Under a white tent on the Francisco de Miranda Air Force Base in the La Carlota neighborhood of this Venezuelan metropolis, immigrant leaders from all over the hemisphere debated and discussed immigration policies, critiquing the obsession with national security that has warped the debate over reform and laying out their alternative visions. Filling the sultry, jet fuel-infused air on the base with Caribbean, Colombian, Brazilian Portuguese and other accents, speaker after speaker denounced the social exclusion faced by immigrants–and immigrant advocates–from Alaska to Patagonia. And more than a few railed against El Muro de la Muerte (the Wall of Death), which has already killed thousands–and will kill thousands more if the US Congress passes the Sensenbrenner immigration bill. The bill, which has set off alarms in immigrant communities, would make it a crime (rather than a civil violation) to be undocumented or to offer aid to the undocumented. It would also turn local police into enforcers of immigration law and extend the Wall of Death along 700 miles of the US-Mexican border.
On the sidelines, Chris Jimenez squirmed and grimaced, preparing to lash out at the Sixth World Social Forum (Foro) here in Caracas. He fidgeted as colleagues sitting beneath the giant tent housing the panel on “Migration Policy, Discrimination and Xenophobia” described how immigration policy in countries like Costa Rica, Ecuador and even liberal-left Brazil is starting to resemble the militarized and racist policy of the United States. Finally, Jimenez, an immigrants-rights activist with the American Friends Service Committee, stood up and described the two-front war he and others face behind the Muro. “We’re fighting the Minutemen at the border in California. We also have to deal with racism within our movement,” he declared. And then, as if pointing to some invisible figure standing next to him, he added, “None of the whites who spoke on behalf of the US delegation at the opening ceremonies of the Foro remembered to mention the more than 35 million immigrants in the United States.”
Though Jimenez and other immigrant advocates spent a considerable amount of time analyzing the myopia, limits and dangers of US immigration policy, the bulk of their time at the Foro was reserved for a more transcendental matter: how to globalize the debate around and practice of immigration policy. Jimenez and more than thirty immigrant leaders descended on the Foro with a mission to link their US struggle to a resurgent, insurgent Latin American left that is electing presidents (think of the recent inauguration of indigenous leader Evo Morales in Bolivia and the election of Chile’s first socialist woman President, Michelle Bachelet), defeating US-sponsored free-trade agreements and calling for integración desde abajo (integration from below) as the way to solve immigration and other issues in the hemisphere.
Foro participants like Jimenez explored and proposed alternatives to the punitive, security-focused approach of politicos and governments defending integración desde arriba (integration from above), which allows goods but not people to move freely across borders. The proposals and concrete projects shared over intense sessions, replete with food, cigarettes and music and lasting well into the evening, represented participants’ best efforts to make real the theme of the Foro: Another World Is Possible. US representatives of some of the hometown associations that send more than $45 billion annually to build and sustain towns and entire regions regaled their southern homologues with stories of how they are doing the work that was supposed to be done by national governments and agencies like USAID, which budgeted less than $746 million in Latin American aid for the 2006 fiscal year. In turn, South American activists described how they demanded–and secured–agreements allowing for the free movement of people between Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile and Bolivia as part of the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) trade agreement. Together, the US Foro delegates and their Latin American peers plan to continue and expand joint binational and multinational lobbying efforts leveraging the power of US and other Latin American immigrant communities to influence governments of the Southern Cone–and the United States. Their radical vision was perhaps best embodied by proposals for a hemispheric citizenship along the lines of the European model.
But those who believe another world of immigration policy is possible are also muy pragmáticos about how to get there. Oscar Chacón, leader of the US Latino immigrant delegation and of Enlaces America, sees “three great obstacles” to a more enlightened US debate. The first, he says, is the “racism and xenophobia” within the mostly white-led immigrants-rights movement in the United States. Though they are the friends and allies of immigrant-led organizations, the leaders of Beltway-based religious and nonprofit immigration-reform organizations often fail to consider the ideas and proposals of immigrant leaders and their organizations. Chacón expressed dismay that those white leaders, who see themselves and are seen by many as the experts on immigration reform, “underestimate the capacity of people like me.” These tendencies, he said, “can often lead to the exclusion from the debate of those most impacted by the policies.” The second obstacle, he explained, is the “obsolete policy-making system” in the United States. “Just look at Congress. Immigration policy made in the House or Senate Judiciary Committee has no relationship to the Committee [on International Relations] or Western Hemisphere Subcommittee.” Making things worse, he added, “is that most of the ‘immigrant rights advocates’ submit themselves to this silo approach to public policy.” The third obstacle, according to Chacón, is the limitations on debate imposed by what he calls the “nation-state paradigm,” which defines immigration as an issue to be dealt with by individual countries. “Immigration is a global issue with global causes and requires a global solution,” Chacón said.
