LA’s New Immigrant Movement: Observations and Questions

(Published on Dissident Voice and Znet)

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.


LA immigrant marchesFirst, 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, 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.

LA immigrant marchesSixth, 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.

Central Asia Pipeline Cold War Heats Up

I really admire Stephen Colbert; he used his comic license to make a laughing-stock out of the Bush administration and the mostly compliant press, its stupidity, and its hypocrisy.[1] Unfortunately, we don’t need a Colbert to get comedy out of the US government.

Kazakhstan Map

For example, take Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent visit to the former Soviet Union. At one point in his trip, he lambasted Russia for using hydrocarbon resources as “tools of intimidation or blackmail.”[2] Cheney also said he had a problem with Russia “resist[ing] the development of strong democracies” and backsliding on its own democratic development.

The next day he visited Kazakhstan to promote an oil pipeline route to Western Europe that bypasses Russia, a scheme the Financial Times calls one of many “counters in a geopolitical chess game playing out between the US, Russia and China for control over one of the world’s last undeveloped oil and gas basins.”[3] Glen Howard of the Jamestown Foundation told the FT that Cheney’s visit amounted to “planting a big American flag in central Asia. We are flexing our muscles a little bit.” Russia intimidates and blackmails, America plants flags and flexes muscles.

In Kazakhstan, Cheney reiterated his critique of Russia’s oil policy and (lack of) commitment to democracy, standing next to President Nazarbayev, a man who won 90 per cent of the vote in December elections. According to the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), “the election did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections.” The OSCE report on the elections cited a number of problems, including “undue involvement of the authorities in the election campaign, undue restrictions on campaigning, cases of harassment of campaign staff and an atmosphere of intimidation.”[4] Kazakhstan was described in the US State Department’s 2006 Human Rights Report as a country that places “severe limits on citizens’ rights to change their government,”[5]

But the country has strong US backing, and is therefore, by definition, a “democracy.” Cheney expressed his “admiration for what has transpired here in Kazakhstan over the last 15 years. Both in terms of economic development, as well as political development.”[6] Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher explained that Kazakhstan was important because it “is emerging as a world leader in oil and gas production.” It is a country in which “U.S. companies have invested heavily … and would like to do more.”[7]

The best the media could do in response was sadly regret the fact that Cheney’s human rights claims wouldn’t be taken seriously. The International Herald Tribune lamented:

There was a time when a strong statement from Washington in support of human rights and democratic behavior carried real authority. But of late the human-rights record of this U.S. administration has seriously eroded its moral authority, and Cheney is closely associated with some of its most offensive policies.[8]

The IHT agreed with everything Cheney said about Russia, but worried that “spearing Russia while flirting with its even more undemocratic neighbors does confuse the message, to put it mildly, especially when done by a vice president closely identified with oil interests.” In other words, it was OK to hypocritically criticize Russia, but not by Cheney while in Kazakhstan. I agree that the exact combination of overlapping hypocrisies was more farcical than anything Colbert could have written, but I despise this IHT sentiment.

Someone please remind me when Washington ever “carried real authority” when it came to human rights.

The United States of Failure

Failed States Global Index What is a “failed state”? I never liked the label, since it is usually used to ostracize poor defenseless countries and provide excuses to invade them. But a recent Fund for Peace/Foreign Policy study suggests that some people are beginning to apply the label a bit more universally.

According to the study,

a failing state is one in which the government does not have effective control of its territory, is not perceived as legitimate by a significant portion of its population, does not provide domestic security or basic public services to its citizens, and lacks a monopoly on the use of force. [1]

In the 2006 ranking, some might be surprised to find, the US was actually ranked 18th from the bottom (“bottom” meaning least-failing state, in this case Norway). That is, the country that supposedly “promotes democracy” in “failed states” was considered to be in worse shape than Chile, Singapore, or Ireland. According to the study, a lot of this had to do with the US government response to Hurricane Katrina.

…Hurricane Katrina exposed gaping holes in the country’s disaster preparedness. Viewers around the world watched in astonishment last August and September as the world’s superpower left thousands of its citizens stranded for days.[2]

But Katrina can’t be the whole story, since the report also cited “Uneven Economic Development along Group Lines,” i.e., the huge wealth gap, “Mounting Demographic Pressures,” perhaps due to the influx of labor from across the border, and “widespread” human rights violations.

The study of course doesn’t go far enough, failing to comment on the fact that the United States, in addition to failing its own people, has been spreading state failure around the world, or at least contributing decisively to it. In the top ten failing states are Iraq (4th), Haiti (8th), Pakistan (9th), and Afghanistan (10th).[3] Two of these countries were invaded and occupied by US forces after 9/11 and endured a US-sponsored “regime change,” one is an ongoing victim of US “democracy promotion,” and the other is a longtime US ally against “terrorism.”

