Immigration and Racism

David Barsamian

Cathi Tactaquin is a
founder and director of the Oakland-based National Network for Immigrant and
Refugee Rights, an alliance of grassroots, community, labor, and faith
organizations. Miriam Ching Louie, of the Berkeley-based Women of Color
Resource Center, is the author of Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women
Workers Take on the Global Factory,
published by South End Press. The WCRC
networks women of color organizers and scholar activists.

Cathi, what’s a good entry point in a discussion on immigration and racism?

TACTAQUIN: One entry point is the exploration of what motivates migration
today. Migration continues to be a complex question. It’s made even more
complex in this era by the negative impacts of globalization, which are the
key factors in motivating upwards of 130 million people who are in migration
around the world today. Only a little over 1 million actually come to the U.S.
But right-wing restrictionist forces would have us think that at least 25
percent of the world’s migrants are beating down the doors to come to the U.S.
The truth is that most people are migrating within the Global South. They are
continuing to migrate for many of the same reasons as they have historically:
poverty, unemployment, civil strife, and concern for the well-being of their
families. Under globalization, many of those conditions have worsened. It’s
also under globalization that the ease of migration is taking place.
Transportation which is used to move goods across oceans, rivers, and
countries is also used in migration. That is also a contributing factor. And
it’s historic. Today we’re facing a world in which people have been migrating
for hundreds of years, and certainly to the U.S., where within this last
century, people from Latin America and Asia who have strong family ties here
have been coming. That continues to be a motivating factor for migration

LOUIE: There is a great slogan I saw on a picket sign from the antiracist
movement in England, We Are Here Because You Were There. It has to do with the
fact that people in large part come from countries where, in the U.S.’s case,
the U.S. has had a long history of military, economic, and political
intervention. That’s a place to start to understand the intersection between
race and migration. I agree with what Cathi is saying. There are some very
important new changes that are going on with globalization. Migration is
really an old process, and there has been that long link between economies in
different parts of the world. The race piece connects with both the U.S.
relation to other countries and what happens to working people in the States.

The U.S. has
a long history of colonization and occupation in the Philippines, where your
family is from, Cathi. How has that affected immigration patterns?

CT: Filipinos
have been coming to the U.S. for the last century. Since 1965, when
immigration laws were relaxed to include more diverse migration from Latin
America and Asia, immigration of Filipinos to the U.S. has accelerated. But
it’s part of a broader process of migration that is taking place from that
country to the extent that today over 10 percent of the Philippine population
migrates abroad to work. In that sense it’s the highest proportionate rate in
the world. The majority of those migrants are women, who often have to leave
their families, their children, for years at a time. Some go on the basis of
temporary visas. Some leave and become undocumented, not just in the U.S., but
in the Middle East, Europe, and other parts of Asia. It’s a pattern in which
we see no relief. Many Filipinos continue to come to the U.S. where they have
relatives. It’s much more difficult when people are going to other parts of
the world where there’s not the language familiarity and that historic
connection. But they’re forced to go there to work and frankly, to countries
where, as critical as we are of civil rights protections for immigrants in the
U.S., those protections are much less. It’s indicative of some of the tragic
patterns of migration that we see today. Miriam explores this in her book.
We’re looking at a tremendous level of women migrating under difficult
circumstances and having to work under even worse conditions and facing
multiple levels of oppression.

MCL: There are
many in the women’s movement who have been noting this increasing women’s
migration over the last ten or fifteen years. In Sweatshop Warriors I
focus on three groups and a couple of different communities, Chinese, Mexican
and Korean women low-wage workers. Each case is interesting. First of all,
there are the push-and-pull factors, this relationship between that particular
country or region of the world and the U.S. There are also issues of when
women become part of what Cathi’s mentioning in the Philippines, the way that
sending governments get economic resources and raise foreign exchange. There’s
a place for women to work in this country in low-wage jobs, at the bottom of
different sweatshop industries. Then there are changes in terms of women’s
struggle within family strategies about coming. In Mexico, for example,
historically it’s been men who have migrated, but now the percentage of women
is growing. Related to globalization, a number of the women that I interviewed
had actually worked in sweatshop industries related to U.S.-based
transnational corporations before they even migrated to the States or had been
involved in internal migration streams within their own countries from rural
to urban industrial areas. It’s second-stage migration in a lot of ways when
people come to the U.S. and fit into communities that are expanding here.

