The wave of xenophobia that swept this country’s political landscape in the early-to-mid 1990s produced poisonous ballot initiatives and draconian federal laws. In addition, however, it galvanized a new movement led by immigrants themselves, united around a common demand: legalization of the undocumented. Since the AFL-CIO’s historic decision in February 2000 to embrace undocumented workers, the pace of organizing in immigrant communities has accelerated, spawning marches of unprecedented size, pathbreaking multiracial alliances and ambitious plans for the future. In the words of veteran immigration policy analyst Charles Kamasaki of the National Council of La Raza, “We’ve never seen anything like this.”
Hardly anyone doubts that a fundamental change in immigration policy is on the horizon in the coming decade. But it is still unclear what shape that change will take. In the debate, immigrant community organizations across the country–working alongside but independently of organized labor–will play a critical role. “We’re seeing a major push for temporary guestworker programs coming from the business sector, and organized labor strongly advocating for legalization of undocumented workers already in this country,” says Josh Bernstein of the National Immigration Law Center. “But it is grassroots immigrant leadership that is really willing to go beyond both these agendas to make legalization a larger question of social and economic justice.”
In Illinois, cross-racial alliances have fueled a groundswell of support for immigrant legalization. Denise Dixon, an African-American food service worker born and raised in south Chicago, remembers meeting the night before that city’s September 23 legalization march. “We heard it was going to rain,” recalls Dixon, now president of Chicago ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). “We knew the mayor was having another event, and all the media were going over there. We kept our fingers crossed that we’d get 3,000 people. Nobody was prepared for the 10,000 that showed up.” The march turned out to be the largest mobilization in Chicago since 1968. And, to the surprise of many, 1,000 of those marching were blacks. “People expected the undocumented to come out for themselves,” says Dixon. “But they didn’t expect African-Americans to be standing next to them.”
This show of strength was the product of years of coalition-building. ACORN and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights are both members of the two-year-old Grassroots Collaborative, made up of eleven community and labor organizations that work together on campaigns around the living wage and healthcare for the uninsured. As legalization became a top priority for the Illinois Coalition, Maricela Garcia, its director and a driving force behind the march, asked Collaborative members including ACORN to support it. “At first, a lot of African-Americans had misconceptions about what immigrant rights were,” says Dixon. “They’d say ‘Immigrants are working two and three jobs, taking jobs away from African-Americans.’ I’d tell them, ‘They wouldn’t be working two and three jobs if they were getting decent wages.’ Or they’d say, ‘Immigrants aren’t poor; you never see them down at the welfare office.’ So I’d explain that undocumented immigrants aren’t even eligible for welfare.” Dixon also invited immigrants to come to ACORN meetings. “People started to see that amnesty doesn’t just affect immigrants. If a company can hire immigrants at lower than minimum wage, it hurts everyone.” After a month of discussion, ACORN members voted unanimously to support legalization.