‘A Fair and Just Amnesty’

‘A Fair and Just Amnesty’

A grassroots movement for immigrant legalization is gathering strength.


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.”

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.

Grassroots pressure is also mounting for access to higher education for undocumented youth. In California, groups like the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles have built strong support for new legislation that would allow undocumented students with three years of high school in the state to qualify for in-state tuition, instead of facing prohibitive out-of-state fees. “We’ve been fighting this battle for years,” says Angelica Salas of CHIRLA. “But it’s really taking off now as part of the larger struggle for legalization. People see these bright young people locked out of higher education, and they get a whole new image of who is undocumented and what the consequences are for them and the whole society.”

Organizers in other states, including Georgia, Texas and Illinois, are also pushing for changes in state tuition rules. Many are hopeful that Congress will soon take up the higher-education issue with new legislation offering legalization to in-school youth. “This issue really clicks with people,” says Rosita Choy of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “It would be a great interim victory.”

The legalization movement is gaining new allies in other organizing networks, such as the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, a coalition pushing for restoration of safety net programs cut by the 1996 welfare law. “A new legalization policy would be one of the most important antipoverty policies we could enact,” says Deepak Bhargava of NCJIS. “Since most undocumented immigrants live in families with legal immigrants or citizens, the impact would be really broad. If we’re serious about building a strong multiracial economic justice movement, then legalization has to be on the table.”

Activists are planning immigrant delegations to key members of Congress this spring and summer, seeking to breathe political life into the only existing federal legalization bill. Known as the Gutierrez bill (after Illinois Democrat Luis Gutierrez, who introduced it), it would create significant new legalization opportunities over the next five years, increase opportunities for legal immigrants bringing in family members and establish a task force on immigrant worker exploitation.

Internally, the movement must wrestle with some difficult issues, like how to craft an inclusive agenda that attracts a multiracial cross section of immigrants. According to Katie Quan, a policy specialist at the Center for Labor Research and Education in Berkeley, California, Chinese immigrant communities have distinct interests. “The proportion of undocumented tends to be lower, so while Chinese immigrants can understand the need for legalization, a more immediate concern is in expanding ‘family reunification’ for legal immigrants,” says Quan. Ai-Jen Poo, an organizer with New York City’s Women Workers Project of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, says that her organization is careful not to focus on legalization at the expense of other efforts. “In our Chinatown Justice Project, the rights of the undocumented are a huge issue,” say Poo. “But massive evictions are the most immediate issue people face. For them, the word ‘legalization’ is as much about the rights of people in ‘illegal’ housing situations as it is about immigration status.”

Finally, the legalization movement must navigate the minefield of race in America, building solidarity where it has sometimes been elusive in the past. “We can’t forget how strongly racism influences public policy, and how successful the right has been in pitting one oppressed group against another,” argues Timothea Howard, an African-American organizer with the National Organizers Alliance and a participant in a recent legalization strategy meeting in Washington, DC. “We have to be careful not to suggest that immigrants are somehow better or more deserving than other people struggling in this country.”

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