ORLANDO, Fla.--More than 500 mostly Latino and Haitian immigrants, their families, brothers and sisters from organized labor, and community allies rallied here at a church in southwest Orange County (the home of Disney World) on May Day. They celebrated workers by calling for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for the undocumented, and an end to the deportations of the undocumented that have torn apart so many immigrant families along with a path to family reunification.
A broad range of representatives from immigrant and farm worker groups, labor, the faith-based community, and allied groups addressed the crowd from a podium behind which hung a large banner that read, "RIGHT TO WORK--RIGHT TO LIVE--RIGHT TO STAY TOGETHER." U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., was the final speaker; he was preceded by a representative of U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who shared a message from the congressman with the pumped-up crowd.
One of the largest contingents at the event came from Unite Here Locals 737 and 362, which represent 19,000 hospitality and tourism workers in central Florida, including many who are immigrants. Other sponsors included the Florida AFL-CIO, SEIU, AFSCME, LCLAA, Mi Familia Vota, the Student-Labor Action Project at the University of Central Florida, and Orlando YAYA (Youth and Young Adult Network of the National Farmworker Ministry).
"We are all workers here, and we are all one," said Angela McKinnon, an organizer with Unite Here 737.
McKinnon told the rally that her experiences as a worker and union leader at Disney had taught her about the exploitation and other problems faced by immigrant workers, and the sense of powerlessness they felt because of their status. Her awareness of the similarities in the struggles faced by African Americans and immigrants was also shaped by her background as the daughter of parents who harvested citrus, McKinnon said.
"We've got to all come together to make these companies respect us as human beings, not as immigrants and non-immigrants," she said. "This country was built by slaves and by immigrants from all around the world. It's time for us to stop fighting against each other, and let's fight together for what's right."
Tirso Moreno, general coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida, urged the audience to commit to fight until all immigrant workers "have the right to work, have the right to stay here, have the right to support their families, have the right to be together with their families."
In a videotaped speech, Rep. Gutierrez, who kicked off a nationwide tour for immigration reform in Orlando on March 1, said people across the U.S. were marking May 1 and continuing efforts to stop deportation of the undocumented, pending passage of comprehensive immigration reform.
Gutierrez, a leading progressive voice in the House on immigration reform, said he was "filled with optimism" about the passage of such legislation this year, noting that progress was being made in both chambers of Congress.
The bill, said Gutierrez, would include increased border security measures, "a broad legalization program" for the undocumented, "a faster path to citizenship" for Dreamers and a mandatory worker verification system. It will, he said, command support from both Democrats and Republicans who know that Americans want "real solutions" to the country's immigration issues.
Immigrants, labor and other progressive forces must keep up the pressure on both parties to pass a bill this year, said Gutierrez. "We have to keep moving forward," he said. "Our message [to Congress] must be clear--don't slow down, don't get distracted, don't try any excuses."
"If we work together this year, millions of Americans and those who want to work and live here will see the benefits of immigration reform," Gutierrez said.
Grayson related the story of his grandmother who emigrated to the U.S. from Austria-Hungary, 112 years ago, at the age of 14. Although she was penniless, illiterate and had no job skills, Grayson noted that she still had been welcomed to America. "If that was true for her than why not you?" he asked the crowd to applause. "Why not you? Why not you?"
At stake in the fight for immigration reform, said Grayson, is the American Dream--"the possibility to be all you can be"--regardless of race, age, language or immigration status. Our society should welcome all immigrants-- "Americans by choice" who "love this country," he said.
"You may think that you're alone. You may think that there's no one to support you, you may think that the situation is hopeless," Grayson said, "but remember [that] the undocumented are 11 million strong, and behind them is the Latino community in America, 50 million strong, and behind them is the community of people with a conscience, 200 million strong--and that's why we will win."
Denise Diaz, director of Central Florida Jobs with Justice, who emceed the event, closed it by urging the crowd to contact U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to press them to support immigration reform that creates a "system that is fair for all of us."
Photo:May Day rallies were held across the country demanding immigration reform, keeping families together and workers' rights like this one in San Francisco (PW/Marilyn Bechtel).