Millions Fill the Streets to Defend Immigrant Rights

by Andrew Pollack / April 2006 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

Seemingly overnight, a mass movement of immigrants demanding their rights has sprung up in the United States. It is mass in the real sense of the word, bringing millions into the streets—striking workers, students walking out of schools, grandparents, babies in strollers, all with their relatives and neighbors in tow.

The movement is, in fact, rooted in decades of discrimination and exploitation—heightened in recent years by racist vigilantes and repressive legislation. Most importantly for its future potential, it is also rooted in past organizing, especially in the workplace, by immigrants demanding the recognition justly earned from hard work for little pay and in the face of discrimination and constant threats of deportation.

At actions around the country, immigrants expressed in signs and speeches their determination to gain the respect due them. They also demonstrated resentment at their ill-treatment by politicians claiming they are security threats, and confidence in their eventual
success, summed up in the universal cries of “Si, se puede” (“Yes, it can be done!”).

The biggest march so far has been that of a million on Saturday, March 25, in Los Angeles. As with many actions during this upsurge, it was the largest around any issue in the city’s history. And as at other demonstrations, marchers carried U.S. flags to show their insistence on being treated equally here, as well as flags of their countries of origin to show pride in their roots.

The great majority of the marchers were from Mexico and Latin America or U.S.-born descendants of people from the region, though immigrants from other parts of the world also took part.

The rally was organized by a coalition of unions, clergy, and immigrant rights groups, and heavily publicized in the Spanish-language media. Key organizers included vetrans of the 1994 movement against Proposition 187, which would have denied services to undocumented immigrants, and even of the Chicano Moratorium of 1970.

One participant in the L.A. march describes its size this way: “An hour before the march had officially begun … the crowd extended across a number of city blocks. Those taking the subway had to wait for three or four trains before they could get on … it took the march flooding into the two broad flanking streets to allow the hundreds of thousands of people to move towards City Hall….

“One of the routes away from the march led demonstrators to the top of a hill, from which [they could see] down another street full of hundreds of thousands. I heard person after person gasp in amazement—hundreds of thousands of poor immigrant working-class people together to make a political statement—they were seeing their own power.”

That power was proven the following Monday. Whereas the House had passed a repression-only bill, calling for a wall across hundreds of miles on the border and declaring every undocumented worker a felon, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee felt compelled to propose a bill that mixes repression with a “guest worker” program.

The Senate committee version also added provisions to allow eventual legalization of some of the undocumented, after paying heavy fines and waiting many years—provisions which in no way met the demands of the marchers, but showed nonetheless that the heat was beginning to be felt.

Marches and walkouts nationwide

The first action in this still-mounting wave of protest took place on Tuesday, March 7, when around 50,000 marched in Washington, D.C. (we add the day as well as the date of these actions to stress that most were on weekdays, when participating meant not going to work).

That Friday, March 10, over half a million marched in Chicago—a march that showed the central role of the labor movement in this upsurge. Workers told their bosses the day before in shops around the city that they wouldn’t be coming to work on Friday—so many in fact that hundreds of bosses, recognizing the inevitable, gave them the day off. (In one shop, 300
workers were fired for walking out, but were rehired as a result of worker and community pressure.) The Chicago march drew Irish, Polish, Korean, and other immigrants as well as Hispanics. One Polish immigrant told the press: “This is a ridiculous bill. I don’t understand how it got as far as it did, and they’re trying to make this a law—and then at this point it’s a police state.”

Another worker’s statement echoes what’s been heard around the country: “Most people don’t realize how much work we do. We are putting up all the buildings and cooking all the food. Today, they’ll understand.” Thus, a popular slogan appearing in every city has been “No somos criminales. Somos trabajadores!” (“We are not criminals. We are workers!”)

To get across this point, the theme “A Day Without Latinos” has been adopted in many cities (after the movie, “A Day Without Mexicans,” in which bosses find out that they can’t function when workers disappear). Milwaukee’s “Day Without Latinos,” on Thursday, March 23, brought out a Latino population that has almost doubled in the last 10 years. The swelling of Latino communities in small and mid-sized cities around the country helps explain the breadth of this month’s upsurge. Thus, for instance, in Milwaukee, writes Christopher Fons in mrzine, while “the community’s 12% Latinos have been virtually invisible in the dominant media … Latinos have created their own institutions, including radio, newspapers, entertainment, and businesses of all types.”

