Marjorie Cohn: Mass protest not seen since the 1960s heralds New US Civil Rights Movement Print E-mail

| Perspective Friday 31 March 2006

The New Civil Rights Movement

By Marjorie Cohn
    In a wave of mass protest not seen since the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand justice for the undocumented. An unprecedented alliance between labor unions, immigrant support groups, churches, and Spanish-language radio and television has fueled the burgeoning civil rights movement.
    The demonstrations were triggered by the confluence of a draconian House bill that would make felons out of undocumented immigrants and HBO's broadcast of Edward James Olmos's film, "Walkout." But the depth of discontent reflects a history of discrimination against those who are branded "illegal aliens."
    Since September 11, 2001, immigrants have become the whipping boys for the "war on terror." Calls for enhanced militarization of the southern US border - including a 700-mile-long Sisyphean fence - reached a crescendo in the bill passed by the House of Representatives.
    Under its terms, three million US-citizen children could be separated from their parents, who would be declared felons and be subject to immediate detention and deportation. Those who employ them, and churches and nonprofits that support them, could face fines or even prison.
    Cardinal Roger Mahony called it a "blameful, vicious" bill, and vowed to continue serving the undocumented even if it were outlawed.
    Immigrants comprise one-third of California's labor force. But claims that immigrants take jobs away from Americans are overblown. Last summer, California suffered from labor shortages in spite of the high percentage of undocumented workers who labor in the fields.
    As a likely result of pressure from business dependent on cheap labor and the escalating protests around the country, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill that strikes a more reasonable balance. It would legalize the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants, and provide them with the opportunity to become citizens. They would have to remain employed, pass criminal background checks, learn English and civics, and pay fines and back taxes. A temporary worker program would allow about 400,000 foreign nationals to enter the United States each year; they too could be granted citizenship.
    The current debate in the full Senate has focused on accusations and denials of "amnesty" and threats to national security. But the "immigration problem" is more complex than the sound bytes that proliferate. Seventy-eight percent of the 11 million undocumented immigrants are from Mexico or other Latin American countries.
    According to Michael Lettieri, a Research Fellow with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, "The free trade accords that the Bush administration so tirelessly promotes do little to remedy such maladies, as both NAFTA and CAFTA-DR leave regional agricultural sectors profoundly vulnerable, as well as disadvantaged, in the face of robustly subsidized US agribusiness that enables Iowa to undersell Mexico when it comes to corn."
    The US was instrumental in the passage of NAFTA, which protects the rights of employers and investors but not workers. As a result of NAFTA, wages in Mexico, Canada and the United States have fallen. US food exports have driven millions of poor Mexican peasants from their communities. They come north to find work.
    Seventeen-year-old Carlos Moreno was among the thousands of students in Los Angeles who walked out of their high schools to protest the attack on immigrants. "I was born here," he said, "but I'm doing it for my parents, and for my family, and for all the Latinos, because I know what the struggle is."
    Sergio, an undocumented tenth grader from San Diego High School, attended a rally in San Diego's historic Chicano Park. "My parents are proud of me," he said. "They told me that I should help every time I can."
    A few years ago, San Diego filmmakers Issac and Judith Artenstein released "A Day Without a Mexican." In the film, all of the Mexicans in California disappeared one day. Gone were the cooks, gardeners, nannies, policemen, doctors, farm and construction workers, entertainers, athletes, as well as the largest growing market of consumers. The world's fifth largest economy was paralyzed.
    Today we celebrate the birthday of César Chávez, one of the most influential labor leaders this country has ever known. In the 1970s, when undocumented workers crossed the border and went to work in California's fields for lower wages than employers had to pay union members, the United Farm Workers began to call the migra to have them deported. Eventually, César realized that a much better solution was to organize those immigrants into the union.
    The answer is not to shut out those who work for less than minimum wage, without workers' compensation, occupational safety protections, and overtime pay. "It is a common-sense solution to bring an underground economy above ground," Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, "with strong labor protections to improve working conditions for all."
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    Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, President-elect of the National Lawyers Guild, and the US representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists. She writes a weekly column for t r u t h o u t