Dana Goldstein

Thursday, May 3, 2007

At an immigrant rights rally in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, the diverse grassroots movement that surfaced last year in a spate of street demonstrations reunited with clear legislative goals. Several hundred protesters gathered at Taft Park in front of the U.S. Capitol Building at the rally, which was organized by a group of Asian Pacific American advocacy organizations. Immigrants mobilized May 1 in cities across the country in celebration of “May Day,” an international worker’s rights holiday that originated in nineteenth century America.

Approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants are living in the United States, 1.5 of whom are Asian Pacific American. At the D.C. event, a group of young Korean Americans performed an agricultural dance featuring drums of every shape and size, gongs, and traditional costumes. Their music punctuated calls of “Families united!” and the mantra that emerged during last year’s protests, “Si, se puede!” (“Yes, we can!”).

On the immediate agenda at the Washington rally was pushing Congress to pass the STRIVE and DREAM acts, which together offer a progressive alternative to President Bush’s proposals to create a guest-worker program and do away with visa preferences for foreigners with family members already living in the United States. STRIVE, co-sponsored by Reps. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ.), recognizes that immigrants–even undocumented immigrants–play a crucial role in the American labor market. But instead of relegating foreign laborers to second-class “guest worker” status with no hope of ever achieving citizenship and the rights that come along with it, STRIVE allows approximately 400,000 workers to enter the United States annually on a renewable 3-year work visa. After living in the U.S. for five years and paying a $500 fee, workers and their families become eligible for legal permanent residence. And unlike the White House proposal, STRIVE maintains the United States’ commitment to uniting immigrant families. Currently, some legal immigrants face waits of up to two decades to bring relatives to the United States, due to the huge backlog of applications. Lastly, STRIVE compromises with immigration moderates by strengthening border security and shifting penalties for hiring undocumented immigrants from workers to employers.

One proposal especially important for students is the DREAM act. Each year, 65,000 teenagers graduate from American high schools without legal residency or citizenship status because they were brought to this country by their parents as undocumented immigrants. DREAM allows these students to benefit from private and public scholarships, federal loans, and in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.

Asian American immigrant students especially need to be heard because the “model minority” stereotype can obscure the challenges facing young undocumented students, said Stephanie Kao, program manager for the Hate Crimes Initiative at the OCA, an advocacy organization for Asian Pacific Americans. “And even if they are documented, they need to speak up,” she told Campus Progress. “If not for themselves, then for their parents, who may not be documented”

Indeed, admiration for one’s immigrant parents was a common refrain among the young people at the rally. Antonia Almario, a University of Maryland sophomore who arrived from the Philippines when he was in fifth grade, said he opposed the White House’s immigration reform proposal because, “My parents worked hard, and I want others to have the same opportunities I had. To make that harder would be so unfair”

Maryland sophomore Morgan Yuan, who came to the United States from China in 1990, said he came to the rally to increase the Asian American voice within the immigrant rights movement. “Older generations of Chinese Americans are pretty conservative,” he told Campus Progress. “Our parents were products of the Cultural Revolution, but being raised here, I was raised to know the value of speaking up for myself”

Also out in force were women’s rights activists. “In Asian American families, the men often come first, so the family backlog affects women and children most,” said Jee Park, a member of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum who traveled to the rally from New York. “The man has the right to work and women do undocumented work, which means they are exposed to exploitation”

Undocumented labor also means a lack of healthcare, including access to prenatal services or abortions for pregnant women, said Pauline Chow, a NAPAWF member from Chicago. And even legal immigrant women face challenges in accessing reproductive healthcare. Because many are low-income, they rely on Medicaid, which bars federal funds from being used for abortions.

Immigration is sometimes portrayed as an issue that divides the progressive movement; particularly because low-income native-born workers face competition from immigrant laborers. Hilary Shelton, president of the Washington D.C. Bureau of the NAACP spoke at the rally. Progressive immigration reform should be passed, but alongside “job training, small business development, and universal health care,” Shelton said, all policies that would combat poverty.

A common theme throughout the event was the need to bridge divisions between immigrants and native-born Americans. As one protester’s sign read:

I speak English.
I have studied U.S. history and civics.
I have a clean record.
I pay my taxes.
I am your neighbor.
Don’t I deserve a chance to become a U.S. citizen, too?