Talk more
about that internal migration. Let’s say from southern states of Mexico like
Oaxaca or Chiapas up to maquilas on the border.

MCL: The
interesting thing with the maquila project that started in the
mid-1960s was that one of its purposes was supposedly to deal with
unemployment problems in Mexico with the end of the bracero program of
agricultural workers. What happened is, those male agricultural workers were
not tapped in the maquila industry. It was principally women and
teenage girls, that were tapped. It’s a big transformation. Only more recently
have men started to work in industry in auto parts, manufacturing and like
that, but women still form the vast majority of immigrants to the maquila.
A number of the women that I interviewed had worked in border towns on the
Mexico side and in some cases been commuters to work across the border in
Texas or in California and said, I’m going to move with my family and they
just made that move.

CT: Some of the
broad impact of NAFTA stimulates that kind of migration throughout Mexico.
NAFTA has allowed corn imports from the U.S. to flood the Mexican market and
has undermined Mexican corn growers. Rural areas have been devastated. Farmers
are forced to farm other kinds of crops. It’s displaced traditional families
and units who were working in the corn farm industry. That has also freed up
workers from rural areas that might go to Mexico City, not find employment
there, to head north to the maquiladoras. Again, instead of NAFTA
stimulating the economy in a way that provides employment, it’s done the
opposite. In this case it’s stimulated migration.

MCL: Some
people who organize workers on the border are talking about the “maquiladorization
of Mexico and Central America. It’s not only the border. I went on a study
tour with U.S. labor activists to Tehuacán in the Mexican state of Pueblo.
They built a huge jeans production center there. People, many of them
indigenous, are moving to that area and working under repressive and
frightening conditions. They’re producing for the top name brands in the U.S.,
like Guess and Levis. That process is spreading throughout Mexico and Central

Kernaghan of the New York-based National Labor Committee has done a lot of
work exposing sweatshop conditions particularly in Central America. Often he
hears factory owners say, These people are poor. We’re providing them with
jobs and the opportunity to make a living and support their families.

MCL: That’s
really charitable. To have people working 14 and 16 hours a day, having young
girls take uppers so they can stay up all night, beating people at work,
that’s really despicable. But that’s the common argument that the corporations
make, that they’re providing jobs. What kind of jobs are they providing? What
happens to the workers in those jobs? During the study tour, I met many women
workers who were producing huge amounts of work and being treated essentially
like animals. You can’t be sick. You can’t be late. There’s a lot of racism
towards indigenous people within this process. I’ve done some support work for
a number of Texas workers who had worked for Levis. In 1990, Levis closed down
and ran away to Costa Rica. They paid the workers there in a day what the
Mexican American women had been making in half an hour. The corporations
benefit quite a bit from this whole situation.

The New York
Times’ multiple Pulitzer Prize winner, Thomas Friedman, says those who oppose
globalization are a “Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates.”

CT: That’s a
whole rationale for globalization, that it’s going to provide economic
stimulus, employment for poor people and increase their standard of living.
But corporations are going to countries where labor standards don’t exist,
where children are working and where women are seriously abused in the
workplace. They’re also bringing a level of inequality to the economy where
workers in those factories can’t afford to buy what they produce. They also
can’t afford to buy the new goods that are flooding their countries that are
also part of the globalization package. It’s not just that corporations are
going to these countries and creating jobs. Throughout Latin America, the
dollar-peso ratio has become so exacerbated that you might be working at a
factory and you can’t afford to buy basic necessities.

