OAKLAND, Calif. — Working together, ordinary Americans can take back the country’s economic, political and human rights agenda, members of Congress told activists and community leaders at a Jan. 28 community forum sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Political, Education and Leadership Institute.
The forum, hosted by Bay Area Congresswoman Barbara Lee, was one in a series of programs around the country to address key social issues. Panels on immigration, health care and poverty featured members of the Black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific American Caucuses together with community leaders.
Reminding the crowd that all but Native Americans have an immigrant past, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee opened the panel on immigration by saying, “Get engaged, don’t sit back while others are proposing a fence to keep you as well as others out. We must be united as Americans” in addressing the ways millions of undocumented people now in the U.S. can earn access to legalization.
Calling President Bush’s “guest worker” proposal a totally unrealistic “flat earth” plan, Jackson-Lee pointed to the immigration measure she introduced last year, HR 2092, which emphasizes family reunion and a path to legalization.
“Where is the heart of America? I believe it is in this room,” Jackson-Lee added. “Together we can take America back!”
Congressmen Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Mike Honda (D-Calif.) both emphasized that winning a comprehensive policy upholding the human rights of immigrants will require taking back the Congress from the right-wing Republican majority.
“We’ve got to end the use of immigration to suppress the wages in this country,” said Texas Congressman Al Green.
In conversations following the panel, Honda said the draconian anti-immigrant HR 4437, which “makes each employer and each law officer an immigration agent, should be killed in the Senate and sent to the graveyard.”
“We must say no to these extremist policies,” said Jackson-Lee. “If we don’t do so, it will deny our civil rights as well.”
Introducing the discussion on health care, Rep. Donna Christensen, who represents the Virgin Islands, urged support for the Health Care Quality and Accountability Act of 2005, a joint effort by the three minority caucuses and community health care organizations around the country. “To really become a health care system instead of a sick care system, it needs to be turned upside down and rebuilt from the bottom up,” she said.
Christensen said members of the CBC “told the president that unless he took meaningful steps to eliminate health care disparities, in his eight years as president he would have presided over approximately a million premature deaths among African Americans and other people of color.” She said the administration had failed to respond even to the CBC’s call to rebuild the health network in the poorest Gulf Coast areas after the hurricanes.
Saying “a golden opportunity” for meaningful health care legislation exists as the 2006 and 2008 elections approach, Christensen emphasized that “we cannot do it without your help and that of our constituents around the country.”
Introducing the panel on poverty, Rep. Maxine Waters told of her recent visit to New Orleans, together with Rep. Barbara Lee, to hold the first Congressional hearings since the area was devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
After the hurricanes, all of a sudden, America said, ‘Oh, look at all those poor people in New Orleans,” said Waters. “Well, they’re everywhere!”
While President Bush talks about health care and education, she added, he is giving tax cuts to the richest 1 percent of Americans and spending $251 billion — so far — on the Iraq
Waters urged the audience to “get out there, register people to vote, get them involved in this political system. “We’ve got to help our children believe we really care about them,” she said. “There are no safety nets for them. And they will only be provided if we help people understand their power, understand they can make a difference with who we elect to office.”