“We are Human Beings”
When as many as 300,000 people jammed the streets of Chicago for a mass show of opposition to the politicians’ scapegoating of immigrants, it was front-page news in the Spanish-language media. But barely a word about it appeared in the national English-language press.
The March 10 demonstration took on the characteristics of a general strike, with immigrant workers taking the day off to attend. A group of 33 workers at a west suburban factory were fired for attending -- but then marched into the company headquarters across the street and pressured management into rehiring them.
Nevertheless, outside of local reports, the huge demonstration passed almost unnoticed by the media. “The dearth of coverage is striking considering the ample doses of recent media attention on the Minutemen, immigration legislation and the growth of the undocumented workforce in the United States,” commented Frontera NorteSur, an Internet news service covering border news.
The Chicago demonstration was part of a wave of protests, including 20,000 who turned out in Washington, D.C., on a few days’ notice -- as well as a cross-country caravan from the U.S.-Mexico border to Washington, D.C.
The new movement was sparked by a vicious anti-immigrant bill sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and passed by the House of Representatives in December. Known to activists by its official House designation HR 4437, the Sensenbrenner bill would brand not only undocumented immigrants but any individual or organization who assists them in any way as “aggravated felons.” The Senate is now considering immigration legislation that would keep many aspects of HR 4437.
The cross-country caravan was initiated by Enrique Morones, founder of the Border Angels Project, an all-volunteer group that sets up rescue stations for migrants forced to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in remote and dangerous areas, and a leader of Gente Unida, an immigrant rights coalition in southern California.
Here, he talks to Socialist Worker’s Avery Wear about the fight for immigrant rights today.
Avery Wear: How did the Border Angels Project begin?
Enrique Morones: Border Angels began in the mid-1980s. There was a group in the Catholic Church in North (San Diego) County that was doing some outreach to the migrant community that lives in the canyons there.
A friend of mine from El Salvador said to me, “Hey Enrique, I know you like to go to Tijuana and bring clothes and things. Have you ever thought about going to where the migrants live in the canyons of North County?” I said I’d love to be able to do that. So we started going to the canyons to drop off clothes and minister to them.
In 1993, I was living in LA, and Cesar Chavez died, and I was at an event where I met Ethel Kennedy. She was sitting next to me, and I was telling her about the work, and she says to me, “Enrique, you’ve got to shout that stuff out.” So I started shifting away from silence to being vocal about these issues in public. And we started to bring more attention to the issue.
Eventually, the wall was put up between the United States and Mexico, a part of Operation Gatekeeper. Once Operation Gatekeeper began, we started bringing water out to the desert, and blankets out to the mountains. And we met many times with INS Commissioner Doris Meissner about not putting up that wall--that it would be a mistake.
Unfortunately, we were right and they were wrong. People continued to come, and people started dying. Before Operation Gatekeeper there were 12 deaths a year -- after Operation Gatekeeper, this past year, there were 464 official deaths. We think it’s been more like 10,000 deaths in the last 11 years.
So we go out there to put out water and put out blankets -- we’re all volunteers. We’re trying to save peoples’ lives.
Many times, I’ve told the starfish story about the boy walking along the beach with his dad, who picks up starfishes and throws them into the ocean. The dad says, “What are you doing?” and the son says, “I’m saving these starfishes’ lives.” And the dad says, “Well, there’s thousands of them -- what you’re doing isn’t making a difference.” And the son says, “It’ll make a difference to this one.”
Shortly after I heard that story, I ran into a couple of people walking in the Imperial Valley Desert, one guy carrying the other. I’m with another volunteer, and we ran up to help these men. One of the guys was almost dead. I was going to rush him off to the hospital, but they begged me not to. They recuperated after several hours of our feeding them and giving them water and shelter.
A couple of weeks after this incident, I got a call at the San Diego Padres, where I used to work, and this little boy said, “My name is Francisco. You don’t know me, but two weeks ago, you saved my dad’s life. We’re out in Los Angeles, and thanks for your efforts, because he’s alive and with us today.” Two weeks later, I get a call from Chicago, and it’s little Pedro, talking about his Dad making it all the way to Chicago. Pedro’s dad was the one who was really ill.
So when people ask me if what we do makes a difference, I say it made a difference to Francisco and Pedro. It fits along with our mission, which states, “If I was hungry, did you give me to eat? If I was thirsty, did you give me to drink?”
From those experiences with the Border Angels, how would you characterize the situation of undocumented border-crossers, and immigrant workers more generally?
Morones: This is a land of migrants, with the exception of the Native American community. But never has there been so much hate and so much evil as there is in this country right now. There’s never been so much hate toward this country and so much hate within this country.
It has to do with the leadership, or the lack of leadership, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. With the failure of George Bush’s insane invasion of Iraq, they want to be successful at something. So what they’ve decided to do is to attack the most vulnerable community, and in this case, it’s the migrant community. That’s why they’re putting up this front--with the militarization of the Southern border by expanding Operation Gatekeeper and by having these racist laws.
Tom Tancredo and James Sensenbrenner and Duncan Hunter -- these people are evil; these people are racists. Their attack on the migrant community isn’t fair, and we’re not going to take it. We’re going to take action.
This is just like what happened in the 1990s with [the anti-immigrant California ballot measure] Proposition 187. We have a new Proposition 187, but it’s nationwide, and it’s called HR 4437. And it’s galvanizing our communities to fight this type of vigilantism and this type of racism.
The migrants have been living in the shadows and making a positive impact on society, here and in the countries they come from. They contribute greatly. And now, they’re being scapegoated and being told that they’re the cause of all the problems -- they’re to blame when the economy is bad.
What led to the decision to launch the caravan?
