'A Fair and Just Amnesty'
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.
After the AFL-CIO announcement came in February 2000, the Illinois Coalition launched a petition drive to gather 25,000 signatures in support of legalization. Ten weeks later, organizers had collected 65,000 signatures. Immigrant rights groups quickly announced plans for the September march and began calling for a City Council resolution endorsing legalization and urging Congress to pass new legislation. Two days after the march, the City Council voted unanimously in favor of the resolution.
Ultimately, Garcia says, the goals of the emerging legalization movement are not only to change current and future immigration policy but to "bring immigrants together with other low-income communities in a new progressive movement."
The AFL-CIO announcement gave a similar boost to immigrant organizing in Oregon. "We had been fighting for legalization for a long time," says Ramon Ramirez, president of PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste) in Woodburn, Oregon. "We saw the AFL announcement as a great opportunity. We saw that it was time to move immigrant rights to another level, to have the maturity to get a broad set of folks together."