WAUKEGAN, Ill. — To thousands of protesters here July 16, the city administration turned itself into an alien body maintained by helicopters, snipers, swat teams and dogs. Undeterred by the show of military force, more than 6,000 immigrant rights supporters filled Martin Luther Jr. Ave., spilling onto the steps of City Hall.

Inside, the City Council, joined by the mayor, voted 8-2 to convert police here into “polimigra,” or immigration agents, in a town where Latinos comprise up to 80 percent of the population. The July 16 vote confirmed an earlier decision to sign up for a federal program, provision 287(g), that turns local police into enforcers of federal immigration law with authority to arrest and detain immigrants and start deportation proceedings against them.

Outside, united indignation clamored from thousands of voices. The battle of Waukegan, some are calling it.

“We built these buildings, we made these streets!” said Waukegan resident Juan Carlos, deep in the midst of the crowd. “Ten years ago I got here only to find Waukegan was vacant lots, closed stores, dirty and dying.”

A once thriving industrial port on Lake Michigan, about 30 miles north of Chicago, Waukegan struggled to survive the death of industry in the 1980s as government and big business savagely fought to reinvent the U.S. into a de-unionized, service-sector economy.

It’s been Latino-powered labor that has brought new life to the city, swelling its tax base with new construction, infrastructure repair and a wave of vibrant new Latino businesses.

But like a cornered animal, fearing displacement, the old white oligarchy is waging war to hold onto its power.

Only now, the muted majority is in motion across Waukegan and will not be muted for long.

“Eighty percent of Waukegan will not let 20 percent show them what their rights are,” declared José Gudino of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA). LCLAA has joined a growing number of local Latino groups, including Tonatico Social Club, Asociación Latina del Condado de Lake (Latino Association of Lake County), Hondureños Unidos, Club La Luz and Comercios Latinos (Latino Businesses) of Waukegan, that have united against the measure.

From this coalition, calls have risen to boycott the city of Waukegan. Resident sympathizers say they will patronize only those businesses displaying orange flyers expressing their opposition to proposition 287(g).

Immigrant rights supporters say voter registration campaigns, labor alliances and independent political activity in future elections will be part of a relentless opposition, both locally and nationally, to 287(g).

Though locked out of the city they’ve built, the Latino workers of Waukegan are seeing this struggle as their weapon against the forces of violence and silence. For them, the battle is a victory in itself.

juanycueva @aol.com
Benjamin Cline contributed to this story.