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How will we strengthen the struggle?

May 11, 2007 | Pages 8 and 9

SHAUN HARKIN, an activist in Chicago's March 10 Movement immigrant rights coalition, looks at the significance of the May Day protests across the U.S.--and what comes next.

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THE MAINSTREAM media repeatedly pointed out that this year's May Day marches for immigrant rights were smaller than last year's.

Even so, as many as 250,000 people marched on May Day in Chicago to say, "We are workers, not criminals." Immigrants and their supporters showed decisively that the movement hadn't disappeared. On the contrary, hundreds of thousands marched in cities and small towns all across the country, showing their desire for change.

The big turnout came despite the fact that some immigrant rights advocates and organizations have cautioned against demonstrating. Their argument: Big protests will provoke a conservative backlash and jeopardize the possibility of an immigration reform bill in Congress that could provide legalization for the estimated 12 to 14 million undocumented immigrants.

Those who organized the May 1 marches believe, on the contrary, that while there are many strategies to strengthen the struggle, the power of protest is crucial to advancing it.

The size of the protests is all the more impressive in view of the escalating Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and deportations.

The raids are meant to terrorize us, and keep the undocumented on the margins of political life. Instead, they created a massive amount of anger. When heavily armed ICE agents stormed the Chicago neighborhood of La Villita (Little Village), the way activists responded was crucial--with anger, outrage and an organized protest.

This protest was rooted in the rapid response networks built in Chicago and around the country over the last year to deal with ICE raids and attacks by anti-immigrant forces. The way individuals, organizations and the community responded to the La Villita raid played a huge role in making May Day a massive mobilization.

Another key factor in the size of the Chicago May Day turnout was the fact that the city had a single demonstration--while in other cities, there were multiple immigrant rights events at different times.

There may be good reasons why this happened elsewhere. However, the Chicago May Day protest was successful precisely there was one united march.

It could have been otherwise. Two separate events were planned initially. However, activists overcame their political differences to amplify our call for action. This was done in the interest of the struggle. Organizers also agreed on the need to reach out to those who we differ with politically and strategically--for example, on proposed immigration legislation in Congress--in order to mobilize the largest numbers possible.

As a result, even those who initially opposed marching on May Day joined the mobilization, because the immigrants they represent demanded it. What's more, a united voice is needed to demand an immediate end to the raids and deportations, to fully legalize all the undocumented and to stop immigrant families from being torn apart.

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THE NEXT steps in the struggle for immigrant rights will likely focus on three major areas:

-- Stopping raids and deportations. ICE is planning to expand its operations over the next year. Activists need to expand emergency response networks to defend immigrants and step up our efforts to demand an end to raids, detentions and deportations.

-- Fighting for family unification. Raids and deportations have separated mothers and fathers from their children. Outrageously, young children are being detained in detention centers. Immigrant rights activists should step up our efforts to stop families from being torn apart.

-- Organizing to create sanctuary cities. Immigrants shouldn't live in fear in the cities and towns where they live, work and shop. Organizers should work to make our cities and towns pro-immigrant sanctuaries, where the undocumented are not harassed when working, driving or seeking health care and social services. This means challenging politicians who stand in the way of sanctuary policies and opposing collaboration between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials.

Activists can organize around these demands with expectations of widening their support, despite the barrage of anti-immigrant propaganda from the mainstream media and politicians. According to a recent Pew poll, 59 percent of Americans support creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Organizing can go forward even though immigrant rights activists differ about whether or not any of the legislation currently being discussed is an acceptable framework to start with.

It's important, however, to struggle against any proposals that will hurt the undocumented and future immigrants. Legislation shouldn't be tailored to meet the needs of Corporate America with guest-worker programs or the demands of the enforcement-only bigots.

The struggle must continue to fight for unconditional legalization and defend the rights of immigrants. This means opposing the criminalization of immigrants, employer sanctions, the militarization of the border, raids, deportations and guest-worker programs. The movement will also continue to demand expedited family reunification visas, and defend labor rights, civil rights and civil liberties.

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