Why I Will Boycott on May 1

News & Politics

On May 1, thousands of immigrants and their allies will engage in a one-day boycott. They will stay away from jobs, schools and stores. Instead of their daily routine, they will gather in public parks, city streets and community centers across the country to celebrate their presence and power in our country's economic landscape.

On that day, I will join my sister and brother immigrants. I will halt my economic activity. For one day, I will not perform schoolwork and I will not shop. For one day, I will join with thousands of immigrants in calling for an immediate path to citizenship, and saying no to criminalization and guest worker programs.

Some have noted that, historically, one-day boycotts have little lasting economic impact. Consumers simply shop a bit more the day before or the day after. Such criticism is valid of boycotts intended to bring the targeted businesses to their knees. That is not my goal, nor that of the thousands whom I will join.

I do not intend to wreak economic havoc on any business. After all, their economic well-being provides jobs for immigrants. The millions of people who have taken to the streets in recent weeks have done so expressly to protect the ability of immigrant workers to work.

Instead, I will cease my economic activity on May 1 to remind our legislators that this economy functions only because immigrants carry it on their shoulders as workers and consumers.

In addition, I will join the boycott to remind our legislators that they serve me. Their distant debates are my concerns, the concerns of my family, friends, and neighbors. Yes, I am watching the discussion in Washington. And on May 1, I will remind them that I have not stopped paying attention.

In the wake of the recent mass demonstrations, many commentators began referring to immigrants' rights as the new civil rights movement. Let us remember that the original civil rights movement did not start and end with one month of protest.

The civil rights movement consisted of many prolonged battles. While the NAACP used the courts, SNCC took the streets. While preachers utilized the privilege of the podium, they also relied on the moral power of nonviolently confronting injustice in the streets. When college students joined Freedom Summer they did so with the knowledge that their work was only part of a larger, longer struggle.

When engaging in our democratic process requires that we take to the streets, as we have done recently, we must remember that this form of democratic participation requires a longer commitment than pulling a lever in a voting booth.

Recently, French students reminded us that protest remains a critical tool in practicing democracy. When French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin stood before television cameras to reprimand students who protested, he did not realize that the students would not give up. And he surely did not realize that they would be joined by millions of workers across France.

As I write, millions of Nepalese continue to demand democratic reforms. They remain in the streets even while the government brutally represses their efforts.

Last week, members of Congress continued to travel their districts during the congressional recess. As they did, anti-immigrant voices continued to press their demands. When legislators return to Washington, lobbyists will greet them ready to explain their constituencies' take.

Even with the best efforts of prominent national immigrants' rights organizations, labor unions, and countless local activists, those of us who are in this country lawfully and who support dignified immigration reform, do not have the lobbying prowess to match. Moreover, undocumented people, by definition, do not have a ready ear in Congress.

We cannot now abandon our one proven tactic -- protest.

Recently, Republican leaders Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert agreed to remove the worst of the right-wing propositions from the discussion. Gone are the criminalization efforts found in the Sensenbrenner legislation and in Frist's own Senate proposal.

Did the Republican leadership have a change of heart? No. They saw the crowds in Los Angeles, Dallas, Boston, Chicago and countless other cities across the country. They saw us and felt the power of our collective presence.

Our presence in the streets changed the conversation. But our work is not complete. We cannot be satisfied with a proposal for a temporary guest worker program reminiscent of the notorious Bracero Program. From the 1940s to the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans traveled north to work in the fields of Texas and California. They were promised the protections of our laws. What they got was an agriculture industry dominated by employers who regularly flouted our nation's laws. Inexpensive laborers became exploited laborers.

The proposed guest worker program threatens to repeat many of the shortcomings of the past. When immigration status is inextricably tied to employment, lawful status is entirely in the hands of the employer. The power to control an immigrant's status is a remarkable threat. Are we to believe that immigrants who seek to exercise their right to join a union or have safe working conditions won't be threatened with unemployment and deportation?

Recent history teaches otherwise. Thousands of workers across the country have been fired for their participation in the recent demonstrations. In Tyler, Texas, Benchmark Manufacturing Inc., a company that assembles air conditioners, fired 22 workers because they participated in a recent immigration rally. Wolverine Packing in Detroit fired 21 workers.

Understandably, several immigrants' rights organizations have tempered their support of protest because of the threat of more firings.

Yet the courage that so many immigrants displayed in exercising their constitutional right to protest is inspiring. As a student, I am privileged to face much less severe consequences. As a result, on May 1, I will participate in the nationwide boycott.

What are the consequences of missing a day of classes? Few, if any. Indeed, as a law student I will surely gain a greater appreciation of our Constitution and our nation's shared aspiration of equal opportunity by standing alongside people much less privileged than I.

A classmate recently commented that it is perhaps unwise for students to leave their classrooms so near the end of the semester. Exams are upon us, he said, so I can't encourage people to walk out of school.

I only need to look at the University of Miami for inspiration. There, six students have joined custodial workers in a hunger strike. The students support the workers' desire to join the heavily immigrant Service Employees International Union.

If those students can sacrifice their health as the semester closes, surely I can take a day off from school to stand in solidarity with immigrants in my own community. An convenience to be sure, but an inconvenience worth bearing.

I will join the boycott because my privilege demands it. I am a citizen of this country, a well-educated man with a love of justice. I must speak now because the people who clean my classrooms might not be able to, because the people who prepare the restaurant dinners I eat might not be able to, because the people about whose lives Congress is debating cannot talk back except through the power of protest.

I will stand with my immigrant sisters and brothers because I recognize and value their contribution to our country. I will join the nationwide boycott because their work makes my privilege possible. I will join because, as the book of Leviticus teaches: "The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and you shall love him as thyself." (Lev. 19:34).

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