Gran Marcha and Beyond

Editorial published in Against the Current #122, May/June

Photo: Los Angeles Times

MARCH 26, 2006 MARKED an eruption that hit the streets, showed its strength, and took everyone including its participants by surprise. Millions marched all over the country: 300,000 in Chicago, 50,000 in Denver, 10,000 in Detroit and Milwaukee, 10-20,000 in New York, 20,000 in Phoenix -- and somewhere between 500,000 and a million in the “Gran Marcha” in Los Angeles. As the U.S. Congress and Senate hold their wretched deliberations on “immigration reform,” the communities affected have shown they will not be passive objects, but active subjects, in this debate.

On the day of the Gran Marcha the white liberal left seemed to have missed the mobilization and didn't know to meet downtown at Olympic and Broadway at 10am. Why? Well if you didn't listen to mostly Spanish language media (but Korean too) and didn't read La Opinion, or didn't tune into Pacifica radio KPFK all week, well, you probably missed the news.

The non-English media and the Catholic Church played a major role in mobilizing people for these marches. Spanish language media promoted the march continuously for ten days. (See accompanying article by Daniel Hernandez in this issue.) Cardinal Roger Mahony, who heads the largest Catholic archdiocese in the nation, came out against the Sensenbrenner Bill as a violation of Christian principles, affirming that the mission of the church was to aid the poor.

Mahony is a latecomer to this position; in the 1980s and 90s he opposed Padre Luis Olivares’ work in providing refuge and sanctuary to the poor and undocumented. Olivares’ sermons regularly quoted from Leviticus 19:33-34, "And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt." It took fifteen years for Cardinal Mahony to realize that Latinos are the present and future of the Catholic Church in California (75 percent of the Southern California archdiocese of five million is Latino).

Student Walkout

On March 28 came the students’ turn. Forty thousand Los Angeles high school students walked out of their classrooms, continuing the wave of protest against measures that propose to turn their families into felons. If Spanish language media contributed to the gigantic turnout on March 25, text-messaging and MySpace helped create a collective walkout that surpassed the famous Chicano walkout of 1968 as well as the walkouts of 1994 -- and faced police violence and suspension.

The LA Unified School District imposed a lockdown that afternoon, but students continued walking out all week. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- who supported the Gran Marcha -- disappointed students by urging them to go back to their classrooms. KPFK broadcast live a four-hour town hall Student Speakout on March 31st that featured passionate and articulate students explaining their actions and expressing their views.

The Realities of Immigration

There are persistent myths about “illegal immigration” in this country:

  • The debate focuses mainly on Mexican immigrants, but in fact only about half the illegal worker population is Mexican. Another 10-15% are other Latinos. The Gran Marcha was overwhelmingly Latino, but there were many other contingents. One in five Koreans is undocumented and they had a contingent; Filipinos marched as well as Irish.
  • We’re told that organized labor won't support the undocumented who, the Republicans keep telling us, undercut middle class American living standards and access to jobs. Historically there’s truth in this. But one of the strongest institutional supports to the march in Los Angeles was none other than the Service Employees (SEIU), whose spectacular growth in the last decade plus was due to organizing low wage service workers, mostly undocumented, and UNITE-HERE who have organized hotel and restaurant workers.
  • Illegal immigrants supposedly use public services but contribute little to the economy and tax base. The most pernicious myth is that women cross the border to have babies born in America, while others come to collect welfare. Not only is this false, but people know it: In fact most Americans see undocumented workers as very hard working (80% according to a Pew Hispanic Research Center report) and only 4% of the population thinks illegal immigration is a pressing problem. The same study reveals that the population is seriously divided over what to do -- give the immigrants green cards (40%) or deport them (53%). In a CNN poll released on April 3, 70% said they feel sympathetic toward illegal immigrants.

Amnesty, Legalization and Open Borders

The Sensenbrenner bill (HR 4437) is about as pointless as it is vicious -- except as an organizing tool for the far right. This backlash bill would further drive undocumented workers underground and to the margins of society. It’s not only Californians who depend on the work and skills of these essential workers. The Senate’s attempt to come up with a more “moderate” bill that creates a guest worker program, favored by Bush, could be the carrot to Sensenbrenner's stick.

The debate is a potential political disaster for the Republicans, four of whom – Senators Sam Brownback, Mike DeWine, Lindsay Graham and Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter -- sided with Democrats on the issue. Senator Frist forced the debate because he is currying favor with the far right in the party for his own Presidential bid.