Such communities’ increasing self-awareness made turnout particularly strong in cities where they’ve faced attacks from local politicians’ putting forward their own bills to restrict immigrant rights—including such vicious attacks as denying immunizations for kids, prenatal care for women, and even all health-care services.

In Atlanta, 70,000 workers left work to attend a rally on Friday, March 24, protesting both federal legislation and a bill passed by the Georgia State House that would deny services to undocumented adults and impose a five percent surcharge on wire transfers. Other recent marches included:

• Denver: 150,000—including many from nearby Pueblo. Marchers, already angered at the constant hate spouted on local right-wing talk shows, denounced a proposed ballot initiative banning the use of state funds for the undocumented.

Among the leading forces in Denver is SEIU Local 105, which represents many janitors in the city’s downtown high-rises. Also prominent was the Colorado Catholic Conference, a leader of which said, “People were calling us, saying, ‘Can we go with our church?’”

• The day after the giant Los Angeles march on March 25, the United Farm Workers brought thousands of its members to L.A., busing them in from small agricultural towns in Northern California and Oregon.

• Phoenix: 30,000, the largest rally ever in that city, which ended at the office of Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, co-sponsor of a bill giving the undocumented five years or less to leave the country.

• Boston: 2500, with prominent participation of Jobs with Justice and SEIU, and a heavy Irish component. Media reports of other actions—and these are certainly underestimates—include thousands on March 22 in Providence, R.I., Pittsburgh, and San Francisco; Tucson, 400 to 800, and Trenton, N.J., 1200, on Tuesday, March 24; Charlotte, N.C., and Sacramento, Calif., several thousand each on March 25; and thousands in Detroit on March 26.

In New York City, on April 1, more than 40,000 marched across the Brooklyn Bridge. One marcher carried a sign reading, “I cleaned up Ground Zero” (at the World Trade Center).

The April 1 New York action was mostly organized by local politicians and churches, but the city’s most heavily immigrant unions are at the center of mobilizing for the local component of what promises to be another huge nationwide wave of protest on April 9-10 (in which churches and community groups are also very involved). These actions are scheduled to occur in over 70 cities, and labor is playing a leading role.

[APRIL 9—As we go to press, according to initial reports, as many as 500,000 marched earlier today through downtown Dallas, while 75,000 to 100,000 marched in San Diego, 30,000 in St. Paul, 7000 in Miami, and 4000 in Birmingham, Ala.]

At the center of New York’s coalition are SEIU Local 32BJ (whose mostly-immigrant custodial workers are in bargaining now with their residential building bosses) and health-care union 1199. Also involved are UNITE-HERE, AFSCME DC 37, and the Committee of Interns
and Residents. Laborers. Local 1199 has already placed its staff in key organizing, media, and logistics roles, and participating unions have trained hundreds of stewards to spread the word.

The New York meeting to organize for April 10 involved 200 people and included many Chinese, Korean, and South Asian community activists. The unionists involved are also leaders in the city’s Dominican and Puerto Rican communities.

May 1 may be yet another peak in this rolling wave of mass action: the week after the huge L.A. march, its organizers—and the Spanish-language DJs who played a key role in building the march—called for nationwide demonstrations and consumer boycotts on Monday, May 1.

The bills that provoked the upsurge

The bill arousing the greatest anger is that which passed the House last year, sponsored by James Sensenbrenner, which would declare every undocumented worker a felon, and would make it a federal crime for anyone—doctor, nurse, teacher, social worker, priest, etc.—to provide assistance of any kind to an undocumented worker.

The bill would also permanently bar all undocumented persons—including 1.6 million children—from the United States, with no provision for amnesty or re-entry, inevitably leading to the separation of families. It would also deny them all emergency health-care and driver’s licenses and allow their indefinite detention by border agents.

Some from both parties in the Senate are trying to play soft cop, backing a “compromise” that would include “guest-worker” and future citizenship provisions—similar to the proposals of the Judiciary Committee mentioned above. On April 7, the Senate adjourned for a two-week recess after acknowledging gridlock on voting for a “compromise.”

But the attempt at a “compromise” was not welcomed by many of the recipients. One organizer responded: “We would rather that the Congress pass no immigration bills, rather than a guest-worker program that would send millions home.”

L.A. organizer Javier Rodriguez got it right when he told Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now!” program that guest-worker proposals (which are backed also by President Bush) would just regularize what’s been going on since 1986, i.e. the presence of millions of workers with no rights.

Who’s building the movement?