Many of us recall that the “failed state” label was often invoked when US policymakers needed a justification for intervention in the 1990s and after 9/11. I noticed it a lot around the invasion of Afghanistan. While the current situation in Afghanistan is not completely a product of post-9/11 US policy, many of the armed warlords and drug lords – who control much of the land and fill the parliament, making it difficult for the pseudo-democratic government to have any control – are a product of CIA programs of the 1980s and early 1990s. These same programs contributed to the rise of fundamentalism in bordering Pakistan, the CIA’s primary ally in building the Afghan resistance. Some of today’s major “state failures,” if they can be called that, are Washington’s.

The May 1 Demonstrations

Los Angeles Immigrant Boycott Morning March, Photo by S. Kolhatkar

It had to be seen to be believed. There were at least half a million people on the streets in downtown Los Angeles on Monday. It was the biggest demonstration I’ve ever been to. The United States is certainly not used to such a degree of mobilization these days.

The first thing that strikes someone like me who may have missed the 60s and the 80s, (heck, I didn’t go to my first demonstration until the late 90s), is that the people marching are mostly families. These are people who realize that their lives and the lives of their loved ones depend on what they’re doing.

Los Angeles Immigrant Boycott Afternoon March, Photo by J. Ingalls

The second thing that struck me was the breadth of the politics of the people present. The majority of the people there were fighting for basic rights and dignity, an end to criminalization of the undocumented worker. To judge by their signs and proud US flag-waving, most didn’t go beyond the extremist Sensenbrenner bill (which would make undocumented workers felons) in their criticisms of the US government.[1]

At the same time, some did. And when you’re talking half a million people, “some” amounts to tens of thousands. This was especially true at the more radical morning march, organized as a boycott, or general strike (the evening march was intended to be less controversial, less threatening to those in power). There were people calling for general amnesty for all undocumented workers. There were Latinos who made the point that their ancestors on the continent (and in many cases in California) pre-dated most of the ancestors of current white US citizens. For someone used to seeing a few thousands of marginalized people at a demonstration, it was refreshing to see such a broad spectrum finding common cause.

The tenor of the movement is certainly “mainstream.” Its core demands have not yet seriously challenged US power, even though the simple act of getting people on the streets in such large numbers demonstrated that the movement is potentially a powerful force in national politics. In fact, the demands of some of the people there (such as the “guest worker” program promoted in the Kennedy/McCain bill[2] are favorable to US elites. Those calling for something more do not yet seem to represent the mainstream of the movement, although we certainly could see a radicalization in the future. My guess is right now, this movement is pretty representative of the spectrum of political views in the Latino immigrant community, like any real democratic movement should be.

My Grandmother

Me and Grandma Rose Sarkisian

I’ve been out of touch for over a month now, so I apologize to those who might have been interested in my thoughts on current events. My grandmother who I was very close to became very sick and then passed away on April 2. I was in Boston helping to take care of her and being with the family and helping with funeral arrangements for a little over two weeks at the end of March and beginning of April. After that, I just didn’t have the courage to write about anything in a public forum like this.

I was lucky enough to be allowed to say some words at her wake. Encapsulating her significance to me and saying it to the extended family really helped me begin to come to terms with her death, although the process is by no means over.

My grandmother was my mother’s mother, so her Italian heritage and Armenian last name (my mother’s father was Armenian) don’t show up in my Anglo-sounding last name. She had been through a lot in her life. She grew up in the Great Depression, worked in a factory in World War II, and raised four kids in the 1950s and 1960s after my grandfather died of cancer in 1957. Her second husband was by all accounts physically abusive to her and she left him in the early 1970s when I was a couple years old. She worked at a drycleaners up until 1983, when she retired at age 70. Despite her hardships, for the 37 years I’d known her (she was 92 when she died) she was the most generous and kind woman I had ever known. She was humble, in both her attitude and financially. Her real wealth was her family and friends, who loved her dearly. Even though she lived alone, she saw or spoke to her children or grandchildren every day, and spent hours a day in the TV room with her fellow tenants at her apartment.

My grandmother had two traits which I think may have had an influence on my own behavior. First, she demanded personal independence. After two heart attacks she insisted on living alone in her apartment. Even in the last year of her life, after she broke her hip and had it replaced last summer, she was adamant that she would walk again and move back into her apartment, which she finally did a couple of months ago, although the last months in and out of hospitals were not easy. Secondly, she couldn’t resist someone in need. Despite the fact that she was living off Social Security in government-subsidized housing, she donated to multiple charities when moved by their appeals, which happened often.

I didn’t mean to write so much about Grandma, since this is a “personal” subject and does not fall under “political analysis.” I was actually going to write about the May 1 immigrant boycott in Los Angeles. But then I started thinking of the families surrounding me and filling the streets yesterday, and it reminded me of my own immigrant roots, reminded me that both my grandmother and grandfather (on my mother’s side) were children of immigrant parents like these LA residents. My wife is an immigrant; so many of my friends are immigrants. Sometimes I have to think hard to understand why this issue is so controversial.