'A Fair and Just Amnesty'
In June 2000, Ramirez and other immigrant and union activists convinced the AFL-CIO to sponsor a legalization hearing in Portland that drew 400 people. PCUN then helped convene ten community forums throughout the state. "We asked immigrants, 'What kind of amnesty do you want? What kind of worker rights do you want?'" Farmworkers cited the prevention of a new bracero (guestworker) program as a primary goal. (Bracero refers to the US government program from the 1940s through the early 1960s, which brought in 5 million Mexican migrants as temporary agricultural workers--braceros with no right to organize or change employers and no opportunity for permanent legalization.)
By August 2000, Oregon's legalization movement had produced the largest immigrant mobilization in the state's history, a 3,000-strong march in rural Salem. Emblazoned on the lead banner was the slogan, Stop the Bracero Program and Demand Fair and Just Amnesty. Although the majority of marchers were Latino immigrants and Chicanos, Ramirez believes that their broader social justice agenda and long-term alliance with gay and lesbian organizations helped make the march a success.
"In 1996 we were facing an anti-immigrant ballot initiative, a clone of California's Proposition 187," recalls Ramirez. He and other immigrant rights leaders came up with the idea of meeting with Oregon's gay and lesbian groups, which had defeated a major antigay initiative two years earlier. "At the time, we were in a Latino coalition that included anyone wanting to be part of the fight--Republicans, businesspeople. There was a lot of concern that reaching out to the gay and lesbian community would alienate other Latinos. Ultimately, we decided to take that risk." While some Latinos left the coalition in protest, Ramirez and others began meeting with queer organizations that provided them with strategic planning, contacts and resources.
The result: "We won twice, defeating anti-immigrant measures in 1996 and 1998," says Ramirez, "then beat back an 'English only' initiative in 1999." In return, Latino immigrant organizers mobilized in fall 2000--door-knocking, distributing materials and running Spanish-language radio spots--contributing to the narrow defeat of another antigay measure. According to Marcy Westerling, co-director of the Rural Organizing Project, a leading advocate for gay and lesbian rights in Oregon, their strategy with PCUN has been "to create deliberate crossover movements. We have spent years building a base that recognizes any attack on civil rights as an attack on queer communities. Both PCUN and the Project are trying to do broader work, to build a broader consciousness." Despite Congress's rejection of a farmworker legalization program in December, Ramirez believes "the momentum is on our side. The movement is growing," he says. "There's new leadership emerging. We're in a totally different place than we were ten years ago."
Remarkably enough, the breadth and vigor of the legalization movement has yet to register on the national policy screen. In December, Congress flaunted its insularity by passing piecemeal and mostly temporary restorations of rights eliminated in the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. At the same time, Congress refused to extend legal residency opportunities--the kind it gave to Nicaraguans and Cubans in 1997--to immigrants who fled political and economic upheaval in Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. "The new law provided relief to some people who had been in the process before the rules were changed," explains Sasha Khokha of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "But it did not expand opportunities to legalize in any real way."
Today, organizers across the country are rolling up their sleeves for the years of work ahead. Building on a national legalization gathering in LA last June, immigrant rights leaders have drafted a set of principles to guide them. "Among grassroots leaders, there is broad agreement that legalization cannot be a narrow 'one shot' deal," says Cathi Tactaquin of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "It must be an ongoing process to access permanent residency. Legalization must also be tied to a broader agenda, including elimination of sanctions against hiring undocumented workers, reduction of the backlog for legal immigrants bringing in family members, demilitarization of the US-Mexico border and an end to guestworker programs that exploit workers and tie them to one particular employer." Participants in the June gathering, like Monica Santana of the National Coalition for Amnesty and Dignity, also emphasize that a legalization agenda should reflect the "fundamental economic causes of migration, not just events like natural disasters or wars."
Organizers are using state and local campaigns to build momentum and support for these goals. For example, grassroots efforts to insure that undocumented immigrants have access to driver's licenses have yielded legislation in ten states, including Kansas, Georgia and Tennessee. "People are starting to see undocumented immigrants as people who have been here a long time and are working and building their communities," says Sulma Mercado of Sunflower Community Action in Wichita, an organization leading the driver's license campaign in Kansas.