Imagine thousands of people struggling to move through the crowded streets of the Loop: to get to and from class, get home from work, and get to the store for that much-needed cup of coffee. What happened March 10 was an important event in Chicago’s history: over 100,000 people had taken to, and taken over, the streets in peaceful, yet highly impassioned protest against a proposed bill that would make illegal immigrant status a federal offense.
The protest, organized predominantly by Spanish-language news media and the Mexican Homeland Federation, exceeded anyone’s expectations. The sense of community permeated the protest, as entire families converged upon the Loop, waving flags and banners, cheering, and celebrating the media presence and encouragement. The police took on a far more relaxed approach than has been seen in the anti-war protests of recent years, calmly closing off access to the overcrowded CTA stations and creating roadblocks with police bicycles.
Similar protests have occurred in other U.S. cities; the largest took place on March 25 in downtown Los Angeles. Estimates as to the number of protestors vary anywhere from 500,000 to two million. SAIC student and FreeRadioSAIC host Carmina Cortes was present at both the L.A. and Chicago protests, and she stated of the L.A. protest, “It was historical and incredible that all of these people gathered together for this one day, not just the Mexicans and South Americans, but there were Polish and Asians and all these people at one time united…. For me it was a sense of pride to be there…[the protesters demonstrated that they are] proud of where they come from, but left their homeland to come here to better themselves.”
National “days of action,” staged on April 9 and 10, drew over 1,482,100 participants, including 125,000 in New York City and 500,000 in Washington D.C., estimates the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant Rights and Reform.
The bill that sparked the protests is H.R. 4437, proposed by Representative James Sensenbrenner [R-WI]. If the “Sensenbrenner Bill” passes, it will become a criminal, rather than a civil offense, to be an illegal immigrant in the U.S. Rather than simply chasing the 11.5 to 12 million illegal immigrants that live in the United States, it attacks any support network, formal or otherwise, that exists for undocumented workers. The law would make a felon of anyone who “assists, encourages, directs, or induces a person to reside or remain in the United States…knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such person is an alien who lacks the lawful authority to reside or remain in the United States.”
In addition to criminalizing the employment of illegal immigrants, this would make churches, community groups, advocacy groups and friends of illegal immigrants, criminals themselves. The same bill would also see the construction of a 700 mile-long fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Although much of the attention to immigrant workers has focused upon the Latino population, the bill would impact undocumented workers from across the world, including significant numbers of individuals who come to the United States from Eastern Europe and Ireland.)
The Sensenbrenner Bill does, however, include a provision for a Guest Worker Program. This would permit undocumented workers to remain in the United States for up to six years, so long as they are paired with an employer for the full six years. Since many illegal immigrants are day laborers, employed by the hour by many different employers each year, they would not be eligible to apply for guest worker status. The Sensenbrenner Bill also has the potential to break up immigrant families whose members are of differing legal status.
The proposed law fails to take into account the economic role of undocumented workers in the United States. The Pew Hispanic Research Center’s website (www.pewhispanic.org) reports that “about 7.2 million unauthorized migrants [were employed in March 2005]. They made up a large share of all workers in a few more detailed occupational categories, including 24 percent of all workers employed in farming occupations, 17 percent in cleaning, 14 percent in construction and 12 percent in food preparation.”
The Washington Post reported late last year that California’s agricultural industry was suffering as a result of labor shortages, and that “vegetable growers estimate they could be 32,000 workers short of the 54,000 they need for the winter harvest.” Meanwhile labor shortages led to “$300 million in losses to raisin growers in California’s San Joaquin Valley in September .”
The pay that many bars, restaurants, construction and landscaping companies offer for hourly employment in physically demanding tasks would barely be accepted by high school dropouts. A recent study by the University of Illinois’ Center for Urban Economic Development found the median wage for undocumented workers in Chicago to be $7 an hour, although ten percent of those who participated earned less than the state’s $6.50 minimum wage. Yet the undocumented workers, who number around 220,000 in the Chicago metropolitan area, account for approximately
$5.45 billion of the annual gross regional products.
Furthermore, many undocumented workers still pay state and federal taxes, yet do not claim tax refunds, social security or other government benefits to which they contribute. Illegal immigrants also contribute to the Chicago economy with their earnings, and the UIC study found that they account for the hiring of around 31,000 individuals in Chicago’s consumer market.
Chicago is home to one of the largest migrant Mexican communities in the world. At its center is Pilsen, a neighborhood to the south of the Loop. Arturo Cortes, a business owner in Pilsen, moved from Mexico to the United States with his family when he was 14 and described Pilsen as the “doorway” to the United States for immigrants coming from Mexico.
UIC’s Neighborhood Initiative echoes this sentiment: “Pilsen has served as a port of entry for many immigrant groups that have come to Chicago seeking work and a better life,” it says. “During the 1950s, Mexican families began to move into the neighborhood. This trend accelerated in the 1960s, when Latinos became the major ethnic group…. Today, Pilsen is Chicago’s largest Latino community…. Of a total 1998 population of 44,133, 93.5 percent are Latino, predominantly of Mexican heritage. The median age in Pilsen is 18 years, the youngest for any Chicago community.”