President Bush sits in the middle because he knows that passing the infamous anti-immigrant Prop 187 made the Republican Party radioactive in California and destroyed Governor Pete Wilson's political career. For Bush, who has immigrants in his family, comes from a border state and wants Latinos in the Republican Party, a “guest worker” program is perfect because it answers the need of employers for a contingent, low-wage labor force that will be rotated out before it can organize.

In fact, this is no solution at all. What’s needed is immediate legal status for immigrant workers, and a clear and uncomplicated (and inexpensive) path to U.S. citizenship for those who desire it.

The Congressional debate reveals the cleavages in the Republican Party and their search for a hot button issue every bit as anger-producing as abortion. The Sensenbrenner bill is a call to action to rouse the racist anti-immigrant hysteria. The campaign has been building. One year ago the Minutemen Vigilantes began their watch on the borders in California and Arizona. As Marc Cooper has reported in the LA Weekly and The Nation, the Minutemen vigilantes on the borders were miniscule, outnumbered by the media reporters, vans and cameras hyping them to the public. Four hundred news stories followed the “border blockade” by thirty to two hundred Minutemen. When did any small left demonstration get such media attention?

California's number one immigrant, Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger joined the debate with an op-ed in the LA Times on March 28, positioning himself to the right of Bush but still in the center on this debate. He wrote, “Criminalizing immigrants for coming here is a slogan, not a solution," yet “granting citizenship to people who are here illegally is not just amnesty... it’s anarchy.” Republican leaders like National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and others have suddenly discovered the disappearing middle class, low wage jobs and loss of benefits -- and blamed the undocumented for taking the jobs on offer. For the record, Rohrabacher thinks prisoners should be put to work in the fields. The Democrats have been little better on this issue, worrying that if they utter the word “amnesty” they will lose all future elections.

The Senate bill -- seen as a moderate response to the House bill -- is supported by moderate Republicans and many Democrats. The Guest worker program in the bill is no answer -- it institutionalizes permanent exclusion of part of the labor force, and places huge financial and bureaucratic burdens on the process of becoming legal.

Too Many Silences

The Civil Rights leaders and the Black Congressional Caucus have largely been MIA in this debate. A dirty secret of Prop 187 in California in 1994 was that while polls showed Blacks opposing the measure, 55% voted for it. Many poor African Americans blame illegal immigrants for their poor job prospects. New studies affirm that young Black men have done worse than Black women, Latinos, Asians and whites (see Malik Miah’s column in this issue) and often angrily blame illegal immigrants for their poor employment opportunities.

While many see the gigantic marches of immigrants as the new Civil Rights movement, silence among Black leaders on this subject can only contribute to pitting the African American poor against low-waged undocumented workers, instead of joining forces to demand better wages, benefits and decent jobs.

Globalizing Poverty

Neoliberal economic policies have increased poverty and desperation throughout Latin America, and NAFTA did not benefit impoverished Mexican workers. It depressed their wages – in particular, destroying Mexican farming as low-cost food from subsidized U.S. agribusiness has flooded the market -- and accelerated the immigration wave. The wage differential between the US and Mexico is eleven to one, and twenty to one in the agricultural sector.

Stanford historian David Kennedy notes that the income gap between the US and Mexico is the largest between any two contiguous countries in the world and that produces massive demand in the US that is matched by a massive supply from Mexico and Central America. Quoted in the Washington Post, Kennedy noted that any attempt by governments to come between these two forces by increasing enforcement does not work –- just as it hasn’t with drug trafficking.

Let’s be clear on this issue. We are in favor of amnesty, legalization and open borders. Right now the borders are essentially open (to illegal traffic) but dangerous. The trek to the North has increased since the passage of NAFTA in 1994. Mexicans are joined by Central American workers and peasants who face a harrowing and dangerous trip through Mexico and another perilous journey through the hot Arizona or California desert. Many more have died crossing the border since NAFTA was enacted than ever died crossing the Berlin Wall.

The enforcement measures being proposed in both bills -- either more border police or a wall -- will only make the journey deadlier, not stop it.

In the era of globalization, capital moves freely and instantaneously across borders. Yet labor faces border patrols, police, super-exploitation in the workplace and fear of deportation. The drive for ever higher profits has led to a higher level of exploitation of the American worker, the increased use of unprotected immigrant labor -- and super-exploited workers in China, India and elsewhere.

The realities of exploitation in the United States create openings for organizing. Unions should follow the lead of SEIU and UNITE-HERE, organize the undocumented and the low-paid, and press for reforms that are beneficial to all workers whatever their immigration status.

[This editorial statement was drafted by Suzi Weissman of our editorial board. Thanks also to Gustavo Arrellano for the reference to Padre Luis Olivares.]