“Aqui estamos y no nos vamos!” “We are here and we aren’t going away!” “We are not aliens. We are human beings with rights.” “No borders, no nations! No more deportations!” More than 500 immigrants and supporters chanted these and similar slogans as they marched to celebrate International Workers Day in St. Paul on May 1. They gathered on the corner of Kellogg Blvd. and Robert St. at 2 pm with colorful signs, flags, and plastic buckets fashioned into drums, before marching to the state capitol.
Students march in support of International Workers’ Day and immigration rights
by Riham Feshir, Minnesota Daily
Thursday marked International Workers’ Day, where supporters of immigration rights gathered at the state Capitol and University student groups closed their offices for solidarity.
The event was organized by the May 1 Coalition of local immigrant rights groups, unions, and faith-based organizations, and was held in solidarity with similar demonstrations nationwide. After a spirited welcome, coalition members organized the crowd into four contingents with immigrants at the front of the march, followed by workers, youth, and solidarity activists whose section included an anti-capitalist bloc and an anti-war contingent.
“There’s obviously some overlap between these different sections,” said Erika Zurawski of the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Coalition (MIRAC). “But we organized it this way to emphasize the fact that raids and deportations affect so many people in a variety of ways.”
Marchers stopped at three specific locations they felt were connected to their struggle. At the Pioneer Press building, speakers criticized the paper for “portraying immigrants negatively and promoting unfair stereotypes.”
At Minnesota Public Radio, participants challenged the station to stop using the word “illegal” to describe undocumented immigrants. “They claim to be progressive,” said Zurawski. “If that’s true, they shouldn’t be using the words legal or illegal when referring to human beings.”
In front of the National Guard building, John Straiton of the Anti-War Committee spoke about the connections between the war in Iraq and immigration.
“Both overseas and at home, armed men are breaking into homes, detaining people, and tearing families apart,” said Straiton. “We have to stop the war so the billions being spent in Iraq can be spent on health care, education, and housing for people regardless of their nationality or documentation status.”
At the capitol, Joita Francisca of the May 1 Coalition spoke about the origin of International Workers Day, which commemorates the general strike for the eight hour workday in Chicago in 1886. When strikers gathered in Haymarket Square, police fired on the crowd, killing hundreds. In the clash that followed, seven police officers died. Lacking evidence to convict specific people, Chicago police indicted eight strike leaders and executed four of them, though all were later pardoned. Of the eight, six were immigrants from Europe.
“It was a day of struggle and a day of mourning,” said Francisca. “But today we’re writing a new history and recognizing the countless number of immigrant workers who are still fighting for our rights.”
An anonymous union worker spoke about the reasons so many immigrate to the U.S. “It’s because of the poverty in our home countries,” he said. “There’s no work. Free trade agreements like NAFTA are a tremendous injustice. People feel they have no choice but to leave home and look for a better life.”
Celia Hernandez, a 16-year-old student at Roosevelt High School, was born in Minneapolis to undocumented immigrants from Mexico. On October 3, 2007, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested her father.
“I was in school that day and I got called down to the principal’s office,” said Hernandez. “They told me my father had been taken. It felt like he had been kidnapped.” That morning at breakfast was the last time she saw him. Her father had been in the U.S. for 20 years. He worked for the city of Minneapolis for 10 years, and afterwards opened a small cleaning business.
“It was our only source of income,” said Hernandez. “We basically lost everything. My mom became very depressed and now she has cancer. My parents are good people. They never committed any crime except wanting a better life.”
Hernandez emphasized the growing number of young people in her situation. “I’m only one person, but I represent thousands of children of the undocumented,” she said. “We need legalization for our parents. We need to change this system.”
ICE is ramping up efforts to deport more people like Celia’s father. Nearly 2,000 immigrants from Minnesota and the surrounding states were deported in the first two months of 2008 alone, according to ICE spokesperson Tim Counts. The agency is working with its biggest budget ever: $5.8 billion for 2008 compared to $3.5 billion in 2005.
Home arrests and workplace raids have increased dramatically over the last two years, as have other methods of enforcing current immigration policy.
Angel, a member of the Workers’ Interfaith Network who preferred to give only his first name, was fired from D’Amico & Sons Restaurant on March 31 for failing to prove citizenship. Ninety days earlier, D’Amico received a letter from the federal government naming 13 employees including Angel whose social security numbers allegedly don’t match official government records. Current law doesn’t require an employer to take any specific action upon receiving such a letter, but a pending rule change could make it mandatory to fire people whose social security numbers are a “no-match.”
“We were fired unjustly,” said Angel. “I’ve worked at D’Amico for 13 years and I’m a good employee. These letters should not be a reason to fire us. We’re being singled out because we’re Latino.”
No-match letters may put proof of citizenship in doubt, but can also be the result of misspellings, wrong numbers, or clerical errors. The workers who were fired have filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. After the rally at the Capitol, dozens of participants took a bus to D’Amico on Grand Avenue to pressure the restaurant to re-hire the workers.
“We have to unite and stand up for our rights together,” said Miguel Gutierrez of the Assamblea Para Derechos Civiles (Assembly for Civil Rights). “We are sincere people with families and a strong culture. True citizenship is demonstrated when you contribute to society, work hard, and serve as an example for your children.”
Representatives Cy Thao, DFL-St. Paul, and Willie Dominguez, DFL-Minneapolis, attended the rally and accepted letters asking them to support immigrant rights. Governor Tim Pawlenty issued a statement Thursday urging DFL legislative leaders to hold hearings on his immigration proposals, which include a bill that would overturn city ordinances barring police from asking about a person’s immigration status, and a bill that would make using false identification to get a job an aggravated felony.
All of these proposals are opposed by members of the May 1 Coalition who favor a path toward legalization for all immigrants. “Pawlenty, escucha! Estamos en la lucha!” – “Pawlenty, listen! We are in the struggle!” was a chant heard repeatedly throughout the rally and march.
Katrina Plotz is a substitute teacher, a freelance writer and an anti-war activist. She lives in Bloomington.