The Future of the Immigrant Rights Movement in the US


In this ongoing conversation/blog, a curator and a performance artist, both living and working away from their original homelands and language, discuss the politics of exclusion in the "international" art world and its visible and invisible cartographies. They elaborate on the concept of "Zones of Silence", the countries and cities that exist beyond the radars of the art world. Gabriela's English is "British" while Gomez-Peña's is more "American." A few phrases and words here and there—in italics—have been left in Spanish.

Currently, the U.S. Congress, supported by the Bush administration, is considering legislative proposals that attack the human and civil rights of migrants in ways we have never seen before in this country. The House passed its version last year. Among other things, this bill proposes to convert all undocumented migrants, adults and children alike, into "aggravated felons"; criminalize human rights workers who "assist" undocumented immigrants; create an internet service for employers to verify their employees' work eligibility; and further militarize the U.S./México border with a new wall and resources for agents and military equipment.

The U.S. Senate declared that it would take a more "humane" approach to the so-called "problem of illegal immigration." The senators and their liberal supporters called it "comprehensive immigration reform." The Senate bill, however, turned out to be just as punitive as the House version. While the Senate left out the provisions of criminalizing an entire community, and the people who assist them, it included all of the other elements of further militarizing the border and targeting immigrant workers for enforcement. In addition, the Senate proposal makes legalization available to undocumented workers only if they meet a number of almost impossible requirements and participate in a government guest-worker program. This means that the vast majority of the 12 million undocumented people currently living in the U.S. have no way to qualify for legalization. And undocumented workers will be more prone to employer exploitation without the guarantee of residency.

Both Republicans and Democrats supported, and continue to support, these bills. Liberal senator Ted Kennedy went as far to say that the Senate's "compromise" proposal was the most important civil rights legislation that he had ever seen.

Of course, these legislative proposals simply reflect, and institutionalize, the general anti-immigrant hysteria in the country. The now-popular ideology of "anti-terrorism" in the name of national security justifies the militarized border, immigrant scapegoating, and general retraction of privacy and due process rights of everyone who dissents or who appears anti-American. For Arabs, Muslims and other Black and Brown peoples, who they are is sufficient suspicion.

And racist, anti-immigrant groups are foaming at the mouth in this climate of anti-immigrant hysteria. The now well recognized Minutemen declared a couple of years ago that they would guard the U.S./México border since the federal government could not handle the flow of undocumented migration. They did so, armed and with the support of local, state and national politicians and public figures. Now, the Minutemen are focusing on shutting down day laborer centers and on intimidating day laborers away from public street corners, which is where the workers gather to find work. In cities and rural towns across the country, the Minutemen and Minutemen copycats typically stand in front of day laborer centers and corners, directly confronting workers and employers with American flags and bullhorns, yelling racial epithets.

Undocumented migrants are blamed for everything, from lack of jobs to trash on the streets. They are invaders to be feared, not human beings forced to uproot themselves and move away from their homes and loved ones just to put food on their families' tables. The mainstream media never describes them as we see them: survivors of global capitalism and a consequence of U.S. imperialism in the developing world. Senator Ted Kennedy and other Congresspeople never mention how U.S. policies cause or contribute to joblessness and poverty in countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia. Why would they? The easiest thing for them to do is to scapegoat immigrant communities and pass laws that make it appear that our country's problems are due largely to them. This way, the politicians and corporate interests don't have to explain why they are investing billions in wars and tax breaks for the rich instead of in living-wage jobs, public education and healthcare.

But immigrants understand all this. And they are creating one of the most powerful resistance movements this country has ever seen. In recent months, immigrant communities have taken U.S. streets by the millions. Workers are leaving their workplaces, and mothers are bringing their children, to participate in the mass protests. Junior-high and high school students in the hundreds of thousands across the country are walking out of their secondary and high schools. All have conveyed a common message: We demand real, unconditional and broad legalization, right now! Only because of the mass demonstrations did the U.S. Senate eliminate the criminalization provisions from its bill, and currently Congress has been unable to pass any of the proposals still on the table. Local governments are passing resolutions condemning the federal proposals and are even declaring noncompliance, should the bills pass.

The challenges for the immigrant rights movement in the U.S. include maintaining the momentum and level of organization necessary to continue mass demonstrations. We must work more proactively in solidarity with other sectors and movements, such as Labor's struggles and the struggles of the African-American community. Most importantly, we must continue to facilitate and build the leadership of immigrants. Through their organizing and collective power, we will surely win.

Renee Saucedo is an organizer, an activist and a lawyer who has played a prominent role in this country’s immigrant rights movement at all levels. She has led various immigrant rights organizations and has participated in numerous community campaigns related to the rights of undocumented immigrants, immigrant workers and poor people. She founded INS WATCH, a grassroots organization that resists INS enforcement, facilitated immigrant organizing around Welfare Reform, and helped push for San Francisco being declared an “INS Raid-Free Zone.” Renee believes that real change happens when oppressed people organize, create controversy and fight back. In her current job as Director of the San Francisco Day Laborer Program, Renee supports organizing by day laborers and domestic workers, and has helped establish a Day Laborer Center, a San Francisco Day Laborer Association and a Domestic Workers Collective.