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Racist laws target immigrants

By Nagesh Rao | September 1, 2006 | Page 15

RIVERSIDE, N.J.--A creeping right-wing backlash against immigrants and the immigrant rights movement is gaining ground in small towns around the northeast.

In Riverside, a small town in New Jersey, the town council recently passed an ordinance that, among other draconian anti-immigrant measures, makes it a crime to rent or lease apartments to undocumented workers.

The Riverside ordinance mirrors similar legislation that has been passed in Hazelton, Pa. Similar legislation is being considered in Shenandoah Borough as well. Other towns, like Bogota, N.J., are considering legislation that will require all government documents and city signs to be in English only.

Meanwhile, in several towns and cities across New Jersey and elsewhere, racist organizations such as the United Patriots of America (UPA) and the Minutemen are harassing day laborers and those who hire them.

This backlash against immigrants is fuelling an atmosphere of racist intimidation against immigrants, particularly immigrants of color.

A Town Council meeting in Riverside held on August 23 was a chilling example. About 100 town residents, all white, wildly cheered and applauded as one speaker after another denounced "illegal" immigration at the meeting.

A handful of people from the local immigrant community attended the meeting, but were visibly shaken by the hatred that filled the room. One Latina woman courageously spoke up for immigrants, insisting that immigrants, like native-born citizens, were law-abiding and hard-working. Her words were drowned out by the crowd that shouted and yelled about immigrants not paying taxes and "bringing diseases."

Jessica Cheeseman, a Riverside High School student, was at the meeting to show her support for local immigrant families. "There's a lot of racism now," she told Socialist Worker. "One year ago, we didn't have any of this in our school. But on Sunday, we saw many of our friends with their parents protesting against immigrants."

Cheeseman was referring to a pro-immigrant demonstration the previous Sunday, which was outnumbered by hundreds of town residents who support the Riverside anti-immigrant legislation. News reports of the event carried photographs of people waving large Confederate flags, with signs saying "The South will rise again."

The racist hysteria has reached a fever pitch, says Mary Prioleau, an African-American social worker who attended the Town Council meeting. "But it has been going on for a long time," she says.

Prioleau received a federal grant to open a social services office in Riverside, but has been prevented from doing so by town officials. "This is racism," she said. "Look around--I'm the only Black woman in the room. Why have they blocked me for all these years? It's because I'm Black. That's what this town is about."

She too was loudly booed and heckled at the meeting when she tried to raise the issue. "Our community is under siege," Franco Ordoñez, a local immigrant businessman, told Socialist Worker. "We need the support of the immigrant rights movement."

According to Ordonez, several immigrant families have fled the town since the ordinance was passed. Those who have stayed are locking themselves in their homes. "People are scared to step out of their houses. You go to the school or the grocery store, and if you are an immigrant, you might have people shouting at you."

The need to confront the bigots head-on has never been more urgent. And in Bergenfield, N.J., several day laborers and their supporters have begun to do just that.

For several weeks, racists belonging to the UPA had been harassing day laborers here. In response, the No One Is Illegal Coalition began mobilizing to confront the UPA and their supporters, by demonstrating in support of the day laborers. At one recent demonstration, nearly 100 day laborers joined the rally, in a spirited show of solidarity and strength.

Immigrant rights activists have to spread this example to other towns like Bogota, Hazelton and Riverside to turn the tide. Activists from across the region will march in solidarity with Riverside immigrants in Newark on Labor Day and in Trenton on September 7.

To learn more about these actions, email [email protected].

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