Latinos Create a New Political Climate

B etween March 10 and May 1, 2006, five million people—mostly Latino—filled the streets in over 100 U.S. towns and cities with cries for justice in its treatment of migrant workers. Their dignified determination and fearless persistence startled and excited many others and often themselves too.  

It has been a spontaneous, overwhelmingly working-class explosion in which activists form a small minority. It is a movement of whole families marching together, without leaders, built from the ground up, decentralized, demonstrations organized from town to town within a few days. That old mantra about how "the leaders better hurry and catch up with the people" rings true again.  

With two million in the street in Los Angeles on May 1, close to half a million in Chicago, and 350,000 in New York, along with tens of thousands of students out of school, who could resist perceiving the promise of a new movement? With stores closed all over the U.S. and thousands boycotting work, even when political, labor, and church leaders said "don’t," who cannot imagine a new political climate emerging from this combination of fury and discipline? 

Where did it all come from and where will it go? Will other social forces join in one huge struggle against exploitation and abuse, like African American, Asian-Pacific Islander, white workers? Or will its working-class base be lost to control by more corporate and middle-class forces? What can we expect between now and the November election? Could a new Latino vote turn Republicans out of office? 

The source of this current massive resistance has a long history. The Alien and Sedition Law of 1798 pointed the way in primitive form and there was almost never a total let-up in the white nationalism that continues to feed anti-immigrant action. One of the few exceptions came in 1965 when the racist system of "national origins" quotas from the 1920s was ended. But that was the 1960s. 

The first contemporary anti-immigrant think tanks date back to the 1970s-80s. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) emerged in 1979, providing the euphemism of "immigration reform" that masks what the magazine Searchlight has called "one of American white supremacy’s hottest offerings." The 1990s also brought the Voice of Citizens Together (VCT), a grassroots anti-immigrant group promoting the "Reconquista" conspiracy theory that Mexico was using immigrants to reclaim the Southwest. VCT also gave birth to the American Patrol, a 1998 forerunner to the border vigilante Minutemen.  

With Proposition 187 in 1994 California, and similar legislation in other states, came an onslaught on the basic human rights of undocumented immigrants to education, health care, and other social services. 

Proposition 187 was finally cancelled, but that did not stop more measures to curb immigration, no matter the human cost. Also in 1994 came Operation Blockade and Gatekeeper, which started closing the El Paso, San Diego, and Nogales border sectors. According to the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, at least 300 migrants have died at the border every year since 2000 of heat stroke, asphyxiation, and other so-called "natural" causes. New policies that compel migrants to try and cross at less patrolled desert and mountainous areas are the real reason for those deaths. Migrant workers are also vulnerable to direct harm by Border Patrol agents, who are unaccountable for their violence. Spending $30 billion to militarize the border over the past 10 years has not deterred unauthorized crossings, just caused more to die. 

The year 1994 also brought passage of NAFTA, the so-called "free trade" agreement. By enabling state-subsidized, lower-priced U.S. corn to compete "freely" with Mexican corn, it drove thousands of Mexican farmers off their land and to the U.S. in a desperate search for survival. Then came CAFTA with similar effects for Central Americans, on top of earlier U.S. support for dictatorships in Central America that had driven many to flee to the U.S., also in search of survival. Neo-liberal policies and structural adjustment programs here and in other countries have magnified migration around the world to the point where 185 million are reportedly on the move involuntarily, not including 21 million refugees. Not surprisingly, protests for immigrant rights are taking place in Europe—for example, a demonstration by thousands of undocumented in Madrid a few months ago and 10,000 who protested in Belgium demanding legal status for immigrants. The problem faced in the U.S. must be seen as a global one, rising from a relentless drive for profit.


We also see an old pattern being repeated, as when in times of critical U.S. labor shortage, immigrants of color were contracted, coerced, bribed, even kidnapped to build railroads, harvest crops, and perform hazardous work rejected by resident workers. Once here, they faced racist hostility, persecution by AFL labor unions for the "coolie" wages they received, dreadful living conditions, and savagery including lynchings. In bad economic times immigrants have been made convenient scapegoats. 

Today another dimension has been added. The dominant culture, the very definition of "civilization" U.S. style, is under attack, we hear. It’s "the browning of America," they say (forgetting that most of the real America, the hemisphere, is already brown). The frenzied rage that can accompany this belief revealed itself recently when the idea was aired of singing the national anthem in Spanish. From Bush on down: horrors. (No matter that author Kevin Phillips wrote that Bush "would drop in at Hispanic festivals, sometimes joining in singing ‘The Stars Spangled Banner’ in Spanish…") 

Hr 4437 Sparks Latino Rage 

S uch emotions were one of the weapons used to pass House Bill 4437, proposed by James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), with its drastic provisions—above all making it a felony for a non-citizen to be in the U.S. without proper documents or to help such a person in any way. More than anything else, this proposed new law was what propelled millions into the street. The idea of being made a criminal for contributing to the U.S. economy was one insult too many. No wonder it brought out men and women pushing baby strollers and waving homemade signs—giant numbers who had never marched before, but now found a new dignity, chanting "Sí se puede" (Yes, we can). Above all, they marched for their families and against the laws that had divided so many family members, as even young children could tell you about with tears in their eyes.

