as a "step in the right direction."

Nevertheless, the leadership of the big SEIU Local 790 in the Bay Area supports amnesty for undocumented workers, and in Chicago, Local 73 executive board member and school custodian José Artemio Arreola is a leading figure in the March 10 Movement that opposes S 2611.

In a workshop on labor and immigration at the Chicago conference, Martín Manteca, an official with SEIU Local 5 in Arizona and Texas, answered critics of the SEIU's position by denying that the union backs S 2611. However, at the SEIU Social and Economic Justice conference in Atlanta on July 28-31, top union officials defended the bill as the best that could be accomplished.

And at the Chicago conference, Carlos Montes, an organizer with SEIU Local 600 in Los Angeles, took the floor to propose that the new organization demand that Congress stay in session this fall until it passed immigration reform legislation. That proposal went nowhere after several speakers pointed out the damage that the Republican-controlled Congress might do.

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BEHIND THE debate over S 2611 lies a broader question of the immigrant rights movement's relationship to the Democratic Party.

Given the likely move by House Republicans to scuttle S 2611 or any other legislation with a guest-worker program, immigrant rights groups traditionally oriented towards the Democratic Party are backing a new round of demonstrations alongside the new National Alliance for Immigrant Rights.

Significantly, Juan Carlos Ruiz of the National Capitol Immigration Coalition attended the Chicago conference, and Yanira Merino, who heads immigration issues for the Laborers, greeted delegates on behalf of both the coalition and her union.

At the same time, key immigrant rights activists opposed to S 2611 nevertheless support a call for voter registration and mobilization for the 2006 and 2008 elections. Josh Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, gave a speech to delegates in a panel discussion in which he called the vote a "weapon" in the struggle.

"Here, it has been said a lot that one must vote, but not for who," commented Armando Campa, a member of the April 10 Organization in Madison, Wis. "We need our own mechanism to vote for our allies, and avoid those who are trampling us."

A chance for a more analytical and critical look at the political picture was lost, however, when a planned session on the theme of "No Human Being is Illegal" was bumped off the schedule in favor of a discussion of organizational matters.

Nevertheless, the delegates did get an education on the role of the Democrats in the movement, delivered in a speech by Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.).

After publicly signing the conference's points of unity--including opposition to guest-worker programs and a call for legalization for all undocumented workers--Gutiérrez used his concluding remarks to defend guest-worker programs as the only safe way to reunify immigrant families in the near term, and shrugged off the border wall as "irrelevant." He was met with stony faces and token applause.

Nativo López, president of the Mexican American Political Association and a key organizer of the Chicago conference, says he wasn't surprised by the reaction to Guitiérrez. "There appears to be a regrouping and realignment around what we put forward from the very beginning," he said of the Chicago conference. "There is pressure from the base, saying that this kind of legislation is unacceptable."

In the coming weeks and months, the immigrant rights movement will continue to debate legislation, tactics and much else besides. The voice of the grassroots activists and the left in those debates will be strengthened as a result of the Chicago conference and the formation of the National Alliance for Immigrant Rights.

Orlando Sepulveda contributed to this report.

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