Thousands march for immigrant rights

MINNEAPOLIS — Thousands of people marched through south Minneapolis Feb. 12 in support of immigrants and immigrant rights.

Organizers — including faith communities, labor unions, student organizations, civil rights groups and others — called for overhauling immigration laws in a way that treats immigrant workers and their families humanely, not as outcasts.

Homemade signs called for civil rights, workers’ rights, access to education and the reunification of families. Others declared, “Immigrant rights are human rights,” “No human being is illegal,” “Immigration is the American way” and “We are workers, not criminals.” A giant banner with the image of Martin Luther King Jr. asked, “Whatever happened to the American dream?” One sign, with an American Indian motif, brought smiles with the question, “Who’s the illegal alien, Pilgrim?”

The noisy, colorful, upbeat march lasted for more than an hour as it wound its way through the city before ending with a boisterous gathering at Holy Rosary Catholic Church. Marchers stretched almost curb-to-curb for two long city blocks — banging makeshift drums, watching an Aztec dance group, waving flags, chanting and soaking in the sunny day, despite temperatures in the teens.

A backlash to attacks

The march was the most visible response yet to recent attacks by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and others that denigrated the contributions immigrant workers make to their communities. Several signs criticized Pawlenty’s appeal to fear. One said simply, “We pay taxes, too.”

In Washington, President George W. Bush has proposed a guest-worker program that labor unions criticize as being a form of legalized slavery because it leaves immigrant workers at the mercy of employers, with no chance to gain citizenship. Bush’s approach, says AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, sends the message to immigrant workers that although “their hard work is essential to the prosperity of our nation, they deserve no better than a perennial second-class status.”

That message is reinforced by legislation from the likes of Colorado Congressman Thomas Tancredo, who wants to deny citizenship to children born in the United States if their parents lack proper documentation.

Fighting the shadow economy

Labor unions generally agree that current immigration policy is broken, but place blame on its failure to allow the vast majority of immigrants to work legally. Companies hire immigrants anyway, they say — creating a shadow economy that leaves companies free to deny workers their rights, to deny them the pay and benefits they’re entitled to, and to create abusive working conditions. That shadow economy drives down wages for all workers, unions say, and promotes the use of false identification, which threatens the nation’s security.

Unions instead prefer legislation similar to proposals by Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Charles Hagel (R-Neb.). Those bills, while tightening border security, expand work permits in a way that guarantees workers their rights on the job and allows them, over time, to gain citizenship — not get shipped back after three years, as Bush has proposed.

Unions also are in line with the other reforms highlighted in the Feb. 12 march — a path to legalization for workers currently in the country, equal educational access for children of immigrants, and clearing the bureaucratic logjams that prevent reunification of families.

Michael Kuchta edits the Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Trades & Labor Assembly. Reprinted with permission from Workday Minnesota