So the incredible numbers began stacking up in March and April. Along with the large, more predictable turnouts, came 500,000 in Dallas, Texas (really) and Washington, DC; 60,000 in Atlanta; 50,000 in conservative Sacramento; 20,000 in Phoenix. You could hear the same comment in many cities: "We were stunned by the outpouring"; "Plans were launched just eight days before the event and we hoped for a few thousand." The turn-out in small or more isolated locations was also amazing: 5,000 in Wichita, 6,000 in Des Moines, 6,000 in Homestead, Florida, and 4,000 in Siler City, North Carolina. In Garden City, Kansas 3,000 came out, including one woman with a sign that said: "Columbus didn’t have a green card." 

Actions for immigrant rights have also been mounted in Latin America, especially Mexico, where millions reportedly boycotted McDonald’s, Starbucks, Walmex, and other gringo strongholds on May 1. The Frente Zapatista sponsored a march to the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana and on to the border, which they shut down for three hours, all to support the huelga (strike) in the U.S., along with the struggles for worker justice in Mexico. Reports of Border Patrol agents having dogs bite migrant workers increased the turnout. 

Observers in U.S. cities agreed that Spanish-language radio, and sometimes TV, had been largely responsible for the numbers, along with Internet communication among youth. Catholic Church support was an encouraging force in many areas, including Los Angeles, where one million demonstrated on March 25. Cardinal Roger Mahoney had said that if federal laws were passed making it illegal to assist undocumented immigrants, he would instruct priests in his archdiocese to disobey the law (later he said "don’t boycott"). Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive director of the AFL-CIO, denounced HR 4437 and called for recognizing immigrants as full members of society with full mobility that employers may not exploit. We could add: don’t forget the millions of dollars that undocumented workers and consumers pay in taxes. 

HR 4437, which passed the House on December 16, 2005, was the legal framework for a pogrom, as one observer said. It was not alone for long. From Republican Senators Cornyn (TX) and Kyl (AZ) came S 1438 that included big crackdowns and a large guest worker program, which is widely recognized as similar to past bracero programs as a form of indentured servitude. Another bill in the House, proposed by Tom Tancredo (R-CO), calls for the expulsion of all undocumented immigrants. He also wanted to deny citizenship to children born in the U.S. of undocumented immigrants. 

The McCain-Kennedy "Secure America" bill presented in both Houses—with complicated, long-term requirements, including paying $2,000 in fines and 6 years of conditional status—was supported by major unions, including SEIU and the UFW, religious groups, and others. The most respectful bill came from Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee, an African American from Texas, but it could find no sponsor in the Senate. It did not include guest workers, long favored by George Bush. 

The last minute Hagel-Martinez "compromise bill" failed to pass. Along with saying immigrants who had been here two years or less would have to leave and could come back only as guest workers, it left the door open to amendments from Sensenbrenner. There would be no further action until Congress reconvened on April 24 after a recess, with another recess from May 20-June 6. 

Building A Climate Of Fear 

I n the days before May 1 efforts to build a climate of fear among immigrants accelerated. On March 28 in Detroit 21 Mexican immigrants were fired from their jobs at the Wolverine meat-packing company for missing work to attend a rally. In April rumors of roundups to punish those who had attended protests spread from New York to New Mexico. In Florida 183 undocumented immigrant "fugitives" were arrested. Out of fear, many did not go to work, send their children to school, or even ride the bus. Representative Terrance Carroll, a Black Denver lawmaker, received an email threatening him with being lynched for an anti-Minutemen statement he had made. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa received death threats for his support of the protests and a Mexican restaurant in San Diego was burned down—for being Mexican. 

The biggest repressive threat came when 1,178 supposedly undocumented workers for the IFCO crate and pallet company, based in Houston, were fired and arrested at different plant locations across the country by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), which replaces the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) and the Customs Service. The fact that new laws pending in Congress might have disallowed such action was ignored. The IFCO raids are part of an ICE plan called "Endgame," which states that the Bush administration’s aim is to remove all deportable migrants by 2012. May we call it ethnic cleansing? 

HR 4437 had already invoked the war on terror with its name, The Border Protection, Anti-terrorism and Illegal Control Act. Now we have ICE, a branch of Homeland Security—our supposed defender in "the war on terror"—with huge powers over immigrants. Depicting immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador as likely terrorists is key to the game. Even "liberal" Senator Ted Kennedy said not long ago that our "immigration problems directly threaten national security." This concern is taken so seriously that Senate Republicans passed a bill shortly before May 1 to divert $1.9 billion from the war on Iraq to border security for Arizona.