Corporations are fickle as well. When we participated as the Women of Color
Resource Center in the U.N. Conference for Women in Beijing, it was
heartrending to hear the stories of women from Hong Kong and South Korea who
had been garment workers and shoe workers. There’s a point in this country in
which a lot of jobs ran away and workers were devastated. This process
continues to unfold. They went to places like South Korea or Hong Kong. When
workers in South Korea began to organize for their rights, the corporations
ran away to Indonesia and Vietnam. Their charity is very short-term.

I did some
speaking back East in March. The part of New York I was in has been
deindustrialized. Having been born and raised in California, you get a
different sense of European ethnics on the East Coast. I was talking to a guy
who was a descendant of Irish and Italian. I’m third generation Chinese and
Korean. It struck me that this guy’s family has been in the States as long as
mine has, but I still don’t quite fit in because of the racism. My dad was
born in San Francisco Chinatown. I remember him talking about getting into
scuffles all the time with the Italians because Italians and Chinese came at
the same time. So there’s that proximity in San Francisco and in New York City
in Little Italy and Chinatown. It’s interesting what’s happened to different
sets of immigrants who get mainstreamed as white race people versus other
groups that come from Asia or Latin America. That process has not been the
same. The 2000 census was intriguing. California is now 32 percent Latino and
12 percent Asian. There was an article in the Times about the changes
in California where someone talked about the state reverting to its original
DNA, meaning California as part of Mexico. It begins to make you think, What
would the state look like if there had not been the anti-Asian exclusion acts
and the mass deportations of Mexicans? It’s an interesting possibility, and
I’m sure that’s why there’s been all this hysteria and anti-immigrant backlash
that’s been building up all these years. There’s a very different standard and
treatment of people who come from certain parts of the world.

CT: Historical
context and recognition of earlier immigrants of European heritage who
assimilated and became integrated as one white community in the U.S. is at the
heart of some of the tensions and anxieties about the apparent lack of
integration and apparent difficulty of assimilation of the current wave of
immigrants, those that have come in the last 30 to 40 years, principally from
Asia, Latin America, Africa. 85 percent of the immigrants today would be
considered people of color. It’s part of the schizophrenia in the U.S. culture
about immigration. There’s this acknowledgment that we have a strong tradition
of immigration, yet there is a current that lies dormant most of the time
which is a distrust still of immigrants and flares up occasionally and can be
stimulated by opportunistic politicians. There is anxiety about this current
wave of immigrants. There is some denial of the racial factor. No one wants to
be called a racist, but the racial anxieties underlie the questions. Why can’t
these people learn English like we did? Why can’t they assimilate? Why are
they having a difficult time? Is this how our future is going to look in the
U.S., where we have this dichotomy, this schism? A lot of it is an inability
to reconcile the racial factor historically in immigration and how it has

One of the
organizers of this meeting reports that after posting announcements on various
listservs she received some hate-filled, vitriolic responses about the need to
close U.S. borders and end population growth. What about the endurance of
white supremacy?

MCL: I don’t
know exactly where to start. It’s hard to be in everybody’s country and
everybody’s business and be the world policeman and not expect the chickens to
come home to roost. They want to have cheap labor. They want to have goods
from all over the world, but not have to deal with the people and the
consequences of all of that. Part of the Bay Area situation is that the
demographics have changed so much. It’s trying to figure out what that looks
like in different parts of the country where people still think that white is
what this country is about. It really doesn’t seem to be like that to me any
more. It’s what they’ve tried to keep this country to be about, but that’s not
reality. This just goes so far back in U.S. history, back to stealing people’s
land, to slavery, to contract labor. It goes into sweatshop industries. It’s
so much a part of the fiber and history of this country.

