Under One Flag

City's melting pot reaches the boiling point

The white and green T-shirts stood out in the crowd of mostly Latinos who were milling about the intersection of Canal and Broadway last Monday at the tail end of the massive rally for immigrant rights. The shirts read, "Legalize the Irish." To the sea of people fighting to stop a draconian House immigration bill from becoming federal law, some waving Peruvian or Salvadoran or Ecuadoran flags, others hailing from West Africa or South Asia, the Irish slogan could have come off as exclusive, offensive. But Héctor Figueroa couldn't care less.

"It doesn't bother me at all," the secretary-treasurer of SEIU Local 32BJ tells the Voice. "We need a multitude. We don't need a mass movement. We need a multitude where people are able to express their identities."

Whether you believe the low-ball attendance figure of 70,000 or the organizers' claim that 300,000 showed up, the April 10 rally that shut down Broadway from Barclay Street to north of Canal was a success. It took place on a Monday afternoon, in a city with a legendary diversity in its foreign-born population, and was put together in less than two weeks by a coalition embracing more than 100 groups.

Unions, religious groups, ethnic associations, and anti-war activists have found common ground under the pro-immigrant banner.
photo: Jake Price
Unions, religious groups, ethnic associations, and anti-war activists have found common ground under the pro-immigrant banner.

That feat owed much to grassroots groundwork laid by community organizations and labor unions over recent years. But Republican congressman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin gets some credit too. Nothing forges unity and action like a common enemy, and Sensenbrenner's H.R. 4437 is certainly that. The most punitive of a handful of immigration reform measures making the rounds on Capitol Hill this spring, H.R. 4437 would make illegal immigrants into felons and would classify as criminals the social workers and others who help them. It would implement tough border security initiatives and make it harder for illegal immigrants to challenge deportations. And it makes no provision for "aliens" to legalize their status. (There's now talk of some changes to the bill's language.)

Such a bill breeds many foes, and they were in the streets in force April 10—unions, religious groups, neighborhood organizations, socialists, anti-war protesters, and low-wage workers. It was a striking scene, all those flags in the late-day sun, that spectrum of skin tones.

"I think we're going to look back on H.R. 4437 and really see that it's a sad moment in history for Congress to pass such a bill," says Gouri Sadhwani, executive director of the New York Civic Participation Project, an umbrella activist group for several progressive unions and community organizations. "I think at the same time you'll look back and see all the protests that we've witnessed in the past few weeks as a resurgence of the civil rights movement. There's no doubt in my mind that we're going to look back to 2006 and say this is when it started."

That movement will claim a big first prize if it kills H.R. 4437. But then it will face a real test. Saying no to a bad bill is one thing, but agreeing on a good one is another. Even deciding the next step in the fight against H.R. 4437 has some of those who rallied together on April 10 agreeing to disagree.

For some New York City advocacy groups, H.R. 4437 has been on the radar screen since last summer. When the measure passed the House late in 2005 and moved to the Senate in January, there was an emergency meeting here involving some 50 organizations with stakes in the debate. However, it was a March 7 protest in Washington that got local groups and unions talking about doing something big in New York. The national day of action on April 10 presented an opportunity, so local groups began a flurry of preparations about two weeks before the big day.

It was a short window to overcome some traditional New York City obstacles. The cops normally require a few weeks' lead time for a major rally, but in this case Change to Win (the national labor coalition that split off from the AFL-CIO last year) started negotiating with the NYPD only about a week before the event. Then there were the protesters. "New York City is a place where it's particularly challenging to put together a coalition to mobilize because we have such a diverse community," says Héctor Figueroa, secretary-treasurer of SEIU 32BJ. And the groups are in different geographic pockets: The Bronx has more Nigerians than Chinese or Indians. There are more Haitians in Brooklyn than there are Koreans in Queens.

But there were networks in place, the organizers say, from previous efforts. 32BJ had run organizing campaigns, like "Justice for Janitors," that boosted its street cred in immigrant neighborhoods. The Civic Participation Project has spent years fusing union support to neighborhood crusades like winning better language services at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and cleaning up a Bronx park. And some of the groups earned their stripes fighting previous measures like the Real ID Act, a crackdown on undocumented people's driver's licenses.

It's the stuff that local political machines, in their finest moments, used to do: building political power by meeting basic needs. It's also the kind of grassroots organizing that Change to Win (which includes SEIU, UNITE HERE, and other unions) dissed the AFL-CIO for neglecting. And some of the linkages on display at last week's rally hinted at a big-tent progressivism that activists have dreamed about, like Mexican restaurant workers marching alongside the anti-war omnibus United for Peace and Justice.

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