The saddest example of what fear can do is the fate of 14-year-old Anthony Soltero, a U.S.-born 8th grader and top student in Ontario, California. He helped organize a student walkout from his school for immigrant rights shortly after the huge March 25 demonstration in LA. It was one of innumerable student walkouts across the country. On March 30 Anthony was called into an administrator’s office about the walkout and told he could be barred from attending graduation, his mother could be fined $250 for his truancy, and he could go to jail for 3 years. Anthony went home, called his mother and told her about the threats, and killed himself with his father’s gun. 

By late April certain changes could be detected in the preparations for the National Day Without Immigrants general strike and boycott scheduled for May 1, long a workers’ rights day across Latin America and the world. The call had gone out to boycott work, school, and buying or selling. Politicians like Mayor Villaraigosa and some church and union leaders suggested a less radical approach. Some Latino DJs who had energetically called for demonstrations up to then reportedly began urging listeners to join after-work protests for fear that a walkout could trigger animosity from politicians and the public. 

The call had gone out earlier to carry U.S. flags to affirm the desire to be recognized as part of this society. But now there was a stronger emphasis on "avoiding a backlash" (as if the lash had not been in action for a long time). Some commentators said that one section of the movement’s middle-class leadership had become overly cautious. 

Different sectors took different positions on the boycott. San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer said, "If some want to boycott and others want to march, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we stay united to achieve justice for the immigrants because we have to continue struggling together after May 1." His stand was echoed by Episcopalians, Buddhists, Chinese Presbyterians, and a Jewish Rabbi who remembered his grandfather’s arrival in the U.S.: "He learned three things. One, the streets were not paved with gold; two, they were not paved at all; and three, he had to pave them." Dolores Huerta, long an icon of working-class Mexicans, took the position held by many: "Do what you feel comfortable doing." 

The economic effects of the boycott nationwide are very hard to judge. Whole streets of businesses were totally dead on May 1 in some areas. Workers did not show up by the thousands, with sympathetic employers giving them permission to stay away in many cases. In Los Angeles the head of its Economic Development Council gave a preliminary estimate of $52 million in losses, possibly $100 million. At LA ports, 70 percent of merchandise delivery was halted. But no one claims that the boycott dealt a serious blow to the economy overall. It did make people more aware of the important role played by immigrant workers and consumers. 

Black Support, Yes or No? 

I n the course of the immigrant rights struggle, relations between working-class Latinos and African Americans have been debated more intensely than ever before. There has long been tension between the two populations. Half of California’s African Americans voted for the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994. Recently there have been Black objections to the current wave of immigrant protest being called "the new civil rights movement." "We died for that," some will say angrily. Others declare, and there is truth in this, "Latinos just don’t come to us for support," and even, "They don’t like us," in ways implying racist prejudice. 

The tension has focused primarily on the African American belief that immigrants are taking away jobs. According to a Pew Hispanic Center study, 33 percent of Blacks say this is true. Various studies conclude that this is mainly true only on the level of low-income work, but the feeling persists along with the belief that immigrants depress wages by accepting low incomes. On the other hand, Jesse Jackson asserts that the real source of Black job loss is not immigrants but outsourcing or simple disappearance. 


Up to May 1, on the national scene the NAACP, the Urban League, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton have taken strong supportive positions in public. The NAACP points out that for decades it has defended the rights of African and Haitian immigrants. On March 31 it called for Congress to enact immigration reform "without a primary focus on the enforcement approach that includes building a 700-mile wall, a campaign of mass deportation and the criminalization of undocumented workers." However, its list of specific principles to be observed did not oppose repressive guest worker programs. 

Among government officials, the Congressional Black Caucus has supported the Kennedy-McCain bill. Black Congressperson Bobbie Rush of Illinois supported special legislation to help Illinois immigrant families and spoke at a Chicago rally for immigrant rights. Senator Baraka Osama from Illinois agreed to support rights for immigrants if their advocates would support job rights for those with criminal records—which includes many Blacks. 

At a press conference in South Los Angeles on April 29, Reverend Lewis Logan, pastor of an AME church, Nation of Islam minister Tony Muhammad, and other African Americans declared that Blacks and Latinos had long had common goals in the struggle against racism; that immigrants should not be made into the new slaves. So on one day the headlines read, "Immigrant Crusade Enlists Few Blacks," and the next day, "Polls, leaders say many blacks support illegal immigrants." The issue of Black opposition to immigrants goes back and forth, but is under much closer public examination today than in the past. That holds out hope for support, especially if there is more outreach from Latinos and as understanding grows that the basic issue is the racist exploitation of workers. That concept is also the basis for current efforts to bring local Black and imported Latino workers together in the reconstruction of New Orleans where tension between the two has also existed. 

