Seattle rallies for immigrant rights

Seattle rallies for immigrant rights | April 14, 2010

SEATTLE--As many as 4,000 people gathered downtown on April 10 for one of the largest immigrant rights demonstrations here in recent years.

The event was organized by the Washington Immigration Reform Coalition (WIRC) for America, an alliance of over 60 community organizations, faith groups and unions, in response to a call for a national day of action for immigration reform called by One America.

Frustrated by the lack of action on the part of President Barack Obama and Congress, and inspired by the large turnout in Washington, D.C., for the March 21 immigrant rights rally, activists hoped to seize the momentum to push the politicians to introduce an immigration reform bill by May 1.

According to organizers, the Seattle protest was the second-largest in the country that day, with buses coming in from every corner of the state, some from as far away as Walla Walla, where participants got up at 3 a.m. to make it to Seattle by Noon. The crowd kept its energy with frequent chants of "Sí se puede."

In addition to Latino activists, organizers pointed out that the Washington rally had a large contingent of Asian immigrants and supporters. There was also a considerable Native American presence, and a number of signs drew out the hypocrisy of white Americans opposing immigration.

One young women held a sign which read, "The only illegals in America arrived in 1492" and a shirt that said, "This border is illegal." "I'm here for justice," she said. "We were here before long before the borders, and we'll be here long after they fall."

Several of the speakers drove home the urgency of fixing the immigration system. One woman described her experience being stopped for a traffic offense and sent to the Tacoma detention center. "I looked around and realized that all the people were in there for some reason or another, but none of them were terrorists," she said. She began talking to the other detainees and trying to organize them, and was denied food for 72 hours as punishment. She ended up having to pay $10,000 to get out.

One of many labor leaders present, Sergio Salinas, president of Service Employees International Union Local 6, discussed the importance of labor supporting immigration reform. He described the devastating impact of workplace raids on the lives of workers, but also how they are used to divide the workforce, and particularly to target workers who are organizing and standing up for their rights.

Carlos Padilla is a senior and student body president at Chief Sealth High School in Seattle. He came to Seattle from Mexico with his family when he was 2 years old. "My parents were in search of the American Dream," he said. Instead, they encountered a lifetime of hard work.

"I remember one night, my mom was crying after working in the sweatshop because the pain in her fingers was so bad," he said. "I told her one day that I would take care of her, and she wouldn't have to work anymore." Carlos just got accepted to the University of Washington and plans to become a lawyer, but he can't get financial aid because he is undocumented.

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AN INDIAN program worker at Microsoft described the challenges facing high-tech workers at the state's largest employer. On average, workers in the H1B guest worker program have to wait 10 to 15 years to get a green card.

"I've been waiting 8 years," he said. "Because we are immigrants, I had to pay out-of-state tuition for both myself and my wife. And after completing her masters, my wife is still not legally allowed to work here...we've had enough." He and other H1B workers have been organizing, and 1,000 of them signed a letter to Washington's Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, demanding action on immigration reform.
Murray and Cantwell themselves addressed the crowd via pre-taped video statements. Both pledged to be strong supporters of comprehensive immigration reform, and Murray emphasized that it was important to "pass not just anything, but the right thing."

Unfortunately, the bills currently on offer fall quite short of the "right thing." The march organizers did not endorse any particular piece of legislation, but laid out four key provisions for any bill: legalization and a path to citizenship; family reunification, including for LGBT couples; protection for all workers, regardless of status; and full due process and human rights protections for all immigrants.

None of the proposals due to come before Congress--either the plan from Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), or the one from Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.)--meet all these. Worse, they include ramped-up enforcement provisions that will make the lives of immigrants even worse than they are already.

It remains to be seen whether the politicians who spoke at the rally will stick to their fine words back in Washington. In a telling statement, liberal Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott compared the coming fight on immigration reform to the Democrats' yearlong battle for an inadequate health care bill that was full of concessions to Republicans and the right.

Despite these challenges, activists left the event feeling hopeful. More and bigger events like this one will be critical to achieving real justice for immigrants. "This is our moment," said One America organizer Pramila Jayapal to a cheering crowd as the rally came to a close. "Congress will never make anything happen on their own. It is the people who will make immigration reform happen. Movements make things happen."