Hundreds Meet to Launch New Immigrant Rights Alliance

By Jason Cain & Wayne McElyea / September 2006 issue of Socialist Action

The biggest and most authoritative assembly yet of immigrant rights activists debated strategy and tactics, and launched a new organization—the National Alliance for Immigrant Rights (NAIR)—at the National Immigrant Rights Strategy Convention, held in suburban Chicago Aug. 11-13.

Such a gathering was clearly and urgently needed. The massive immigrant rights marches and work stoppages earlier this year were perhaps the biggest political demonstrations in U.S. history. But they were semi-spontaneous—responding to what appeared to be an imminent threat of anti-immigrant legislation, passed by the House late last year.

As a key leader of the first of these mega-actions, Jorge Mujica, recalled at the convention, “There is a new wave of immigrants coming from countries where they see marching in the streets as a form of political participation, who have a tradition of protesting. The Sensenbrenner bill was the drop that made the glass overflow.”

Beginning in Chicago, the protests—which were put together on the run by diverse ad hoc formations—spread across the country. Those inspiring actions caused Congress to pause, and eventually to defer action until after the November election.

Since then nervous liberal politicians have worked to divert the fledgling movement into the dead end of lobbying for the least objectionable legislation and working to “take back Congress.” Moreover, the break in momentum of immigrant mobilizations has allowed anti-immigrant reaction to launch a vigorous, mean-spirited counter-offensive.

Setting the cadence from above, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (a branch of Homeland Security) has increased the frequency of raids on the homes and workplaces of immigrant workers. In 2003, ICE officers arrested 4000 immigrants. So far in 2006, it has arrested 20,121, according to government figures.

According to The Wall Street Journal, close to 500 pieces of anti-immigrant legislation have been introduced in state legislatures since the beginning of the year. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers in the House have spent the latter part of the summer holding show-hearings on immigration in far-right strongholds, mostly in the border region.

The biggest reactionary shockwaves of all have been felt on the local level, with the epicenter in Hazleton, Pa. The city council passed an ordinance that establishes English as the official language and prohibits documents from being distributed in any other languages. It also fines landlords $1000 for each undocumented migrant living in an apartment and allows the city to deny business licenses to those who hire or sell to undocumented persons.

Sadly, a number of communities have adopted the Hazleton ordinance as a model for similar legislation. A Riverside, N.J. ordinance makes it a punishable offense—subject to fines up to $2000 and jail time—to either employ or rent property to anyone who cannot prove they are in the United States legally.

In Avon Park, Fla., a similar ordinance was narrowly defeated by 3-2 vote of the town council. The five-hour meeting was packed with more than 300 pro-immigrant-rights protesters, with an additional 400 protesters outside. The mobilization, organized by Immigrants United For Freedom, registered an important victory in this town of 7000 with a large immigrant community. The protesters faced a racist counter-protest by the rightwing Minutemen organization.

Emerging from the shadows, Minutemen factions now not only harass immigrants on the border but are also building chapters throughout the country. With the guidance of media-savvy ultra-rightists such as Jim Gilchrist and Pat Buchanan, they have helped push arch-reactionary legislation on the state and local levels. (About a dozen Minutemen supporters picketed the Chicago convention.)

Ten Points of Unity

To their credit, the March 10 Movement, the principal force behind demonstrations and work stoppages involving hundreds of thousands in Chicago, stepped up to the plate and issued the call for the strategy convention.

They were joined by other significant forces, such as MAPA (Mexican American Political Association, a prime mover in the huge spring actions in Los Angeles, and Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Push organization, who pitched in to provide logistical support for convention preparations.