"Sí Se Puede in Spanish means We Shall Overcome," Jesse Jackson said on April 30, speaking to the Black-brown solidarity that could and should be built as the fight for immigrant rights proceeds. 

Where Are The Asian And White Folks?     

O nly about 8 to 10 percent of the Asian population is in the U.S. without proper papers, compared with more than 20 percent of Latinos, who also account for 78 percent of the nation’s "illegal" immigrants compared to 13 percent from Asia. So it is not surprising to find small numbers of Asian-origin demonstrators supporting the demand for immigrant rights, although some Chinese Americans did come out for the various protests in New York and San Francisco. Filipinos have higher rates of "illegals" and are more supportive of the struggle for immigrant rights. A survey of Koreans in New York City, where 15,000 live below the poverty level, found that 28 percent of the respondents were undocumented. Koreans are also supporting current protests more energetically than others. 

In general Asian Americans say their priority is to ensure that the issue of more family visas does not get shortchanged in the current debate. They face very long waits; for example, Filipino siblings of U.S. citizens must wait 23 years. Anti-immigration groups strongly oppose expanded family visa provisions. 

 A recent poll sponsored by New American Media, an ethnic media consortium, showed that 39 percent of Asian immigrants favored deporting all "illegal" immigrants. But Asian American activists stress the need to work with Latinos to avoid pitting the two communities against each other over legalization versus more family visas. Many South Asians in particular are worried about current provisions in several bills now before Congress that affirm the right of local police to enforce immigration law. They remember how the 9/11 attack prompted hate crimes and ethnic profiling directed at Pakistanis and other South Asians. The same feeling exists among Palestinians and Arabs, who came to the marches in Detroit and Chicago. 

Karin Wang of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles, said, "Many in the Asian community didn’t realize they have a stake in the current conversation, but now there is sudden interest." 

White people have not been that visible as supporters of immigrant rights actions up to now, not even social justice activists who could be expected to participate. Yet there are many undocumented Irish, Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian immigrants here without papers and some did come to actions in Chicago. Recognizing the problem, two Bay Area anti-racist groups—the Catalyst Project and the Heads Up Collective—put out a letter urging anti-racist whites to raise their voices. Their message emphasizes a key aspect of the whole struggle. "We’re fighting two racist agendas: big businesses need to keep a vulnerable pool of exploitable labor…and the blatant, organized racist desire to preserve white political dominance…. Let’s build upon the legacy of anti-racist white people who have refused to participate in divide-and-control strategies where the ruling class historically uses race to pit us against each other." 


Where Do We Go From Here? 

T he first step is seeing that the key issue is the exploitation of workers and that it is racist. The recent mobilizations are in essence a defensive reaction to proposed legislation and have not yet developed an agenda of more pro-active demands. But it is hard to imagine that everyone will quiet down and go home soon for lack of a strategy for the future. One possibility is that no new legislation will pass before the November elections. That might be just as well, allowing more time to organize, strategize, and register new Latino voters. Those new voters, especially from among the energetic and militant youth—all high schools in Oakland, for example, were almost totally emptied on May 1—are a major goal of many forces. 

The Republicans are very divided on the immigration issue, with Bush unable to count on support or even to be sure of what he wants that might pass. The Christian Right, a Republican bulwark, is also divided between a commitment to Christian compassion for the weak and seeing immigrants as a burden and a threat to "American culture" (according to two-thirds of white evangelicals). It is possible to imagine a new political landscape initiated by the immigrant rights movement. 

We should keep a special eye on work being done in Chicago. For example, the Centro Sin Fronteras was largely responsible for getting the 26 IFCO workers arrested in Chicago freed on their own recognizance. Headed by Emma Lozano, whose brother helped mount the Latino support that helped elect Mayor Harold Washington years back, the Centro is now working on new plans. They include helping to build a huge moratorium in Washington, DC around May 19 against any more raids or arrests under existing laws, since new ones are under discussion. Other plans involving many groups include an appeal to human rights at the OAS meeting scheduled for early June in the Dominican Republic. 

We should also keep watch on Latin America where more and more left-leaning forces have come into state power. The possibility of their programs helping to inspire a new vision and strategy for pro-immigrant forces in the U.S. can be imagined. For those who doubt this bold notion, we can only say: who could have imagined what Latinos have done in the last three months? SÍ se puede!  

Elizabeth Martinez is a Chicana writer, activist, and teacher. She co-founded the Institute for Multi-racial Justice to help build alliances between communities of color. Martinez is the author of six books and numerous articles. Her best-known work is 500 Years of  Chicano History . Her latest book is De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century .