Los Angeles is being seen as the epicenter of the new immigrant movement, mobilizing the largest numbers of people nationally at the recent protests. On May Day, there were two separate marches and I was fortunate enough to be at both, reporting for KPFK, Pacifica radio. While the mass-movement for immigrant rights is still relatively new, it’s time for some observations and questions.
First, the movement is the most beautiful I have ever witnessed. At the downtown rally location on May Day, the marchers arrived and wave upon wave of people streamed into the streets. I ran out from behind the media enclosure to see them, take pictures, and gather sound. Women pushing their baby strollers and leading young kids by the hand, men carrying signs and waving flags, and older immigrants chanting militantly, marched toward the stage. They were wearing white and carrying hand made signs that reflected their indignation, and their dignity. I was moved to the point of tears. This is a movement of families who are sick and tired of being marginalized while their work literally makes the city run. Many bring with them a culture of dissent and political expression from their home countries, including traditional song and dance.
Second, the movement is galvanized by an existing network of leftist Chicano/Latino activists, immigrant advocacy groups, various influential political and religious leaders like Cardinal Roger Mahoney and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and popular broadcast personalities who have access to powerful commercial Spanish language media outlets. LA’s huge Spanish speaking immigrant community has been mobilized by a confluence of all these factors. But because of these factors, the movement is overwhelmingly Latino. Los Angeles is home to dozens of immigrant communities and there are about 30 countries in the world that locate their largest populations outside their own borders in Los Angeles. Yet, these other communities are not as visible. African Americans are also not prominent in this movement.
Third, the backing of powerful political leaders like Mayor Villaraigosa, State Senators Gloria Romero, Liz Figueroa, and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, has given the immigrant movement a sort of legitimacy. Perhaps because of this, the Los Angeles Police Department, well known for its ugly brutality against people of color, has been overwhelmingly subdued and well-behaved. At most of the recent public protests, LAPD presence has been minimal, and in some cases, actually cooperative and helpful. As a result, the protests have been perceived as very peaceful — another factor that lends it legitimacy in the US and the mainstream media. This is not the case in Orange County, a more conservative region, where political leaders have not been as vocal, and police have been more brutal to immigrant protestors.
Fourth, while the members of the movement seem fairly unified in their struggle, there is dissent among the organizers. LA’s two separate marches reflect two organizing approaches:
1 — A radical, militant approach, backed by an older, Chicano/Latino activist network who cut their teeth in the Chicano rights movements of the 1960s. This group advocated a full-blown national boycott and general strike on May Day: “A Day Without Immigrants.” They reject guest worker programs, and any compromise on full amnesty for all undocumented immigrants.
2 — A more cautious, reformist approach backed by the politicians, religious leaders, commercial DJs, and immigrant advocacy groups. This group, more influential than the first, felt that a boycott would alienate allies, create a backlash among mainstream America, and endanger workers’ jobs. They embrace a path to earned citizenship or residency, and are opposed primarily to the draconian Sensenbrenner bill passed by the House, which criminalizes undocumented immigrants.
Fifth, this is also a movement of youth. Paralleling the major mobilizations of families, middle and high school students who are immigrants or children of immigrants, have taken bold steps to express themselves politically. On March 27th, two days after the historic million strong march in LA, tens of thousands of students seemingly spontaneously walked out of their class rooms all across California and other cities. The walkouts were loosely organized, without visible leaders, by word-of-mouth and using new technologies (cell phone text messaging, Myspace.com bulletins, etc). Claiming to defend their immigrant parents, the students tended to carry more Mexican flags than US flags. However, the independence and initiative shown by the students has come under some criticism from their own community. Some adult organizers criticized the walkouts as being too radical, citing the struggles of immigrants to fight for their children’s education.
Sixth, regardless of the political background of the organizers, the movement is largely mainstream. From my observations, they embrace the ideal of the so-called American Dream, are eager and willing to learn English, assimilate, and wave a US flag (alongside a Mexican flag). There is a clear understanding that the attacks against them from the government and vigilante groups like the Minute Man Project, are racist. But there is no obvious connection being made to the US’s war on Iraq or Washington’s backing of neo-liberal trade policies. This is a movement of working people who want nothing more than to live and work hard in peace in the US, and without the fear of being imprisoned or deported.
First, what does it mean for this movement to claim patriotic props like the US flag, a symbol of colonialism, oppression, blind patriotism, and war fervor? On the one hand, it can silence the right wing criticism that immigrants are alien foreigners with greater allegiance to their home country than the US. On the other hand, it buys into the right wing idea that to be accepted in the US, one must be a “good,” flag-waving, patriotic American. The imminent release of Nuestro Himno, the Spanish language version of the Star Spangled Banner has sparked an instructive debate. On the one hand, most of the rally speeches in Los Angeles were in Spanish, particularly at the noon-time boycott march, and the DJs that helped mobilize marchers are on Spanish-language stations. But on the other hand, most immigrants seem to be distancing themselves from Nuestro Himno, fearing a backlash from English speaking US citizens. They want to sing the Star Spangled Banner in all its English-language war glory perhaps in an attempt to prove their worthiness to stay.
Second, is this movement a Latino movement, an immigrant movement, or a people-of-color movement? Judging by appearances, in LA it is currently a Latino movement. Latinos are the best mobilized (for reasons explained above), and most dominant and visible in the marches. But there are other immigrant communities particularly Asian, such as Koreans and South Asians present in small numbers. African Americans are largely absent. Some have claimed (Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Jasmyne Cannick) that immigrant leaders are not reaching out enough to Black Americans. But many Latinos are retorting that it’s high time they had the limelight. In proportion to their numbers in the US population, there is no question that Latinos are marginalized in politics, media, education, and other sectors. Is this a new civil rights movement for Latinos?
Third, will this movement be shaped by a handful of “leaders,” or develop autonomy by region, employment sector, etc? Currently it is too early to tell. On the one hand, the logistics of the major actions have been organized by relatively small groups of activists and organizers. But immigrant workers have also taken matters into their own hands by mobilizing their work places, organizing local rallies and boycotts, etc. The student walkouts were also unplanned and autonomous.
Fourth, how will progressive America deal with this new Immigrant movement? The links between unjust immigration policy and war, racism, and corporate globalization are clear. Will we make them? Will we find enough common political ground to express solidarity? Possible obstacles are:
1 — The patriotic symbols of the immigrant movement. Personally I am reluctant to buy into right-wing definitions of who is worthy of US citizenship. However, many in the anti-war movement have also embraced the flag under the rubric of “dissent is patriotic.”
2 — Contradictory political beliefs. Many in the largely Latino, largely Catholic immigrant movement are anti-abortion, and anti-GLBT (and increasingly Republican).
3 — Existing racism among progressives. On a national scale, most progressive activists have not considered immigration issues as worthy of activism. Alternative media outlets have not adequately covered immigration issues until recently. There is an underlying bias and racism among progressives toward immigrants, particularly the undocumented, that has to be admitted and overcome.
No one expected that in the post 9-11 era of xenophobia and fear, immigrants would organize so boldly and visibly. Despite the many questions on the future of the movement, one thing is certain — the new immigrant movement heralds the possibility of a major political change in the US.
Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and producer of Uprising, a drive time radio program at KPFK, Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles. She is originally from India, was born and raised in the United Arab Emirates, and has been a “resident alien” in the US for 15 years.