Clearly, the Catholic Church has been a big factor in the organizing, with local clergy working with community groups in cities around the country. The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops launched an immigrants’ rights campaign last year. In Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahoney said that if federal legislation makes it illegal to assist the undocumented, he would instruct his priests to disobey the law, inspiring some California towns and cities to declare themselves a “sanctuary” for undocumented immigrants should that prove necessary.

Many have likened the Sensenbrenner bill’s provisions targeting those who aid the undocumented to the 19th century Fugitive Slave Act, which required whites to turn over escaped slaves to the authorities.

The growing evangelical movement among Latinos has also played a role, with the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, with 18 million members, twisting the arm of the 30-million-member National Association of Evangelicals to issue a statement supporting “immigration reform.” Latino evangelical groups have also been working in local labor-community coalitions.

The Spanish-language media played the most immediate role in turning what could have been demonstrations of a few thousand into a genuinely mass movement. The role of radio DJs in L.A. has been widely cited, with constant promotion of the marches and the devotion of hours of air time normally given over to music to discussion of the issues involved.

The Spanish print media also did their part. L.A.’s La Opinion, the country’s largest circulation Spanish daily, had a huge front-page headline the day before the march reading, “Todos a la calle!” (“Everyone into the streets!”), with detailed maps of the march route. But at the center of the coalition were veteran activists drawing on the lessons of decades of battles against racism and exploitation. This includes veterans of Chicano, Puerto Rican, and other liberation struggles, many of whom have gone on to play leading roles in heavily-immigrant unions. These veterans ensured that the message being disseminated through the churches and the media became the focus of talk on every street-corner, every doorstop, every workplace—and every school.

Student walkouts

The day of the rally in Chicago, thousands of high school students walked out of school. One senior told the local papers: “We’re supporting our parents and our parents’ parents, who came here and worked hard.” The day before the huge L.A. rally, several thousand students walked out. “They are saying we are terrorists, when the economy is based on immigrants,”
said one. Said another, “It was my dad’s and grandfather’s sweat and tears that built the city of Los Angeles. People like them did things no one else wanted to do because they wanted me to have a better future.”

In addition, many students, born in the United States, know that proposed legislation would actually separate them from their parents if they get deported. The Monday after the huge march, 40,000 students across Southern California staged walkouts, blocking traffic on freeways, and converging in front of Los Angeles City Hall. The city’s first Latino Mayor,
Antonio Villaraigosa, addressed the crowd and was met with chants of, “Hell no, we won’t go!” when he asked them to go home.

Students marched from school to school, pulling out their comrades. In some cases, their efforts were initially frustrated when the administration “locked down” the schools (a frequent expression in the media, the same one used to describe prisoners put under more secure guard), but students then climbed over fences. The protests were organized with all the high-tech skills and flair you’d expect, through mass e-mails, fliers, instant messages, cell-phone calls, and postings on and other sites.

In at least a couple instances cops attacked students with nightsticks and pepper spray. School officials reacted with suspensions, monitoring of movements between classes, and encouraging discussions and on-campus rallies instead of walkouts. However many teachers and even some administrators supported and even encouraged the walkouts, and some staff members were reported to have marched alongside the youths “to ensure their safety” (perhaps just a smart way to avoid getting disciplined themselves for leaving work).

Some government agencies were also shut down in Orange County by protesting students. Over 3000 students walked out of schools in other cities across California. In Santa Ana, 200 cops invaded working-class Mexican neighborhoods to squelch student protests.

Six thousand walked out in San Diego at the end of a week of walkouts, and walkouts also occurred in LasVegas, Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, Dallas and Houston. By the end of the month walkouts were even being reported in isolated towns in upstate New York. Three times during the following week mass walkouts occurred in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area. Northern Virginia students said many faculty members were supportive. “One of our vice principals said he was really proud of us,” said one, and a Montgomery County, Maryland, student reported that many teachers left their classrooms and clapped to show support.

Labor’s role

The mass workplace walkouts at the center of the biggest actions are due not only to spontaneous anger, but are also the product of years of organizing on the job, as well as the leading role played by union activists in community affairs. For instance, one of the key organizers in Chicago, Jose Artemio Arreola, a custodial worker and executive board member of SEIU Local 73, has been active in the city’s Mexican advisory council.

In the same city, the United Electrical Workers, UNITE-HERE, and other unions have been involved in organizing struggles and contract battles at largely-immigrant shops. Out of these struggles emerged Accion Chicago, a labor-community coalition. A similar labor-community coalition, the New York Civic Participation Project (El Proyecto de Participacion Civica de la Ciudad de Nueva York), arose after joint struggles engaged in by community groups and unions, and others arose around the country in the wake of joint work to build the 2003 Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides initiated by the AFL-CIO. Since that march activists in these coalitions have participated in local struggles ranging from protecting driver’s licenses for immigrants to winning back pay stolen by bosses.

