Under One Flag


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.

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.

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?

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.”