Cortes says, “Pilsen is a beautiful place to be. I stayed here, a lot of my friends did… this is an entire community, we have lawyers and businessmen; everything is Hispanic—except for the McDonald’s.” Yet Cortes says a lot of people are apparently leaving the neighborhood. He explains that “UIC is building big properties; the people here cannot afford the rent anymore,” and his customers are starting to move to the South Side and the suburbs.
Many undocumented workers have difficulty defending their rights; one non-profit group that would be outlawed under the Sensenbrenner Bill is the Latino Union of Chicago. The Latino Union was founded in 2000, in an attempt to organize and protect the rights of day laborers in the Chicago, specifically in Cicero, Albany Park, Logan Square and Pilsen.
Jessica Aranda, executive director of the Latino Union of Chicago, explained that the immigrant workers often congregate on specific street corners in order to meet with potential employers. In a public situation such as this, they are at risk for harassment from police and have very few rights from their employers, particularly since they work without a contract and can find themselves victims of wage theft. Another risk the undocumented workers face, particularly in agriculture and construction, is an unsafe working environment. “Workplace injuries and deaths are three times higher in the Latino community,” explained Aranda. The Latino Union provides day laborers with a safe place to find potential employers, and serves as an advocate for workers in cases of pay
safety, but, she says, “None of us were ready for this to happen in the House and the Senate…. If a Sensenbrenner-like bill passes, our worker centers will have to close…[but] we’re not going to stop doing the work we do.”
Cortes commented that the recent protests have become not just “about the law, [but] about rights; seeing [the immigrant workers] as individuals. Indeed, it would appear that the rights of immigrant workers is a highly significant issue which has been overshadowed by the Sensenbrenner Bill.”
Fortunately, the motivation and mobilization of the immigrant communities in the United States over the Sensenbrenner Bill has been significant, and may prove to actually influence government policies. Aranda stated of a recent lobbying visit to Washington D.C. that senators are saying, “’Two million people on the streets in L.A. isn’t something you can bat an eyelid at.’” Many people have been motivated by the direct, immediate and potentially unjust impact that the Sensenbrenner Bill could have, if passed. Films such as Walkout, an HBO movie about a 1968 Chicano student strike against racism in L.A. high schools, have been instrumental in providing individuals with a guide to the impact that such activism can have, as well as a sense of the history of Latin American-rights.
The bill was passed by the House of Representatives on April 6, and is currently awaiting approval by the Senate. However, divisions are clear even amongst right-wing politicians.
The New York Times reported on March 27 that “with Republicans deeply divided, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Monday to legalize the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants and ultimately to grant them citizenship, provided that they hold jobs, pass criminal background checks, learn English and pay fines and back taxes.” Furthermore, Aranda adds, “Bush is pretty middle-of-the-road on this issue. He was a governor of a Southern state [and] understands how the business community benefits from immigration.” Individual states have already declared their opposition to the Sensenbrenner Bill, and the Catholic Church has also spoken out against the legislation.
There is, however, a strong anti-immigrant sentiment among individuals in the United States, and groups such as the Minutemen and the Federation for American Immigrant Reform. They believe that the Bush government has not cracked down hard enough on illegal immigration. They have been protesting the proposed guest worker program and view the Sensenbrenner bill as conciliatory. They feel it is not doing enough to remove illegal immigrants from the United States, not keeping the U.S.-Mexico border fully “defended.”
The Minuteman Project has recently begun to organize in Chicago. The Illinois Chapter of the Minuteman Project was founded by Rosanna Pulido, an American of Mexican heritage, who recently explained her stance to the Chicago Reader: “We just want people to respect the law, no matter their ethnicity… This isn’t about race. It’s about defending citizens who are here. We want the people of Illinois to be outraged enough that they get off their couches and take back their state.”
Those further to the right of the administration on the issue of immigration are also calling for the repeal of the so-called “anchor baby” law, which guarantees citizenship for any child born in the United States. Jim Gilchrist, one of the founders of the Minutemen Project and a current Congressional candidate, wants more than a wall dividing the United States and Mexico, and included in his platform a plan for a “2000-mile southern border [that] would… require a minimum of 36,000 total additional personnel.”
The energy of the immigrants’ rights movement has already met conflict. According to Indymedia.com, a 14-year-old student named Anthony Soltero came under fire from the vice-principal at his school for his “involvement as an organizer of the March 28 school walk-outs to protest the anti-immigrant legislation in Washington.” The vice-principal informed Soltero that “he was going to prison for three years [and] also forbade Anthony from attending graduation activities and threatened to fine his mother for Anthony’s truancy and participation in the student protests.”
Soltero committed suicide on March 30.
The actions of school administration in this case were met with outrage within the Latino community, although, as Cortes puts it, “The Latino schools in particular are already at the bottom of the pool. This is just setting us back.”
The protests themselves have, so far, been entirely peaceful. In Chicago, this fact was aided by the Chicago Police Department’s tolerance of the protest and by Mayor Daley’s support for the immigrant rights movement. “Those who are undocumented, we are not going to make criminals out of them. Everyone in America is an immigrant,” the Mayor told CBS.
Another protest by the Immigrant Worker Justice March will take place in Chicago on May 1. The protest’s organizers intend to march from Union Park to the Thompson Center, by way of Haymarket Memorial. Coinciding with the protest will be a May 19 rally in Washington D.C.
The question remains: even if the Sensenbrenner bill is defeated, will the proud mobilization of the United States immigrant population lead to an improvement in the conditions of immigrant workers and families?