And big contract struggles of mostly immigrant workers are going on right now, most prominently the nationwide hotel contract campaign (for the first time, all major hotel contracts expire in the same year, thanks to a strategic plan on the part of UNITE-HERE).

Such struggles also draw strength from the changing workplace demographics that are the result of one tool in the bosses’ offensive against labor since the late 1960s. Employers have closed plants that had been predominantly staffed by white, Black, and Latino workers, and reopened them elsewhere (or sometimes even in the same place) with newer immigrants, at
lower wages and without unions.

Despite all the talk of de-industrialization and the new service economy, there are still millions of manufacturing workers—increasingly immigrant—in every region of the country. In response, some unions, although not nearly quickly or massively enough, have been organizing newer immigrants, in both manufacturing and services. In fact, the dispute about
the pace of organizing was one issue in the (nonetheless unjustified) split in the AFL-CIO.

A typical example of the problems facing undocumented workers arose at the height of the March upsurge: Workday Minnesota reported that the United Food and Commercial Workers was forced to appeal to community groups for immediate financial assistance for laid-off members, many of whom were, for lack of documents, ineligible for unemployment. This is an all-too common occurrence—even though, despite the common and mistaken assumption, most undocumented workers have taxes taken out of their paychecks that go to fund just such benefits.

Some unions—most notably SEIU—have fallen for the McCain-Kennedy trap, though the AFL-CIO has come out strongly against guest-worker programs, arguing instead for full rights for all regardless of status. In an op-ed in the New York Daily News the day after the Los Angeles march, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson said that “all
immigration reform proposals currently circulating in the halls of Congress fail to protect even the most basic rights of immigrant workers and their families.” “We must reject guest worker programs,” she said. “Because these workers are wholly dependent on host employers for both their livelihoods and legal status, guest workers are ripe for exploitation.” Instead, she
called for “a path to permanent residency for immigrant workers already here,” as well as
enforcement of workplace standards and laws, including wages and safety.

A Federation statement earlier in the month also demanded paths to citizenship for all current
undocumented workers: “There is no good reason why any immigrant who comes to this country prepared to work, to pay taxes … should be denied what has been offered to immigrants throughout our country’s history, a path to legal citizenship. … A permanent
two-tier workforce, with … second-class ‘guestworker’ status, would be repugnant to our
traditions and our ideals.”

Chavez-Thompson also pointed to the horrendous conditions facing undocumented workers: the constant threat of deportation, being cheated out of wages owed, and their concentration in the most dangerous jobs.

(This is an increasingly tragic reality: Almost every day an immigrant worker dies at a construction or other unsafe jobsite somewhere in the country. Yet instead of enforcing the law, Washington has actually had immigration agents pose as OSHA inspectors to lure
undocumented workers to meetings where they are then arrested and deported—a program which was cancelled during the middle of the current upsurge.)

And she pointed out how denial of the rights of the undocumented pulls down standards for all workers. In a statement on immigration the Federation highlighted the example of industries where the undocumented work side by side with those with papers, saying the Department of Labor “determined the poultry industry—which is nearly half African American and half immigrant—was 100 percent out of compliance with federal wage and hour laws.”

After the Senate Judiciary Committee’s action, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney praised them for not taking the House’s repression-only approach, but still warned against guest-worker programs, which he said “cast workers into a perennial second-class status and
unfairly put their fates into their employers’ hands.” The Federation has also exposed the role of the IMF and World Bank, and such agreements as NAFTA, in destroying jobs and services in other countries and requiring emigration, and denounced the arbitrarily low number of visas provided annually.

Despite their weaker position to this point on proposed legislation, however, it is the SEIU and other Change to Win (CtW) affiliates, and not yet the AFL-CIO, which are at the center of the April 10 activities—which is not surprising given their heavily-immigrant memberships.

From what’s been said at meetings in New York and Hartford, Conn., it appears many in SEIU are distancing themselves from guest-worker programs as well—a development that will certainly be furthered as the movement builds and the millions in motion increasingly reject such “gifts” from liberal politicians. In fact, the NYC coalition for April 10, in which SEIU plays a prominent role, includes among its demands “a path to citizenship, not a temporary guest-worker program.”

