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Full rights for immigrants

Mass protests answer moves to criminalize undocumented workers

Published Mar 29, 2006 11:49 PM

A groundswell of protests involving millions of people, from Los Angeles to Boston, has resoundingly answered attempts to pass the anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner-King bill, passed in December in the U.S. House of Representatives as HR 4437 and currently being debated in the Senate.

Los Angeles
Photo: Coco

The estimated 11-12 million undocumented workers in the U.S. consider this bill an outrageous threat to criminalize them—and thus a declaration of war. The protests signal that immigrants form a powerful community that can fight back and that has allies.

“There has never been this kind of mobilization in the immigrant community ever. They have kicked the sleeping giant. It’s the beginning of a massive immigrant civil rights struggle”, said Joshua Hoyt, Executive Director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, a 120-member coalition of organizations. (Los Angeles Times, March 26)


Upwards of 1 million workers, the vast majority from Latin America, flooded downtown Los Angeles on March 25 in one of the largest demonstrations ever held in that city. Organizers had expected around 15,000. The crush of people was so great that access to the parade route had to be closed even as buses were still arriving. The racist “Minutemen” have been active in the area, threatening people along the border, and momentum from that struggle helped bring many organizations together. The organizers have called for a follow-up boycott of work, school and shopping on May 1.

Irving, Texas

More than 150,000 had come out in Chicago two weeks earlier, starting the process, but the sea of people that filled the streets near Los Angeles City Hall inspired and gave courage to those protesting across the country. Immigrants and their supporters are making their voices heard as the debate on immigration “reform” heats up.

HR 4437 a provocation

Washington Heights, NYC
WW photo: Arturo Pérez Saad

HR 4437 treats undocumented workers as felons, subject not only to deportation but to prison time. It would levy huge fines against employers who hire undocumented workers, classifying these employers as “alien smugglers.” HR 4437 would also crack down on religious and community groups who provide assistance for undocumented workers and their families.

Other repressive legislation that has been introduced in Congress proposes building a steel fence along the 700-mile U.S. and Mexican border and also handing Halliburton Corp. billions of dollars to build the equivalent of concentration camps to house detained undocumented workers.

Demonstrations have been reported in scores of cities and smaller towns, organized by coalitions of [email protected], Caribbean, Asian, Pacific Island and African immigrants, unions, churches and community groups opposed to this draconian legislation and similar measures being proposed in several states.

In some areas, like Boston, where Service Employees and UNITE HERE unions as well as Jobs with Justice helped organize the action, European immigrant workers from Ireland and Poland also joined the march of 10,000. Boston’s Puerto Rican City Councilor Felix Arroyo told the crowd, “The more they try to divide us the more we will unite.”

In Washington, D.C., where 40,000 rallied earlier in the month, 100 activists wore handcuffs at the Capitol at the start of the Senate hearings to protest the bill that would criminalize undoc umented workers as well as those who provide them with aid or employment.

Tens of thousands rallied in Milwaukee, where dozens of businesses also closed in protest; in Phoenix 20,000 came out in the largest protest in that city’s history. On Sunday, immigrant rights demonstrations took place in Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee providing bus transportation from Toledo.

Over the weekend protests were held in Dallas; Trenton, N.J.; and Sacramento and San Jose, Calif., where a small rally spontaneously grew to a three-mile long walk. In Charlotte, N.C., some 7,000 people rallied in Marshall Park March 25, saying, “Don’t make me a criminal.” Some 700 also rallied in the small southern town of Kernersville, N.C.

In San Francisco, 20 immigrant rights advocates began their fifth day of a hunger strike in front of the Federal Building. In Atlanta hundreds of demonstrators converged on the steps of the State Capitol, while tens of thousands of workers stayed home from their jobs to protest a Georgia state bill that would deny services to undocumented adults.

Denver organizers say 150,000 came to the March 25 rally, many more than anticipated. They spontaneously turned it into a march that led into the downtown areas, filling up the streets for over half an hour.

In New York City’s Manhattan borough, what began with around 300 people grew to 1,500 in a march three lanes wide and at least eight blocks long. Marchers chanted “La lucha obrera, no tiene fronteras” (There are no borders in the workers’ struggle) and “Somos trabajadores, no somos criminales” (We are workers, not criminals). Across the East River in Queens, the U.S. county with immigrants from the greatest number of countries, hundreds packed a school auditorium to hear pro-immigrant speeches translated to English, Spanish, Bangla and Urdu.

Detroit police estimated that more than 50,000 people came out in that city. The mostly [email protected] throng was the largest political gathering in recent decades. Many businesses had to close as their employees took to the streets.

In addition, high school students in several major cities including Detroit, Los Angeles, and Dallas walked out of classes on March 27 to join in protests. Officials of Huntington Park High School in L.A. locked the gates after classes started, but the students climbed over a chain-link fence to join marchers who were walking the streets and chanting.

In Houston as many as 10,000 students joined a protest March 25 to support the DREAM Act, which would give immigrant students, even those without documents, access to higher education and temporary residence with a path toward eventual citizenship. On March 27 hundreds more youths walked out of Eisenhower High School and marched 9 miles to an immigration office. The next day students walked out of other schools and, when some were arrested by sheriffs, the youths quickly organized defense committees.

Immigrant rights activists in Phila delphia, who had organized a Feb. 14 Day Without an Immigrant rally, held a press conference March 27 to announce plans for a National Day of Action for Immi grant Rights on Monday, April 10. Protests are already scheduled for several major cities.

Over a week of demonstrations has led the Senate Judiciary Committee to amend the House bill by removing a provision to prosecute churches and charitable groups who provide assistance to undocumented workers. However, the Committee also approved an amendment that would more than double the current 11,300 Border Patrol agents, while doing nothing to stop the growth of the neofascist Minutemen.

This current anti-worker racist legislation is in reality directed against all workers, whether they are organized or unorganized, documented or undocumented. Like the late 1970’s racist “get tough on crime” legislative craze in the post-Vietnam War period, which has led to the imprisonment of millions of workers and poor, predominantly people of color, the anti-immigration campaign pits worker against worker in an attempt to divert attention away from the growing economic crisis rocking the capitalist system, fueled by new, unprecedented military spending.

Working-class unity and solidarity are needed more than ever to fight against attempts by major companies like GM and Delphi to strip workers of their pensions and permanently lay off over 125,000; to oppose the genocidal war against Iraq being waged for the profits of oil monopolies; and to demand rights for the Katrina evacuees. To keep the workers from coming together, the bosses and their politicians are trying to place the blame for capitalism’s crisis of overproduction on those workers they think are the least able to resist.

However, as the undocumented take a stand against these attacks, they are setting an example for workers everywhere to follow. The workers, united, can never be defeated!

John Parker, Arturo Pérez Saad, Bryan Pfeifer, Gloria Rubac, Larry Hales, Molly Owen, Kris Hamel, David Dixon and others contributed to this article.