May Day marches put immigration reform front & center

CHICAGO — Thousands of immigrant rights advocates marched in cities coast to coast May 1, to honor the most widely celebrated holiday on the planet, International Workers Day. Thousands took to the streets in Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, Denver, Chicago and New York to press for comprehensive immigration reform, a halt to raids and deportations and a path toward legalization for the country’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants.

Nearly 3,000 people marched here this May Day, despite fears of the swine flu outbreak.

Although the turnout here and elsewhere was lower than in previous years, organizer Jorge Mújica emphasized the important message of the need for immigration reform.

“This is International Workers Day,” he told the crowd at Federal Plaza downtown. “We are American workers — incorporated into the American economy, working in American companies, earning American dollars and paying American taxes.”

Hector Gonzalez, a youth organizer, said he was marching for his mother who was deported three times to Mexico before he was born.

“Our voices here today have to be heard in Washington and we’re marching for all the people not here who are hiding behind closed doors,” he said. People have high hopes for immigration reform now that Democrats control Congress and President Obama has moved into the White House, Gonzalez said.

Last week Obama said he will convene an immigration working group that will include Chicago Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, a staunch advocate of immigrant rights. In addition, the Homeland Security Department recently announced new enforcement guidelines that shift the focus to employers and away from the Bush administration’s workplace raids targeting workers. A Senate Judiciary subcommittee also took up immigration last week for the first time in the new Congress.

At the rally here, Jane Ramsey, executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, said, “We’re here in solidarity with our Muslim, Christian, and Catholic brothers and sisters and all faith-based groups to support the rights of undocumented workers.” She added, “We as Jews understand that it’s part of our prophetic teaching to seek justice for all people.”

Erika Nuñez, 17, was one of hundreds of city and suburban students who missed school to attend the march. Nuñez was born in Mexico but came to the U.S. with her parents when she was 6 months old. She is currently waiting to become a permanent U.S. resident.

“It’s been real difficult for me to attend college because I can’t get federal aid,” Nuñez said. She wants to study English at a liberal arts college.

“I’ve taken AP government courses and I know more than anyone what it means to be a U.S. citizen,” she said. “I’m marching today because I support passing the Dream Act which would make it easier for students like me to apply for federal aid. I won’t give up because we are part of this country and no human being is illegal.”

Jane Kim, 27, marching with the Korean American Resource Cultural Center, said she is hopeful that immigration reform will finally pass now that Obama is president.

“A lot of Korean families have to deal with the issue of broken families where moms and dads are separated from their children,” she said. “It’s unfair for the children who have lived here all their lives.”

Immigrant rights leaders charge immigration raids no matter how sensibly or tactfully redesigned will never fix the broken immigration system. Workplace raids only make matters worse, they say. Raids do not uphold or reinforce workers’ rights, and employers erode conditions for Americans by hiring workers at deplorable conditions and pay, they point out.

Raising the minimum wage, supporting the right to organize including better health and safety protections and raising the standards for all workers are good steps toward immigration reform that all workers could rally for, they note.

“Today is not just about fighting for the legalization of immigrants,” said James Thindwa leader of Chicago Jobs with Justice. “It’s also about the fight to pass the Employee Free Choice Act so that it’s easier for all workers to organize and join unions.”

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