Under One Flag

City's melting pot reaches the boiling point

Despite the rally's success, H.R. 4437 lives. Local organizers met the day after the event to plot their next steps: citizens' meetings, calls to lawmakers, and a "day of action" on May 1.

But what kind of action?

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.

It's a long and arduous process because there are so many groups involved," 1199's Chris Fleming says of the planning. "We are all working very hard to continue the unity." It won't be perfect, however. "There are folks calling for a national boycott" on May 1, Fleming notes. "1199 will not be part of any sort of strike, anything along those lines. We don't think it's the right message to send."

Others think it's the perfect move. "It's an idea that's been in the works for a long time," says Monami Maulik of Desis Rising Up and Moving, a Queens-based organization for South Asians, who was on the steering committee for the April 10 rally. "The idea of a day without immigrants has really caught hold, especially in the Southwest and border areas. I think it would be an extremely vital show of power of immigrants as workers."

To strike or not to strike is a purely tactical question. But some of the internal disagreements concern not just how to fight, but what to fight for. "I think when we start getting into the smaller issues there has been a lot of debate around what people are willing to give up for legalization, and there are some folks that would much rather see nothing done than more deportation," says Raquel Batista of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, which since 1982 has assisted immigrants with bringing family members over, applying for citizenship, and fighting deportations. "And there's definitely a sector that wants to see legalization and is willing to negotiate that."

The debate is not just between unions (who largely support the Senate's McCain-Kennedy compromise) and community organizations that oppose any bill that toughens deportation rules. It's also taking place within organizations and between immigrant groups that feel they have more to gain from legalization (like Mexicans) or more to lose from deportation (e.g., Dominicans). The fissures are products of different patterns of immigration—some people slip across the border, others come here on legal visas and overstay—as well as history. As a group, Dominicans haven't been here as long as Mexicans, whose ancestors once knew California as part of their native country. "All of that kind of plays itself out in this bigger debate," says Batista, "but it's not necessarily what you see folks really talking about—the deep history of all of this and how it's coming to play now."

The disagreements surprise no one in a movement so broad. So there is a conscious effort to put them aside in the name of getting the worst possible laws off the table, then worry about the specifics. For now, the movement has set broad legislative goals—family reunification, workplace protection, a path to legalization, and civil rights—that everyone can live with.

"There isn't necessarily unilateral consensus around which bill is the best bill, but there is a real consensus about preventing—and sending a strong signal against—anti-immigrant bills, and that's what you see in the streets," says Sadhwani. "People are really pissed off."

The anger itself is a kind of victory. The political aftermath of 9-11—detentions, deportations, forced registrations—set the U.S. immigrant movement back years. April 10 was a comeback. "People for the first time in a long time felt really safe to come out because they've been so inspired and encouraged by undocumented people and other people—millions—coming out to the streets around the country," Maulik notes.

Immigrant-led political movements aren't new. The push for an eight-hour day in the late 19th century was one. The 1912 "Bread and Roses" strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, involved 17 ethnic groups. The steel strike of 1919 was also diverse. It failed, and helped trigger a crackdown on newcomers. "But fifteen years later the children of those immigrants were the ones who built the labor movement into a successful movement in this country," says Mark Naison, a labor historian who teaches at Fordham. Those sit-ins of the 1930s succeeded "because people had elected Democratic governors and mayors who wouldn't send in troops to remove people from the factories," Naison adds. "In order for [today's movement] to succeed you have to have some electoral might to combine with the social power. That's why I think success might come in 10 or 20 years."

Hence the signs at last week's rally that proclaimed, "Today we march, tomorrow we vote." Foreign-born voters already wield some clout in New York. Many can vote, and those who can't might have relatives who do. But it's a different story in most of the states that elect people to the House and Senate, who will ultimately determine the immigrants' fate. Census data show that in half the states, immigrants constitute a mere 5 percent of the population, or less.

That doesn't discourage those who packed Broadway last Monday night. "There's no way that these groups are going to go back and do nothing. Many new organizations are popping up in communities that weren't organized before," says Maulik. "I think it's an infrastructure that is going to stay, and that's really exciting."

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