Morones: I’ve always wanted to do something like this. I thought that instead of just going to Washington, D.C., like many people have been thinking about doing, I wanted to do a caravan. I announced it one day, and the next day, it was on the cover of La Opinion in Los Angeles.
Immediately, people who had been working with us in [the immigrant rights coalition] Gente Unida and with Border Angels, said, “I want to join you.” And it grew from there -- it grew from just an idea to a national movement and an international movement.
The caravan started on February 2. We had about 20 vehicles that left from San Ysidro, Calif.--from the wall, the point where Guillermo Martinez Rodriguez [an undocumented migrant] was assassinated.
We did it for three reasons. Number one -- to get to Washington, D.C., and make sure we make a strong statement against HR 4437. Number two--to say no more deaths. Guillermo Martinez Rodriguez was assassinated--he was shot on December 30, and he died on December 31 of last year. That was one death too many -- one of 4,000 officially since 1994). They all have a story, and I wanted to tell that story across the country.
Number three -- to demand justice. We wanted to demand justice and human rights, and oppose this Roger-Hedgecock-Rick-Roberts-Lou-Dobbs-Bill-O’Reilly-San-Diego-Union-Tribune racism that you see every day in the media, and these racist laws like Proposition 200 [the Arizona referendum against driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants].
We said that we have to go out there and tell people to be active -- to wake up their spirit and be active in a fight for humanity. And the only way we’ll be able to do this is to go talk face-to-face with these people.
I only announced a couple of cities -- I wanted this to be grassroots, and for the community to invite us. I said we would go to Los Angeles, which has the largest Latino population, and Chicago, which has the second largest. And I said we would go to the Holtville cemetery, which is important because of the 4,000 who died, 1,000 of them are unidentified, and 400 are buried there. We also said we would go to Victoria, Texas, where 19 people died after being trapped in the back of a truck in 2003, so that we could plant 4,000 crosses. And we would march on Washington, D.C.
We visited 40 cities in 27 days, and we were met by thousands of people along the way. We had a march in San Francisco, we had a rally on the Capitol building steps in Sacramento, we marched on Washington, D.C., we did a coffee-shop event at Red Emma’s in Baltimore, we went to the Immaculate Conception church in Durham, N.C., and had a service where we named the 4,000 people who died through a Gregorian chant led by a priest.
We planted the 19 crosses in Victoria, Texas. We supported Shanti and Daniel from No More Deaths, who are in prison right now in Arizona because they helped three migrant brothers who needed medical assistance. We did that in front of the prosecutor in Phoenix. We held a vigil in Tucson, Ariz. We had breakfast with the farmworkers in Fresno, Calif., and held a candlelight vigil with Dolores Huerta [of the farmworkers union] in Los Angeles. We held a rally with MEChA students at the University of California-Riverside.
We went to 40 cities, and it was unbelievable. We gave people three days’ advance notice, and they let us stay in their houses.
You’re often asked to speak about immigrant rights. How do you respond to questions about immigrants being a drain on the economy or in some way harmful to ordinary people in the U.S.?
Morones: When we were in Denver during the caravan, a congressman -- not Tancredo, it was another racist -- actually put out a press release saying that he didn’t support the caravan for “illegal aliens.” So I stood up as a spokesperson, and said he’s protesting the wrong event--he should be at NASA if he’s talking about illegal aliens.
We are human beings, and we are productive members of society. We contribute billions of dollars to the economy of the United States, and the countries that we come from.
The United States has five percent of the world’s population, yet it consumes over 25 percent of the world’s natural resources. That’s not fair. Five percent of the world’s population, yet it’s responsible for much of the world’s environmental damage. That’s not fair.
Five percent of the world’s population, and it only houses five percent of the world’s undocumented migrants. That’s something that’s never spoken about. There are 200 million undocumented people around the world, and the United States only has 5 percent of them.
So when they say that everyone wants to come here because they want to take the benefits, I that say I don’t know who everyone is. They’re here to do the work. We take care of your kids, we mow your lawns, we build your houses, we prepare your food, we serve your food, we pick your food, we pay taxes--whether they’re paying Social Security taxes with a false Social Security card or their paying taxes when they’re buying services and products and so forth.
They never reap those benefits. That’s a big lie out there, and it’s part of the weapons of mass deception that the Republicans continue to bombard us with. It’s absolutely wrong.
How do you see the state of the immigrant rights struggle today?
Morones: I see that there’s a lot of hope.
I see that the person that’s in charge of this country right now is hopeless and extremely corrupt. George Bush will go down as, if not the worst, then as one of the worst presidents the United States has ever had.
But one thing that was reinforced on the caravan is that there are some great people in this country. When I got the award for Activist of the Year [awarded by Activist San Diego], it was nice to see that it was a non-Latino organization. They were doing it because they believe in human rights.
The people who we stayed with were African American, Asian, Anglo, Latino. We were fighting for the human race. It’s good to see that the ISO and other organizations out there are supporting justice for all of us.
You see the surge in the Nazis and these hate groups coming out. The racist Minutemen groups that developed in this past year--you wouldn’t have seen resurface before.
The reason that we have to face them and confront them and silence them is because if they can get away with it, they will only grow. But I really see a lot hope for the migrant community because I see the whole world is responding. You saw the statement by Cardinal Mahoney and the Catholic Church, and you’ve also seen that from interfaith groups.
One of the things I wanted to do on the caravan was to tell people that anyone can make a lot of noise. We encouraged people to do marches, and there are marches that took place now in Chicago and Washington, D.C., and a march in Los Angeles that’s been announced.
Whether or not those marches had anything to do with us isn’t the important thing. We wanted to go out and wake people up and encourage people who already were active.
* Find out more information about the Border Angels at www.borderangels.org on the Web, or call 619-269-7865.
Avery Wear writes for Socialist Worker, where this article first appeared. Thanks to Alan Maass.
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