On May 1, an estimated tens of thousands of people will take to the streets of downtown Seattle to demand fair and just immigration reform that respects the civil, labor and human rights of all workers. Given the current political environment in Washington, D.C., we are preparing for one of the largest crowds in several years. This will be the 13th march that El Comité Pro Reforma Migratoria Y Justicia Social, the organization where I work, has organized.
Nationally, immigration has returned to the fore as politicians debate several proposals for addressing a matter that has been neglected since 2009. Congressional inaction has been complicit in the use of enforcement-heavy tactics such as dragnet raids, racial profiling of immigrants and the use of discriminatory employee verification programs. Under the current administration, as many as 390,000 undocumented immigrants are deported each year, with 2011 bringing the most deportations since Obama was elected. This is not the progress we imagined when we sought to defeat xenophobic congressional legislation seven years ago.
Back in the spring of 2006, Seattle witnessed some of its largest demonstrations. Immigrant rights advocates saw a groundswell of support for the immigrant community, as dialogue about immigration swerved to the far right, culminating in the passage of the Sensenbrenner bill in the u.s. House in December 2005. The bill sought to criminalize undocumented immigrants and made rendering aid to them a felony. Mass protests, culminating in a nationally coordinated march and general strike on May 1, 2006, effectively quashed the bill before it reached a vote on the U.S. Senate floor.
Since then, various states and municipalities have passed similar pieces of legislation, though many have been struck down as unconstitutional. The vitriolic tone of the proposals suggests larger issues are at play.
In the early to mid-2000s, the Bush administration continued its support of unregulated, free-market capitalism through tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals. Capital was siphoned off for the rich, which cut into the wages of the poor and working class. These economic practices had been championed for several decades by politicians of various stripes, most notably former President Ronald Reagan. They left a legacy of destruction: the corrosion of workers’ rights as well as the destruction of the social safety net for the most vulnerable members of our society.
This legacy was not limited to the United States. Economic deregulation was exported throughout Latin America, as well as the rest of the world, from the 1970s to the present. This economic practice helped create substandard working and living conditions throughout the Americas. Resistance to the economic status quo was met with brutal force, precipitating warfare and government crackdowns in the 1980s and 1990s.
These counterinsurgency campaigns by right-wing governments in South and Central America and Mexico resulted in the disappearance, torture and murder of thousands of labor organizers, students, leftists and indigenous people. The violence and subsequent terrible living conditions, in turn, led many Latin Americans to emigrate to the United States. Likewise, the implementation of trade agreements like NAFTA worsened living conditions in Mexico, forcing another wave of mass migration northward.
When immigration rights advocates consider the lives of many immigrants, they see the result of short-sighted economic and foreign policies. The same economic forces that drive many immigrants out of their homelands also play a role in the push for austerity measures and budget cuts. It is striking that money can cross borders, yet workers can’t.
The situation may look dire on the national level, but locally, advocates have been successful pushing for progressive legislation to respect immigrant rights. Constant pressure in Olympia helped retain some medical benefits for children as well as translation services for families who need it most. Similarly, an anti-immigrant measure that would deny drivers licenses to those without a social security number was defeated. Washington is one of only two states nationwide that currently allows all drivers the ability to obtain a license.
This May Day, we will continue to demand rights of all workers, regardless of race, gender, orientation, disability or nationality. Come join us.