KANSAS CITY, Mo. – ‘We can not talk about immigration, without talking about racism,’ said Jane Guskin, co-author of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, to a packed audience at the Guadeloupe Community Center here October 23.

As part of a nation-wide tour to promote community dialog on immigration issues, Guskin challenged KC area participants to analyze their own experiences and question stereotypes that lead to racist depictions of immigrants.

She asked the audience participants to tell her some of the misinformation and lies they’ve heard. Some raised economic issues: “People say immigrants steal our jobs and drive down wages.” Other people focused on social issues: “Immigrants don’t pay taxes and commit crime.” Still others commented on legal status: “Why don’t they come here the right way, legally.”

‘We’ve all heard these things in our community, at work, and even from some family members,’ said Guskin. “But,” she continued, ‘We don’t always know how to address and answer these comments. Our goal,’ she said, ‘should be to communicate and dialog with people who may misunderstand the issue, who may have been lied to, who heard something on the news and believed it. We shouldn’t just preach to the choir.

‘In communities across the country,’ she said, ‘people are breaking down racist stereotypes about immigrants through grassroots dialog. If we don’t communicate with each other, how will we understand each other,’ she asked?

Participants spent the remainder of the evening addressing the stereotypes by providing factual context.

For example, according to Guskin the idea that immigrants don’t pay taxes ‘just isn’t true. 75 percent of all immigrant Americans work on the books. They pay payroll taxes, sales taxes, property taxes and real-estate taxes just like everybody else.’
She also addressed the idea that immigrants drive down wages and steal jobs. ‘First and foremost,’ she said, “bosses drive down wages, not immigrants.”

According to Judy Ancel, president of the Cross Border Network for Justice and Solidarity, U.S. trade policies like NAFTA and CAFTA have made conditions so bad that immigrants are forced to come here in search of work and a better life. ‘In fact,’ she said, ‘the Mexican economy was invaded by U.S. capitalism.’

The Cross Border Network, a non-profit organization, works to develop ties and mutual understanding between working people in the Kansas City area and maquiladora workers in Mexico.

Ancel added, ‘undocumented immigrant workers have very few legal recourses against exploitive employers. And when they try to form or join unions, immigration authorities are called in and many of the leaders and activists are deported.’
According to Guskin, ‘the biggest obstacle to organizing is simply the fear of raids and deportation.’

Lynda Callon, director of the West-side Community Action Network, added, ‘We also need to understand that work, even day-labor work, is the first step on the ladder to dignity and opportunity. Work provides everybody, no matter your legal status, no matter your job, with the possibility to give your children a better life and a place to call home.’

Ancel, who is also the director of The Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Missouri Kansas City, emphasized the role of union organizing for immigrant workers. She said, ‘Immigrant workers need to be able to organize into unions. Without legal status or social safety-nets in place, immigrant workers are forced into low-pay work. Unions are the only way to break the cycle of low-pay and enable immigrant workers to have dignity and respect on the job, no matter what it is.’

The event was sponsored by the Cross Border Network, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the ACLU of Kansas and Western Mo., Immigrant Justice Advocacy Movement, and MIRA, the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates.

tonypec @ cpusa.org