Last month, community members marched in the Annual May Day March for Workers and Immigrant Rights. This was the 17th year in which the march was organized, and, of course, this year also marked the 10-year anniversary of the major demonstrations that were orchestrated across the country in the spring of 2006. Yet, if you were to consult local news media outlets in Western Washington in the days leading to May 1, as well as the few days after, one would be left with the impression that Seattle was an urban war zone. The fear-mongering and violence-baiting on part of the Seattle Police Department and mainstream news outlets, in effect, rendered a demonstration and a community invisible.
In spite of institutional omission from the mainstream press, there have been several hard-fought victories in recent years in bringing relief to our families and communities, albeit localized to the major cities. Nationally, one prominent campaign was to drop the term “illegal” in describing an undocumented immigrant. The Associated Press agreed and finally changed the term in its style guide. The victory helped with reworking how we communicate, especially with language in popular use that continued the process of dehumanizing and vilifying people without documents.
This matters, because the act of being in this country without appropriate paperwork is a civil matter, not a criminal court issue. Coded linguistics in turn made it palatable for politicians and for the right wing to rationalize the systematic incarceration of immigrants in unregulated prisons that denied people the right to due process and forced many to endure deplorable conditions.
Locally, the work of various organizations has carved a space for undocumented immigrants to contest exploitative labor practices by way of Seattle’s anti-wage-theft ordinance, created a safe space for families when the city and county refused to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement during nonviolent arrests (traffic infractions, unpaid parking tickets, expired tags, etc.), and of course, allowed undocumented immigrants the opportunity to attain a driver’s license to safely operate a vehicle. Needless to say, local victories aside, we still encounter many issues at the regional and national scale.
Most notable this year is the candidacy of Donald Trump for president. His campaign — rife with racism, classism and xenophobia — has initiated a wave of anti-immigrant and, specifically, anti-Mexican sentiment. Trump’s rhetoric has opened a Pandora’s box of vitriol as there have been incidents throughout the country in which the chant of “Trump, Trump,” has been used by racist students to troll high school students of color at sporting events. Likewise, at high schools and colleges, conservative groups and their constituents have erected “Mexican Border” walls as a way to intimidate and discriminate against Latino students. This despite the fact that since the turn of the decade, there has been zero net migration from Mexico. The rhetoric in turn, has been aimed at all Latinos, regardless of status, as few hate groups and their constituents make an effort to distinguish between people of different nationalities, citizenship status and linguistic practice. There hasn’t been such intense vitriol since the mid-2000s when groups such as the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps were actively harassing Latinos.
In addition to the proliferation of racism in the mainstream via the 2016 presidential race, we are also having to deal with continued use of the anti-immigrant policies. One common factor between the Republican and Democratic parties is the disingenuous pandering to our communities, while simultaneously raiding and mass deporting our families. President Barack Obama’s administration has deported as many as 3 million people, and continues the practice with the recent unveiling of a campaign to raid Central American refugees who arrived in 2014.
As before, we will continue to organize as no one else is working on our behalf. So long as these maladies persist, we will continue to hit the streets, educate the community and organize for better conditions for all, regardless of place of origin. In the words of Chicana/o activists in the 1970s, “Somos un pueblo sin Fronteras!”
Oscar Rosales Castañeda is a coordinating board member of El Comité.