The call for the Chicago conference was based on “Ten Points of Unity”:

  • • Unconditional legalization for ALL
  • • No to HR4437 and similar senate version legislation
  • • No to the criminalization of immigrants
  • • No to border walls and militarization of the border
  • • No to guest-worker programs
  • • No to employer sanctions
  • • Yes to expedited family reunification visas
  • • Yes to the protection of labor and civil rights, and civil liberties
  • • No to deportations
  • • No to the use of local law enforcement for immigration purposes

However, no one point was considered a deal breaker. In general, the atmosphere was one of fraternal goodwill, and a wide range of viewpoints was expressed.

MAPA leader Nativo Lopez, who had earlier toured the country building support for the convention, helped set this tone with remarks in the opening session: “I have a great desire for unity in the movement. … It has been repeated before, on T-shirts and on placards, that no human being is illegal … We demand legalization for all, nothing less.

“There are parties, groups, and organizations that have shown themselves willing to accept something less. I am not recriminating them, but clarifying the situation. We didn’t come here to attack anyone, but to clarify our position and regroup.

“The mobilization of the masses must base itself in the organization of workers in mass organizations in all the cites and towns. Beyond that, the political tendency is key. We mustn’t permit that our movement support a single political party.

“We must unite with the unions, not attack them! We are to be based in the organization of immigrant workers. … Do not paint all the labor movement with the same brush. [Applause.] This is a civil struggle. We must combine forces and struggle for unity because we need all the broadest forces to win.”

As Lopez alluded, a key component of this conference was the reaching out by its initiators to organized labor—which met some positive response. SEIU was present in some force.
Other unions that took part in the deliberations included the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, Teamsters, UNITE-HERE, Laborers, UE, AFSCME and the UFCW. The Smithfield and Wal-Mart campaigns were highly visible.

A couple of days before the strategy convention the AFL-CIO announced a partnership with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), the nation’s largest day laborer association. At the convention the Teamsters spoke about a projected campaign in support of mainly immigrant, “independent contractor” port drivers in California.

Such efforts have the potential to bring some immediate, sorely needed improvements to these workers as well as strengthening what should be a natural alliance between unions and the immigrant rights movement.

Of course, the union bureaucracy does not speak with one voice on the issues discussed at the convention. On the local level there are instances of bureaucrats making common cause with the Minutemen. Moreover, locals of the IBEW, Iron Workers, and Sheetmetal Workers have endorsed the city ordinances in Hazleton, Pa. This is a reminder that much remains to be done to counter fears and prejudices among even the organized sector of the working class.

The AFL-CIO, Teamsters, and UE have adopted more principled positions, more or less in line with the convention’s Ten Points of Unity. But SEIU, the union with the most immigrant members and the biggest labor contingent at the gathering, is a different kettle of fish.

SEIU President Andy Stern was involved early on in a “partnership” approach to immigration “reform,” called the Essential Workers Immigrant Coalition (EWIC), including the likes of the Chamber of Commerce, Wal-Mart, and Tyson. These partners were responsible for drafting what would be introduced as the McCain-Kennedy bill in the Senate last year.

Stern, along with his Change to Win ally UNITE-HERE, still supports the current mutation of that bill, S2611, as a “step in the right direction” because it offers some a path to eventual citizenship. This bipartisan bill, also supported by some Latino “mainstream” organizations such as the National Council of La Raza, would militarize the Mexican border, create new legal status divisions among immigrants, impose fines on the undocumented, establish new guest worker programs—and lead to the deportation of an estimated two million immigrants.

Actually, many local leaders and activists in SEIU and UNITE-HERE have ignored their national leaderships and joined others in opposing S2611, referred to by many as “Sensenbrenner Light.” Some were present in Chicago. This question is bound to come to center stage once more after the election of a new Congress.

Conference approves future actions

More than 400 people, from 25 states, registered at the convention, and organizers estimate as many as 700 attended one or more sessions over the weekend. The gathering was largely Latino, the majority of Mexican background, reflecting the composition of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country. Delegates also represented Chinese, Arab, Indian, Irish, Filipino, and other immigrants, and the new organization has pledged to reach out to all ethnic groups.