CT: It’s also a
lot of work that we have to do in speaking as part of a progressive movement
to raise a different kind of consciousness among people. Reliance on that
tradition is reliance on nationalism, nativism, an America that when you say
“American” it means a white person and everyone else is some hyphenated
American. It’s work to raise a different kind of class consciousness, where
people begin to acknowledge and recognize that what they have in common with a
person of color is much more than they have with someone in a dominant or
ruling class. There’s still a resistance to that. It’s part of American
culture to appear that you have a different standard of living, that you’re
better and superior. What begins to challenge that is the demographic change.
But the U.S. is still overwhelmingly white. That is beginning to change in
different parts of the country. We’re getting calls from immigrants in the
South and the Midwest looking for help. They’re facing racism in the South.
There’s a new racism that, interestingly, is affecting large populations of
Guatemalans, Mexican and African immigrants who now live in Georgia and
Mississippi. They’re coming into contact with the old racism of the South.
It’s also challenging the African American community, looking at these new
immigrant populations coming in. It’s putting people through a lot of changes.
Progressives who are organizing are recognizing that if we’re going to make
changes in the South, we have to take into consideration that demographic
change. A challenge to white supremacy also means organizing not just the
African American community but in these new immigrant communities and building
a new base of an antiracist movement.

MCL: That’s a
lot of what’s confronted people of color in organizing work. At one point
maybe there was the illusion that if there were more people of color there
would be a better climate for antiracism, but that’s not necessarily been the
case. There’s a rise in tensions. Some groups have been doing interesting work
around these issues. I’ve interviewed workers with the Korean Immigrant
Workers Advocates in Los Angeles. They’ve taken responsibility for organizing
principally Korean waitresses, Latino men, back-of-the-house restaurant
workers in the Koreatown area. David, what you said earlier about ethnic
solidarity that gets to be stifling, that’s something the people are fighting
around in this group. There have been attacks on workers organizing, saying,
Who’s a good Korean? Why are you hooking up with these Latinos? If you’re a
good Korean you don’t do that. You don’t bring out problems in the community.
This is a shame and an embarrassment. In fact, the owners are exploiting the
workers of the different races. So it’s important to take up some of those
cross-racial issues within the community and talk about some of the economic
injustice perpetrated by people of color groups as well.

What are
some tools for combating racism?

CT: We can’t
win greater protections and rights for immigrants alone. We need to build
alliances. I don’t believe in diversity trainings. I don’t believe in having a
conversation about race. I believe in working and engaging on issues that
confront and challenge those issues and which build common ground. We’re
working with the labor movement now. We think organizing workers across the
board is very important in advancing the rights of immigrants regardless of
their status, whether they’re documented or undocumented. That’s the platform
that helps to bring about fair wages and good working conditions for all,
where wedges can’t be driven between American and foreign workers. It’s at the
workplace where we’re finding workers of different races working together.
It’s a natural site for that kind of alliance-building. We’re also challenging
other movements to work in immigrant communities and to address those issues.
For example, the environmental movement. Years ago we thought the
environmental movement should be a natural ally because internationally
they’re dealing with a lot of the same conditions that are of concern to all
of us. Environmental degradation globally is a factor in displacing
populations and moving people into migration streams.

Lo and behold,
in the U.S. environmental movement, a lot of environmentalists weren’t quite
ready to take up environmental justice work in communities of color. The
immigration question became a lightning rod because population control
advocates targeted the environmental movement to argue that increased
immigration was leading to increased population in the U.S. and that is the
main source of environmental degradation. They’re wrong, but some
environmentalists bought into it. I think there’s a change taking place in the
environmental movement, a resistance to that kind of thinking, an
acknowledgment that a lot of that is racially motivated, that it misdirects
what we all need to do to make our environment safe and healthy for everyone.
It’s still an important intersectional point for us to do work. Immigrants are
extremely vulnerable to environmental problems. If they’re undocumented, even
more so. They’re not going to report lead paint poisoning. They’re going to be
in a much more difficult place to fight location of toxic waste incinerators.
And this is already happening. They need to be part and parcel of that
movement. In building those intersections we challenge questions of race. We
challenge some of the vestiges, and that helps to create positive change.