Division among the bosses

The different versions of immigration “reform” reflected in the various bills in Congress arise from a division within the ruling class about how many immigrant workers are needed and under what conditions. Overlaying this debate is racist, paranoid rhetoric about undocumented workers being potential terrorists and the need to control “our” borders
against security threats.

But when everyone from Bush to Kennedy comes out for “guest-worker” programs, it’s clear the majority of the ruling class is not likely to support the border-control/repression-only approach of the House bill. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers opposed that bill because it would starve them of workers to exploit.

The Wall Street Journal described a split in the Arizona congressional delegation, some wanting tight border control and criminalization of the undocumented, others pointing to the need for millions of workers for their state’s booming construction and service industries (one delegation member recalled fondly growing up on his parents’ ranch and how their Mexican employees had to go back and forth across the border).

But as the movement builds we mustn’t forget the many repressive measures contained within even the most liberal Senate versions. And more generally the movement can best build and grow by staying independent of politicians, staying in the streets, and deepening ties between workplace and community. The citywide coalitions building these actions can
branch out and build local, democratic affiliates in every immigrant neighborhood where daily discussions are going on over these issues—and support groups in other working-class neighborhoods.

In doing so, immigrant workers will provide an inspiration for others involved in momentous
battles—from Katrina victims fighting to regain their homes and jobs to autoworkers fighting against the destruction of everything they had won since the 1930s.

Because of the fate they share with immigrant workers, unions that do not have predominantly immigrant memberships must also mobilize and speak out in defense of immigrants’ rights. A good place to start would be for those unions with members who would be compelled to rat out immigrants under the Sensenbrenner bill—health-care workers, teachers, etc.—to adopt pledges of noncompliance. These unions can also stand side by side with immigrants being threatened by the racist violence of fascist militias like the Minutemen “border-patrol” group.

And for workers still claiming that immigrants take “our” jobs, we can point to the need for a shorter workweek and public works to create jobs for all. Liberals are once again claiming that economic studies “prove” that immigrants deprive “native” workers—especially Blacks—of jobs, ignoring the fact that it is the bosses who were behind the plant shutdowns that threw millions of Black, and white, workers into the streets.

The New York Times (April 2) cited a study by Steven A. Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, which found that immigrants are a majority in only four of 473 job classifications—stucco masons, tailors, produce sorters, and beauty salon workers.
And even in these categories, native-born workers account for over 40 percent of the workforce.

According to The Times, undocumented immigrants make up 4.9 percent of the U.S. workforce, and are concentrated in just a few industries—such as farm labor (24% of the workers), cleaning (17%), construction (14%), and food preparation (12%). In manufacturing, 9% of the workers are undocumented. In many heavily-immigrant industries, Black and Latino
workers work side by side—from food processing in the South to health and home care anywhere in the country. Some Black activists have already organized to show solidarity at immigrant events (see The Black Commentator for more arguments on this score). This is a new civil rights movement, based on the power of the mass mobilizations of the oppressed,
especially an oppressed nationality—undocumented Latino workers who are intimately connected to the “legal” Latino community.

The mass character of the movement qualitatively changed the confidence of those who previously were afraid to protest because of fear of deportation. It will have a similar effect on legal workers, who have been getting the shaft in every direction and live in fear that if they strike, their plants will be closed. There are 11-12 million undocumented immigrants in the
U.S.—the vast majority, workers. If ever there was a time for the rest of the working class to join a struggle, this is it. Both union federations must mobilize to help lead the defense of their immigrant brothers and sisters, to fight for union wages, and to organize the unorganized.

With immigrant workers in the vanguard, drawing confidence from the recent actions, these
mobilizations can have a profound effect on the broader working class, demonstrating that labor’s power is in the streets and at the point of production. A “Day without Latinos” will eventually become a “Day or Week or Month without Workers.”

A promising sign that this movement will continue to build is the inspiration drawn by many immigrants from struggles back home, as the entire continent of Latin America has been in struggle against the same ruling class seeking to criminalize them here. And March was
also a month of mass workers’ strikes and rallies around the world—in France, England, South Africa, Iran, and elsewhere. Workers around the world are echoing immigrant workers in the United States: “Si, se puede!”

Stop all attacks against immigrants! Stop the criminalization of immigrant communities! No to
Sensenbrenner and Kennedy/McCain anti-immigrant legislation! No human being is illegal!
End all deportations! Full labor and civil rights for all! No to all “guest worker” programs! End the militarization of the border! Repeal NAFTA! Stop the U.S. plunder of Latin American economies!

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