Immigrants’ rights activists vie for attention

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Seeking to keep a light burning over the issue of immigrants’ rights as the nation turns its attention to other priorities, a small group of activists from around southern Minnesota a`nd the Twin Cities spent a hot, muggy weekend on what they called a journey of hope in Owatonna, Austin and Albert Lea.

Whether they can get federal lawmakers to hear their pleas remains to be seen. 

“People need to step forward, and not just say they want immigration reform,” said one of the event’s organizers, Ernesto Velez Bustos, of Centro Campesino in Owatonna. The organization co-ordinated the three days of events and served as the staging area for Friday’s march. “If people work together, they can get something done.”

Groups that supported the marches included the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Coalition, the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network, the Interfaith Coalition on Immigration and the Service Employees International Union Local 26, among others.

Acknowledging a light turnout Friday and Sunday, and a canceled march on Saturday because of a lack of numbers, Bustos said that getting people interested in the cause was hard because there was no central piece of federal legislation around which they could organize and rally. And having Congress fixated on a staggering economy, health care insurance reform and a never-ending war doesn’t help matters either, he said.

Still, a “largely symbolic” three-day event was important because it reminded elected officials, law enforcement and area residents that immigrants play an integral role in healthy local economies, and deserve to be treated with respect, he said.

Immigrants’ rights activists have noted that President Barack Obama has pledged to change current policy focused on hardening the U.S.-Mexico border and workplace enforcement over hiring practices, but they would like to see him exert greater leadership in pushing an agenda that includes what they call just and humane immigration reform.

In Minnesota, they have met with representatives from the offices of Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, in whose district the marches took place, and Democratic U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, but Bustos said that while those lawmakers recognize that the current system needs reform, their collective approach favors workplace enforcement over battling worker exploitation and harassment at home from local law enforcement. 

Bustos led about 20 people through downtown Owatonna and its neighborhoods on Friday afternoon. Carrying signs but otherwise walking quietly, they drew curious looks, or no looks at all, from passing motorists and residents sitting out on their front porches or walking their dogs. Every now and then the marchers’ spirits got a boost when a passing motorist would honk their car’s horn and yell and wave in support.

“All these people want to do is work and provide for their families,” said Dale Chidestar, with Austin’s Local 9 office of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

The union represents workers at Hormel and Quality Pork plants in the area, and Chidestar said he came to Owatonna on Friday to express support for the marchers, and for the immigrant workers who are kept “in the shadows.”

Doug Nopar, of the Land Steward Project, agreed.

“Immigrant rights are important to healthy rural communities,” he said.

On Saturday, events took a different tack, with Centro Campesino and others hosting workshops at the Austin Public Library on immigrant life and immigration law. Bustos said he was happy to see dozens of Austin residents take art in the workshops.

Those among the audience included a few members of an organization called the National Socialist Movement, which promotes white “awareness” and separatism on its Web site.

Sam Johnson, a member of the group, criticized the Austin community for making immigrants feel “too welcome,” according to a report on the Austin Daily Herlad’s Web site.

“I think there’s comments you have made that have made them feel not welcome,” said Eva Benavidez of the Resource Center of the Americas, referring to immigrants in the audience.

“There’s three Nazis here, and the rest of you are liberal communists,” Johnson said, in the Herald’s report.

Bustos said that, despite those comments, no tempers flared.

On Sunday, Bustos led about 30 people on a march through Albert Lea, carrying flags and signs and chanting, “Yes we can!” and “No human is illegal.” The marchers drew some supportive honks from motorists,  according to the Albert Lea Tribune.

One man protesting against the march found himself speaking with members of the Minnesota Peace Team, a Twin Cities group accompanying the marchers all three days. A spokesman said their aim was merely to ensure that nobody’s emotions got the better of them.

The weekend’s events all took place within Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, represented by Walz. The area has seen some noticeable shifts in demographics in the past decade, and at times, anti-immigrant sentiment and law enforcement have raised eyebrows.

According to the U.S. Census, just 3 percent of the district’s population is Hispanic, 1.7 percent is Asian, 1 percent is black and .2 percent is Native American. However, meatpacking and agribusiness concerns hire a lot of Hispanic workers, and the percentage of Hispanics in cities such as Worthington is much higher than the district as a whole.

One report by Minnesota 2020 found that meat processor Swift & Co. doubled its workforce between 1990 and 1995, from approximately 750 to 1,650 employees, by increasing its Hispanic, Asian, and Black American workforce. While the numbers of approximately 700 white workers remained essentially unaltered, the number of Latino workers climbed from 119 to 525, Asians from 126 to 324, and Blacks from 16 to 64. 

In December 2006, ICE officials arrested 1,282 non-citizen workers in a series of raids at Swift meatpacking plants in six states; about 400 were arrested at Swift’s plant in Worthington. And in April 2007, as part of “Operation Cross Check,” about 50 illegal immigrants were arrested in Willmar and Atwater.

Lawsuits followed. In Arias v. ICE, filed in Minnesota District Court, Operation Cross Check plaintiffs alleged their Fourth Amendment rights were violated when agents entered and searched private homes without warrants, and detained and interrogated the plaintiffs in their homes. The lawsuit also alleges that agents violated the plaintiffs’ due process rights, their Fifth Amendment right to protection against self-incrimination, their right to counsel, and their equal protection rights. A motion for summary judgment and dismissal of the charges was denied in part by the court, and the case is under appeal in the 8th District. 

And the issue of illegal immigration resonated among district voters in 2008. State Sen. Dick Day, one of the Republicans who hoped, unsuccessfully, to unseat Walz, made headlines with a three-day tour of the U.S. border with Mexico, accompanied in part by members of the Minuteman Project vigilante group. He campaigned on a pledge to lock the border down. 

“The tone of the debate hasn’t really changed,” Bustos said before setting off on Friday afternoon. But he said he remains cautiously optimistic for changes in the law from the 111th Congress and beyond.

“Everyone realizes that it is something that is needed,” he said.