MCL: There are
a couple of examples where people have made some good progress on struggling
against racism. One particular group will start to fight for their rights and
that opens up the door for others. For example, there’s the Committee Against
Anti-Asian Violence in New York. They have an Asian Women Workers’ Project.
They started out organizing domestic workers who were South Asian and
Filipina. Once the word got out, they have been inundated with calls for help
from immigrant women from the Caribbean. Some interesting ties are getting off
the ground similarly among sweatshop workers in the garment industry. There’s
a case around Donna Karan of New York, DKNY. A Chinese worker who was in one
of their contracted shops was fired because she received a call at work that
her daughter was sick in school. The daughter told the school authorities,
Don’t call Mom’s job because the boss is really mean. They called because the
girl was sick, and the mother got fired for that. It brought out all these
violations of the rights of the workers in that factory. There was a
continuous struggle around her case. By her speaking out, a number of the
other Chinese and Latino workers have come forward and filed a joint lawsuit
last year. More interestingly, immigrants from Eastern Europe have come out to
try to get support for some of the issues that they have been facing around
their labor cases. When people get in trouble and start to stand up for their
rights, they see who their friends are.

Finally, the
people of color groups are generally poor and unrecognized. All power to
Making Contact
, which is out there covering our stories. But generally our
stories are flying way below the radar screen. It’s important that we come
together and bolster each other in our work and share our limited resources.
On occasion, the people of color groups, as we build these ties, also have to
fight for accountability from white-run organizations that are part of the
growing anticorporate movement. There have been frictions and struggles around
that. A lot of times the people of color groups are completely overworked.
You’re supposed to be doing work around anticorporate, antiglobalization
struggle. But then you’re doing things within your own community. Middle-class
white activists get off being able to focus on a particular area but not have
to worry about white grassroots people in the community. I often wonder, Who’s
organizing white working-class people? Among people of color, you’d better be
doing something about what’s happening to grassroots people in the community,
or what’s your credibility to be talking if you aren’t taking responsibility
for what’s going on in the community

Talk about
getting on the media radar screen. How do you tell the story that you want
told, not the story about the oversexed immigrant women who have too many
children and flood the welfare rolls and the men who steal jobs from real

CT: We try to
use every organizing opportunity and every campaign as a media activity. It’s
two things. One is getting our story and the immigrants’ story on the radar.
There are many of them. We’ve done a lot of work, especially over the last few
years, to get that kind of visibility into not just our own community-based
media but into the broader national media. We’re doing media trainings. We’re
bringing people in who can help, not change our message, but help us to
articulate our message in a way that it can resonate more widely. That’s very
important. Utilizing friends in the media who understand what we are trying to
do and are also sensitive to how we need to communicate it from the diverse
communities that we represent. It’s also challenging what comes out in the
media. We end up doing a lot of that, unfortunately. Sometimes it’s not the
best way to get our message out. It’s hard to constantly battle the right
within the media. A few days ago we got an email from someone in the Midwest.
There’s a series of ads running in the newspapers which shows some Mexican
immigrant workers and flashes the White House phone number and alerts people
to call and report suspected undocumented Mexican workers. Apparently the
newspapers were getting calls that people didn’t like these ads. They found
out that this is part of yet another new campaign from a group called the
Coalition for America’s Future Workers. It’s run by the Federation for
American Immigration Reform, FAIR, the main anti-immigrant national lobby.
They have a lot of resources. They have a sophisticated website. It’s already
a response to the growing movement that we have now that’s been growing in the
last year towards legalization of undocumented immigrants and also a movement,
which we don’t entirely support, towards creating new temporary worker
programs. Bush and Fox have been talking about a new bracero-like guest
worker program. Congress approved more visas for highly skilled, technical
workers from other countries.

fine-tuning its messages as well. They regularly send out articles to a
battery of journalists who utilize their material. We inform our own
constituency on how to respond to that type of misinformation. It is
incredible what can pass for fact.     

