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Why Tens of Thousands of Migrant Workers Will Fill the Streets on May Day

On May Day, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people will fill the streets in city after city, town after town, across the US.
 
 
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In a little over a month, hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of people will fill the streets in city after city, town after town, across the US. This year these May Day marches of immigrant workers will make an important demand on the Obama administration: End the draconian enforcement policies of the Bush administration. Establish a new immigration policy based on human rights and recognition of the crucial economic and social contributions of immigrants to US society.

This year's marches will continue the recovery in the US of the celebration of May Day, recognized in the rest of the world as the day recognizing the contributions and achievements of working people. That recovery started on Monday, May 1, 2006, when over a million people filled the streets of Los Angeles, with hundreds of thousands more in Chicago, New York and cities and towns throughout the United States. Again on May Day in 2007 and 2008, immigrants and their supporters demonstrated and marched, from coast to coast.

One sign found in almost every march said it all: "We are Workers, not Criminals!" Often it was held in the calloused hands of men and women who looked as though they'd just come from work in a factory, cleaning an office building or picking grapes. The sign stated an obvious truth. Millions of people have come to the United States to work, not to break its laws. Some have come with visas, and others without them. But they are all contributors to the society they've found here.

The protests have seemed spontaneous, but they come as a result of years of organizing, educating and agitating - activities that have given immigrants confidence, and at least some organizations the credibility needed to mobilize direct mass action. This movement is the legacy of Bert Corona, immigrant rights pioneer and founder of many national Latino organizations. He trained thousands of immigrant activists, taught the value of political independence, and believed that immigrants themselves must conduct the fight for immigrant rights. Most of the leaders of the radical wing of today's immigrant rights movement were students or disciples of Corona.

Immigrants, however, feel their backs are against the wall, and they came out of their homes and workplaces to show it. In part, their protests respond to a wave of draconian proposals to criminalize immigration status, and work itself for undocumented people. But the protests do more than react to a particular congressional or legislative agenda. They are the cumulative response to years of bashing and denigrating immigrants generally, and Mexicans and Latinos in particular.

In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act made it a crime, for the first time in US history, to hire people without papers. Defenders argued that if people could not legally work they would leave. Life was not so simple.

Undocumented people are part of the communities they live in. They cannot simply go, nor should they. They seek the same goals of equality and opportunity that working people in the US have historically fought to achieve. In addition, for most immigrants, there are no jobs to return to in the countries from which they've come. Rufino Dominguez, a Oaxacan community leader in Fresno, California, says, "The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) made the price of corn so low that it's not economically possible to plant a crop anymore. We come to the US to work because there's no alternative." After Congress passed NAFTA, six million displaced people came to the US as a result.

Instead of recognizing this reality, the US government has attempted to make holding a job a criminal act. Some states and local communities, seeing a green light from the Department of Homeland Security, have passed measures that go even further. Last summer, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff proposed a rule requiring employers to fire any worker who couldn't correct a mismatch between the Social Security number the worker had provided an employer and the SSA database. The regulation assumes those workers have no valid immigration visa, and therefore no valid Social Security number.

 
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