Monday, May 4, 2009

Despite low turnout on May Day hopes remain high for immigration reform

By Pepe Lozano
People's Weekly World

CHICAGO – Thousands of immigrant rights advocates marched in cities from coast to coast including here May 1, to honor the most widely celebrated holiday on the planet, International Workers Day. Thousands took to the streets in Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, Denver, Chicago and New York to press for comprehensive immigration reform, a halt to raids and deportations and a path toward legalization for the country’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.

Workers with and without documents, labor unions, religious leaders, students, and community organizations rallied for immigration reform and to celebrate working class unity on May Day. Together they commemorated May 1, 1886 when labor leaders in Chicago fought and died for the eight-hour workday and worker solidarity. Like the 19th Century immigrant activists who fought for workers rights back then, this years marches vowed to continue that legacy proclaiming the U.S. was founded and built by immigrant workers.

Nearly 3,000 people marched throughout the streets of Chicago despite fears of the swine flu outbreak. Chicago’s May Day turnout has steadily diminished since 2006 when millions came out nationwide. Nonetheless organizers in Chicago charge nothing has changed and the fight for immigrant rights is still front and center in 2009.

“This is International Workers Day,” said Jorge Mújica to the crowd at Federal Plaza in Chicago. Mujica was one of the main organizers of the demonstration and said an important message is still getting across despite the low turnout.

“We are American workers – incorporated into the American economy, working in American companies, earning American dollars and paying American taxes,” said Mújica.

Hector Gonzalez is a youth organizer in Chicago and said he was marching for his mother who was deported three times to Mexico before he was born.

“Our voices here today have to be heard in Washington and we’re marching for all the people not here who are hiding behind closed doors,” said Gonzalez. “People are still aware and are not sleeping especially now with President Barack Obama in office,” he said.

Hopes for immigration reform is high now that Democrats control Congress and President Obama has moved into the White House. More than 2,000 people rallied outside the White House calling for a change in immigration policy on May Day.

Last week Obama said he wants to convene an immigration working group that would include Chicago Congressman Luis Gutiérrez who is a staunch advocate of immigrant rights. The Department of Homeland Security announced recently new worksite enforcement guidelines that shift the focus to employers rather than undocumented workers, which is a significant break from the policies under the Bush administration. A Senate Judiciary subcommittee also took up immigration last week for the first time in the new Congress.

“Today is not just about fighting for the legalization of immigrants,” said James Thindwa leader of Chicago Jobs with Justice. “It’s also about the fight to pass the Employee Free Choice Act so that it’s easier for all workers to organize and join unions.”

Jane Ramsey is the executive director with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and said, “We’re here in solidarity with our Muslim, Christian, and Catholic brothers and sisters and all faith based groups to support the rights of undocumented workers.” Ramsey added, “We as Jews understand that it’s part of our prophetic teaching to seek justice for all people.”

Hundreds of Chicago and suburban students missed school to attend the march including 17-year-old Erika Nuñez. Nunez was born in Mexico but came to the U.S. with her parents when she was six-months old. She is currently waiting to become a permanent U.S. resident.

“It’s been real difficult for me to attend college because I can’t get federal aid,” said Nuñez. She wants to study English at a private liberal arts school but can’t afford it.

“I’ve taken AP Government courses and I know more than anyone what it means to be a U.S. citizen,” said Nuñez. “I’m marching today because I support passing the Dream Act which would make it easier for students like me to apply for federal aid,” she said. “I won’t give up because we are part of this country and no human being is illegal.”

Jane Kim, 27, marched with the Korean American Resource Cultural Center and is feeling hopeful that immigration reform will finally pass now that Obama is president.

“A lot of Korean families have to deal with the issue of broken families where mom’s and dad’s are separated from their children,” said Kim. “And it’s unfair for the children who have lived here all their lives,” she said.

Immigrant rights leaders charge immigration raids no matter how sensibly or tactfully redesigned will never fix the broken immigration system. Such workplace raids only make matters worse, they say. Raids do not uphold or reinforce worker’s rights, where employers erode conditions for Americans by hiring workers at deplorable conditions and pay, they point out.

Bad immigration policies do not protect undocumented workers from the arbitrary cruelties of the detention and deportation system, in which due process is limited and detainees face unacceptable risk of sickness, injury and death in prison.

Raising the minimum wage, supporting the right to organize including better health and safety protections and raising the standards for all workers are good steps toward immigration reform that all workers could rally for, they note.

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