I received a
call from a Congressional aide who said, There’s a Congressperson on the floor
right now who said there are a quarter of a million pregnant undocumented
Mexican women in Los Angeles. Is that true? I said, It can only be true if he
personally was responsible. He was reporting it in Congress in order to push
legislation. We have to constantly challenge misinformation.

MCL: There are
so many different angles to deal with the media. Some of the community groups
integrate media work into their ongoing work. I worked as the media person for
the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates campaign. We had the Garment Workers
Justice Campaign against Jessica McClintock in the Bay Area. I learned a lot
through that process. I did that part-time, but it was really a full-time job
to keep track of the media and put out the word about the stories of the women
and intervene with events. When things broke out around the Thai slave workers
in El Monte in Southern California, we had to figure out what our relationship
was to that story and what support we could do in our area for sister
organizations in LA. So there’s much work that needs to be done just to
integrate media. I’m speaking more from the perspective of somebody who’s
worked in community organizations. We found out our friends that would cover
us is pretty much the alternative media. They knew the importance of the story
and would continue to cover it. With the broader mainstream media we had to
figure out how to shape the story and also get out our message. It’s gotten to
the point where the media recognize there are problems with sweatshops, but
they want to shape the story so that it’s just these poor women victims, feel
sorry for them, and chop the women off when it comes to what their feelings
and points of view are about how things can be changed.     

I’ll give you
an example of that from 60 Minutes. They approached us about the
Jessica McClintock campaign. It was on and off, on and off. Finally there was
a filming to do the program. 60 Minutes reaches 30 million viewers.
Women struggled to make the decision if they were going to go on camera with
their stories. To go on camera means that you can be blacklisted in the
industry. So not only did you lose that job, in this case the sweatshop closed
down, bankrupt, workers were stiffed out of their back wages and the
manufacturers said they had no responsibility for this, so the campaign was
about manufacturer retailer accountability. They went through this very
difficult process where they decided, We want to tell our story. We want to
get this out. People are telling us 60 Minutes is a very important
institution in the U.S. and it’s going to get our story out. What happened is,
people get on camera. As soon as they start to talk, Morley Safer’s voice
comes over and says, These women don’t speak English. What happened is, blah,
blah, blah. The women are watching it when it airs and say, OK, they showed
our face now, but they didn’t let us talk. The so-called objective reporting
in that story divides equal blame among the manufacturer, the workers and the
greedy consumers that want these cheap clothes. People told us afterwards, Any
coverage is good coverage. Don’t feel completely ripped off.     

Folks who are
active in the media from the inside know that racially, the effects of
affirmative action have made some kind of change. I could see that in the
coverage around the census. There have been journalists who have been waiting
to file stories that reflect the changes that are going on in various
communities all over the country. On the media end, if you’re in a community
group, or if you’re in a mainstream media institution or an alternative media
institution, there are battles and struggles to be had at a lot of different
levels. The more people give support to each other and cooperate, the better
it will be in terms of the coverage that comes out.

CT: I think
there is a lot more awareness about the importance of the media. We’re
organizing some media strategies for the World Conference Against Racism and
Xenophobia that will be held in South Africa at the end of August. It’s a
great opportunity to try to get the spotlight on the conditions of migrant
workers around the world. Typically, at these conferences, one-third of the
people are from NGOs, one-third are government delegations, and one-third are
media people from all over the world. Some are stringers from a hometown
newspaper. They’re looking for stories. We’re trying to train people to be
prepared and to set things up so that the stringer from that hometown
newspaper knows that so-and-so from that immigrant rights organization is
there. We’ll get some coverage. We’re working with some of the other migrant
rights groups in other countries to create some media opportunities so that we
can ensure that there is positive and good coverage. We have to take advantage
of events to get the best coverage possible.

For more
information: Mriam Ching Louie, Women of Color Resource Center, 2288 Fulton
St. #103, Berkeley CA 94704; 510-848-9272;; Cathi
Tactaquin , National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, 310 8th St.
#307, Oakland CA 94607 ; 510-465-1984 ;