CHICAGO – Eliseo Medina, vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has called for a renewed struggle for the rights of immigrant workers and for the legalization of undocumented immigrants.

In an April 5 speech to students and faculty at the University of Chicago, in a meting to honor the late César Chávez, founding president of the United Farm Workers, Medina outlined the progress that had been made in the fight for the rights of immigrant workers prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. He said the AFL-CIO had made the fight for immigrant rights a priority, that legislation had been introduced to legalize the undocumented and both the Democratic and Republican parties were being forced to give ground on the issue.

Since Sept. 11, however, the anti-immigrant and anti-worker forces have been on the offensive, Medina said, as he denounced the airport security legislation for causing the firing of thousands of non-citizen workers from baggage screening and related jobs. He pointed out the hypocrisy of not allowing non-citizens to work as unarmed screeners, while permitting 50,000 non-citizens to serve in the U.S. armed forces, including as armed military security at airports.

Medina theorized that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), embarrassed because it was unable to prevent the events of Sept. 11, is now lashing out at immigrants in general with increased raids that have been overwhelmingly aimed at non-white population groups.

Medina pointed out that hundreds of immigrant workers were killed in the attacks of Sept. 11, many of them undocumented workers who worked in low-paid jobs at the World Trade Center. “But, unlike other families of victims of these attacks, the families of these immigrant workers do not qualify for many of the government benefits for survivors, and fear that if they come forward and try to apply for help, they will be deported,” Medina explained.

Medina said the latest outrage from Attorney General John Ashcroft, authorizing local police forces to help the INS go after the undocumented, was another step in a “concerted anti-immigrant campaign of an intensity unprecedented in the last 50 years.”

He called the recent Supreme Court decision denying back pay to an undocumented worker who had been fired for union activities a setback for immigrants and labor, adding that it is “not a reason not to fight to change immigration law – it makes it more urgent”

Medina said reform of the nation’s immigration laws are needed because “there are millions of hard-working and tax-paying immigrants who are contributing to this country” but fear deportation if they try to assert their rights. He said the present situation is contributing to an accelerated movement toward “a part-time, disposable-worker economy” in which pay is too low to meet basic family needs and in which 44 million people lack health care, and millions more fear they could lose the health care they have at any moment.

Medina, a former migrant worker from Zacatecas, Mexico, who worked with Chávez during the grape boycott of the late 1960s and early ’70s, called for a renewal of the tactics and spirit of those times. “We need a new dynamic in politics which is based on issues instead of parties and candidates, and involves people as entire families and communities in this struggle, not just as individuals,” he said.

Medina said the SEIU had launched a campaign to collect a million signatures on petitions to demand legalization of the undocumented, and invited all to sign on to the campaign.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org

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