The opening plenary of the 2006 Midwest Social Forum held this past weekend was titled “Celebrating the Immigrant Rights Movement” and featured four organizers involved in the historic protests of March through May in which thousands of immigrants and their supporters took to the streets for immigrant rights in response to the passage of the draconian HR 4437 bill sponsored by Wisconsin Representative F. James Sensenbrenner. The discussion—reflecting the wide-ranging impact of the movement and its potential to reinvigorate grassroots politics in the United States—was framed as a way to both celebrate the successes of the movement as well as to address some of the strategic and tactical questions still facing the movement.
Organizer Roberto Rodriguez, a journalist and filmmaker who has been involved in the struggle for immigrant rights for many years, began by declaring that the catchphrase and central demand of the movement is “No One Is Illegal.” He then went on to state that the Democratic and Republican debate over the question of “legality” and “amnesty” was something of which the two parties should be ashamed. Rodriguez described how it is “beyond degrading” to create a system that has its foundation on the dehumanization of immigrants and then to discuss the “privilege” of making some of them citizens through “amnesty” when they did nothing wrong and were simply attempting to live. For Rodriguez, there is “no need for a category of illegal human being” and the fact that there exists such a category shows that the citizens and government of the United States have forgotten that the origins of the United States are based on imperialism and colonization. While Rodriguez described the debate as “degrading” now, he warned the audience that it “will get uglier in the next six months” as the Republicans will likely use immigration, xenophobia, and racism as a means of campaigning in the upcoming elections. In order to prevent such rhetoric from framing Congressional action on immigration, Rodriguez emphasized the importance of organizing proactively as a movement and suggested that the movement needs to stop reacting to legislative threats and put forth innovative proposals such as the European Nations (EU) program that allows workers to cross freely across borders for work.
Following from this context, two organizers focused on the successes of the movement this spring and looked towards the future of actions of the movement. An organizer from Madison, Wisconsin described how she participated in the cities April 10 march under the believe that every human has the right to live and that despite her birth in a county that had a history of oppression, she felt compelled to stand up and protest in support of immigrant rights in the United States. She explained that many children participated in the march because their parents and themselves are working to create a place where they will not feel the need to hide the color of their skin and their language. She also challenged the assumptions of many in this country that believe that immigrants have it “easy” and pointed out that when immigrating people lose their families and live in awful conditions. Christine Neumann-Ortiz, from Voces de la Frontera in Milwuakee, described how marches such as the one in Madison and the 70,000-person May 1 march in Milwaukee—were truly something to celebrate. She cited the fact that the four million people who marched in March through May were the product of sustained national organizing rather than “spontaneous” protest as has occasionally been stated by the corporate media. This organizing grew out of the passage of HR 4437 and opposition to that bill’s criminalization of immigrants and their supporters and that due to this organizing the momentum towards the complete criminalization of immigrants has been stopped and that there is now movement, while not perfect, towards legalization. Neumann-Ortiz also described how national and local organizations, churches, labor unions, the business community opposed to losing its labor force, youth, and the media were all instrumental in the success of the movement.
She also addressed the question of where the movement is going, something that many are wondering now that protests have become less frequent and now that the debate over immigration legislation in Congress has been stalled. Neumann-Ortiz described how there are national marches being planned for the Labor Day weekend (September 4th) around the country as a means of brining the movement back into streets and showing that the demands of the immigrant community have not been met. Several groups have also set a national goal of registering one million Latino voters for the upcoming election both as a means of organizing electoral support and as a way of finding persons eligible for citizenship and helping them through that process. She also explained that there has been some discussion of a national boycott of Kimberly-Clarke as the company responsible for the Sensenbrenner family fortune. She argued that the movement has been an “inspiration” and that it has given the opportunity for building relationships between groups and movements and that now the question facing the movement is “who can out organize who” with Republicans, misinformed sections of the population, and the extreme right-wing blaming economic problems on immigration rather than economic problems brought about by corporate decisions and trade policy. She expressed confidence that the movement could successfully organize the grassroots and consequently move the debate and legislation in the favor of the movement.
The final panelist, Colin Rajah of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, reminded the audience that while the debate is often seen as one involving Mexicans and Latinos, immigration is a human condition and that the plight of immigrants extends beyond those groups and that indeed people have always immigrated as becomes necessary for survivability. He cited statistics showing that cross-border immigration has increased over the past century due both to migration as well as the increase in borders. As this immigration has increased, international laws have largely shifted and now view immigration in an economic context with little respect for human and labor rights. While the World Bank has documented that remittances by immigrants’ to their families in their native countries are significant and consequently contribute to economic growth, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS) view immigrants as economic units that can be used to promote trade. Even international bodies such as the United Nations, which has been the site of struggle by the immigrant rights movement to obtain protections, have adopted economic rhetoric and have abandoned their role as allies of the movement. He explained that within the larger social forum network, of which the Midwest Social Forum is a part, a migrant rights caucus has been formed and there has been significant progress towards making immigrant rights an important issue on the left.
One point of contention in the plenary was the question of supporting the Senate’s bill on immigration, S26.11. This issue was raised by an audience member who gave a brief summary of a protest that was held Wednesday night (07/05/06) in the Milwaukee area at a forum sponsored by Representative Sensenbrenner, with the audience member arguing that the bill produced by the Senate, while not as draconian as HR 4437, contains several unacceptable enforcement provisions, fails to “fulfill the aspirations of the movement,” and argued that the actual contents of the bill have not been discussed enough. In response, Roberto Rodriguez agreed that the guest worker program is the wrong way to go due to its creation of a second class of citizens within the United States who will consequently be targets for exploitation and oppression. He further stated that he believed that electoral politics are “the wrong way to go” for a movement that should be able to look and see that electoral politics have historically been unable to protect immigrants. Christine Neumann-Ortiz responded that the We Are America Alliance–a coalition of immigrant rights groups—came to consensus after extended debate that while the Senate bill had unacceptable criminalization components, it had made some achievements that reflected the success of the movement.