Latinos debate whether immigration reform rallies are wise right now
April 21, 2009
Energized by a renewed prospect of success, Latinos in Dane County and across the country are planning to go to the streets again on May 1 to hold President Barack Obama to his assurances that immigration reform is on the way.
Publicity for a Madison march on the Capitol on May Day -- a traditional labor holiday -- trumpets a "march for the poor, workers and immigrants." A poster for the event circulated by the organizer, Madison-based Immigrant Workers Union, records a laundry list of demands, from rolling back local Metro bus fare increases to universal health care to amnesty for immigrant workers.
Meanwhile, organizers with the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, which is staging marches in cities across the country, are framing their message to say "humane" immigration reform will benefit all workers and not just immigrants. "A pro-worker immigration reform bill will benefit both native and foreign workers who are more vulnerable in this weak economy to abuse by bad employers," said Christine Neumann-Ortiz of Milwaukee-based Voces de la Frontera.
That political tack is aimed at defusing political backlash like the kind that came after massive nationwide rallies in 2006 put a spotlight on immigration reform. And it is that potential that has led some advocates for immigrant rights to advise tempering the rhetoric this season.
Peter Munoz, executive director of Centro Hispano, Dane County's premier agency serving Latinos, warned that the heady marches that brought out hundreds of thousands three years ago in support of immigration reform eroded popular and political support and unleashed workplace raids that led to the detention and deportation of workers and the separation of immigrant families.
"We stupidly followed opportunistic, self-appointed leaders and left-pandering politicians in their limelight quest," Munoz wrote on the e-mail Listserv of Latino Support Network, a consortium of Dane County health, community and social service organizations. "We accomplished nothing but to bring great harm to our hardworking immigrant community."
Better not to make waves and to let Obama work toward building the coalition needed to put immigration reform through Congress, Munoz counseled.
He was among leaders of Dane County's Latinos United for Change and Advancement, LUChA, to vote to join the labor, political left and peace and justice organizations endorsing the local march Monday. But they were not without misgivings.
LUChA member Dan Guerra said strident rhetoric forces politicians friendly to immigration reform to move to the right or center. "These are issues that need to be dealt with behind closed doors; rallies do nothing but energize the opposition."
Alfonso Zepeda Capistran said LUChA had no choice but to support the march, despite its strategic shortcomings. "I don't think we'll get a good proposal without raising the voice of the community," he said.
Clearly the stage is set for a major national debate on immigration reform.
Speaking last week from Mexico, where he met with President Felipe Calderon, Obama committed to fixing the United States' "broken immigration system." He gave no details, but tied immigration reform to "bottom-up" economic growth in Mexico and border security.
Just days earlier, organized labor's major federations, AFL-CIO and the rival Change to Win, agreed for the first time to join forces in support of comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.
The unified voice is significant, said Jim Cavanaugh, president of the Madison-based South Central Federation of Labor. Protecting the rights of immigrant workers in particular is essential in the foundering economy, he said. "They have less to fall back on if management comes by with a hatchet."
He said that the union rank-and-file supports immigrant workers rights even as all jobs are jeopardized by layoffs. "To their credit, they're not looking for scapegoats, and if they are, they're not looking at their fellow workers."
Cavanaugh sees a show of support for immigration reform as a key part of the strategy. "Demonstrating in numbers in favor of your cause provides additional support for a friendly elected official," he said.
But as hundreds took to the streets in early rallies last week in Western states, the anticipated backlash against a renewed call for immigration reform emerged.
In California, a state initiative was circulated to issue special birth certificates to the children of illegal immigrants and deny them publicly funded health benefits. That happened at the same time a new Pew Research Center report revealed that 4 million children who are U.S. citizens have at least one parent who entered the country without authorization.
On the national political front, a spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a pro-business lobby, warned organized labor that it can't "push through" immigration reform without the support of business. Citing a labor shortage, the chamber favors "guest worker" proposals that would allow some immigrants to work legally and to start on a path to permanent residence, but critics say those proposals give immigrant workers too little security.
And even though no details about plans for immigration reform have come from either the Obama administration or organized labor, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has already said their efforts will not adequately address border security or the need for a guest worker program.
And those responses were generated by ideas that some in the pro-immigration movement say don't go far enough.
Alex Gillis of Madison's Immigrant Workers Union says progress toward immigration reform is hampered by the unwillingness of establishment Democrats to talk about underlying issues.
"The party doesn't want us to go farther than their agenda," he said. "They don't want us to talk about minority workers, about economic justice, about poverty."
Still, he is certain that even for the limited issues on the agenda, action in the street is the only way to move forward -- and everybody knows it.
"Obama knows there has to be a movement from below," he said.
Labor shortage? My butt....I have no problem with legal immigration but here we go again with illegals demanding things that are not available to most American citizens. Until the borders are closed and all illegals are repatriated we can not have immigration reform. As the economy continues to deteriorate there will be more anger and possible rage vented against minority members from other countries. Though I do not condone it, it is very normal for citizens to vent their anger on a perceived class of invaders.
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