Sandwiched between plenary sessions were workshops: Strategy and Tactics; Labor; Combating the Right-Wing Attack on Immigrants; Media; Legislation; Students.

The final plenary session considered dozens of programmatic, action, and structural proposals. Though some sharp differences were expressed, civil manners were maintained. The rule was that no proposal would be rejected but only those receiving a positive majority, under a one-delegate/one-vote method, could be approved.

A 60-member provisional steering committee for the new organization was selected from delegate volunteers, using geography and gender as the primary factors.

The convention outreach committee issued the following summary of what was adopted:

• “Calling for local actions at a national level to be carried throughout the Labor Day weekend, September 1st through the 4th. … The objective of these actions is to call on a real discussion for immigration reform, one that includes legalization for all undocumented immigrants.

• “As a resolution, the National Convention agreed on elaborating a law initiative to be presented in Congress by a friendly representative, and to reject both the House of Representatives and the Senate versions of immigration reform. No bill is better than a bad bill!

• “The National Convention agreed on joining the campaign for an immediate moratorium on immigration raids and deportations, including a moratorium on cases already in court, such as that of Elvira Arellano, from Chicago, and of 25 immigrants arrested last Tuesday in Whitewater, Wis.

• “The National Convention agreed to join a national boycott against Kimberly Clarke, company in which Wisconsin Jim Sensenbrenner has thousands of stocks.

• “The National Convention voted in favor of naming its coordinating body the ‘National Alliance for Immigrant Rights,’ and under that name it will call for further national coordinated actions, from sit-ins to press conferences, in particular on Sept. 30, before the U.S. Congress adjourns and before the November election.

• “On other issues, the National Alliance will also start campaigns against plans by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to criminalize employers and workers through a “No Match” program that would lead to the firing of millions of workers.”

Certainly there is a crying need for a mass, independent, democratically driven immigrant rights movement. Whether the National Alliance for Immigrant Rights can unite diverse forces, and resist pressures to trim principles, to become the center of such a movement of course remains to be seen. But it is the most promising step taken so far and deserves a good-faith effort of support from all advocates for immigrant worker rights.

Political Currents at the Convention

Socialist Action comes from the socialist tradition that favors political inclusiveness in issue-defined mass movements. We have always welcomed the participation of even those from the bosses’ parties who, for whatever their own reasons, take stands against war, in favor of civil rights and liberties, gender equality, and environmental defense.

And it goes without saying that we also oppose any attempt to red-bait leftist participants in mass movements.

The only major bourgeois politician to attend the convention was Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.). When he was invited to speak from the stage many shouted, “make him sign before speaking,” referring to the Ten Points of Unity.

Gutiérrez then made a big production of going to an easel where the points were displayed, signing with a flourish. While this was probably a staged gesture, the suspicion of politicians was palpable.

Gutiérrez’s remarks did little to allay such doubts. He endorsed guest-worker programs and dismissed concerns about the wall along the Mexican border as “irrelevant.” This darling of many union bureaucrats, and the Communist Party, had wasted no time in demonstrating his double-dealing cynicism. There will be pressure on the movement to hustle votes for such con men and women—which would be a disastrous, disruptive diversion from the unifying principles.

There were a number of delegates with close ties to the Mexican PRD. Though pro-capitalist in both roots and program the PRD has styled itself as the “left” alternative to the traditional bourgeois PRI and PAN.

As the convention met in Chicago, PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador was leading mass demonstrations in Mexico City, protesting alleged fraud by the PAN in the just concluded presidential election. This was a big topic of discussion both on the floor and in the corridors.

Many U.S. socialist groups—including Socialist Action—had a presence at the convention. Some of these groups seemed content to hawk their literature and make weighty pronouncements during discussion. But some socialist activists had credentials as builders of coalitions around the country, and others were representing union bodies. A number were included in the provisional steering committee.

Maintaining—and expanding—unity without deal-breaker encroachments on basic principles will be one of the greatest challenges facing the new organization.

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