What makes the contributions of immigrant leaders unique and powerful is that their theoretical and practical frameworks are backed up by organic community and political links–and lived experience. Chacón says he came to better understand the global context of immigration after he and his family were persecuted by Salvadoran death squads in the early 1980s. He became an immigrant in the country that paid for and trained the death squads that had forced him to migrate in the first place. Like many Salvadorans, Colombians, Ecuadoreans and other Foro participants, he started making the cold war connection between the US foreign policy that forced migration and the domestic immigration policy that denied, for example, most Salvadorans and Guatemalans the political asylum granted to Cubans, Vietnamese and others fleeing governments deemed enemies of the United States. Despite the leftward tilt of governments in the hemisphere, Chacón and other Foro participants acknowledge that there’s still much organizing to do in order to get to policies that will tear down the US equivalent of the Great Wall, the Berlin wall and other walls propped up by previous empires in decline. “In the Western Hemisphere the US approach of criminalizing immigrants, framing the issue as one of ‘national security,’ has been exported to other countries,” Chacón said. “In the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico and others, you see governments adopting this punitive approach that has already proven itself a complete failure.” Presentations by the South American Foro delegates stirred the memories and passions of several of the Latino immigrant leaders from the United States. US delegate Mirta Colon was riveted by the stories of Colombians pushed out of their country by the US-sponsored Plan Colombia, a policy that many here believe conflates drug cartels with guerrilla groups–and now immigrants. Colon, an AIDS activist in the Bronx originally from Honduras, was reminded of how US foreign policy sparked the migration en masse of hundreds of thousands of her compatriots in the 1980s. In the same way that US anticommunism back then made enemies out of students, nuns, campesinos and others, today US antidrug and counterinsurgency policies in Latin America are creating new classes of enemies, including immigrants swept up in the “war on terror.”
As a working-class black immigrant woman, Colon strikes a sharp contrast with the middle-class white male citizens who debate the left and right positions in Washington and on US TV. “If we [immigrants] do not get involved in the debate, the debate will remain simple and things will get even worse,” she said. “Who else understands the complexities? The voice of immigrants needs to be heard–and not just on immigration issues.” She and several Foro colleagues agreed to participate in several initiatives, including a spring delegation of US immigrant leaders to Mexico and Central America. Colon and the delegation will demand that the Mexican and Central American governments take more active roles in the US immigration policy debate.
“We’re just starting to tap the power of working together,” said Chacón, who is also leading the spring delegation. “The moral power of our group is highly untapped.” In the long term, says Chacón, participation in the Foro is critical to developing leadership that’s able to think and act both locally and globally, which is needed to combat the effects of top-down globalization on Latin America’s more than 222 million poor, 96 million of whom live on less than $1 a day. “It’s important for those of us from Latin America to come back and recharge our batteries, exchange ideas and organize with the incredibly brilliant, inspired, committed people here. Having them [US immigrant leaders] away from their daily work, kidnapped for a week here, is invaluable for future work.”
But not all the members of Chacón’s delegation shared his perspective when they first arrived in the land that is, as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, sporting his signature red guayabera, told Foro participants, at the center of the revolución Bolivariana sweeping the continent.
When he first saw banners saying “Viva el Marxismo-Leninismo” at a Foro march of thousands against the US war in Iraq, Efrain Jimenez, a former undocumented mechanic recently elected vice president of the Los Angeles-based Zacatecan Federation of Southern California, wasn’t so keen on the Foro idea. “It was the first march I ever went to,” said the 31-year-old Jimenez, who was born in the hamlet of La Villita in Nochistlán, Zacatecas, Mexico. “I didn’t really agree with some of the slogans. But then I saw other banners I could agree with, like ones that were for indigenous people and for women’s rights, and I started feeling more comfortable.”
After several days of exchanges with immigrants-rights activists from Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and other countries, Jimenez had an even stronger epiphany: “We’re all in the same boat. We’re all fighting for our rights, for a better way of life.” This realization bodes ill for a Bush Administration bent on maintaining a corporate and military lid on Latin America–and on Latinos in the United States. To watch the exchange between the pragmatic and development-focused Jimenez and the more politically focused Caribbean and Central and South American activists was to witness the birth of another variant of globalization-from-below power politics in the hemisphere. “Large masses of people marching is important. But you also have to have concrete actions, hechos. You need to combine both.” Jimenez shared with his Foro colleagues how his federation, which is part of a larger national confederation of Zacatecans, wields immense economic and political clout in Mexico and, increasingly, in the United States. “Zacatecanos in the US send millions of dollars to build roads, schools, parks, churches and other projects. Last year, we financed 340 projects and 240 scholarships for students of different ages,” Jimenez said. He described how Zacatecan hometown associations in the States banded together to force the Mexican government to match their contributions in what’s known as the 3 for 1 Program, in which local, state and federal governments each match dollar for dollar the money sent from the US residents.
Jimenez returned to the United States from the Foro with a new appreciation of the importance of the frente unido sprouting among US Latino, Latin American and, especially, immigrant dreamers of worlds without walls. On a more practical, realpolitik level, he had a renewed sense of the urgent need to combine movements around politics and economics and was impressed by the passion and civismo (civic participation) of Cubans he saw at the Foro. “I came back asking myself, How can we motivate Zacatecans to get out on the street and denounce and vote with the passion for politics that the Cubans have? It [the Foro] was a beautiful experience, and makes me want to continue building networks with others.”
“The [US] wall, the Wall of Death, is a monument to the incapacity of governments to solve the problems of their people,” says Jimenez, adding, “That’s not a solution. We are part of the solution.”