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Labor leads the battle to grant legal status to millions of America’s — and L.A.’s — undocumented immigrants

Wednesday, Jun 14 2000

It was hardly your typical L.A. gathering. Four hundred workers marched in from the city’s street corners, mobilized by the Day Laborers Union. Hotel workers came from Palm Springs and farmworkers from the Central Valley -- all part of a throng of 20,000 immigrants who overflowed the Sports Arena last Saturday, chanting, “Que queremos? Amnestia, sin condiciones!” -- “What do we want? Unconditional amnesty!”

The crowd was the largest to have attended a series of hearings that the AFL-CIO has been convening across the country since March to demonstrate support for its proposal to extend a new amnesty to undocumented immigrants. Attendees heard a series of witnesses attest to the varieties of exploitation to which the undocumented are prey -- and a series of union leaders and Cardinal Roger Mahony attest to the formation of a powerful new coalition that has come together in support of immigrant amnesty.

The AFL-CIO‘s reversal in its position on immigration -- a process that began only last October when it repudiated its long-standing support for employer sanctions -- has already dramatically altered the political debate on immigration in Congress. Suddenly a handful of immigration bills have been introduced, ostensibly intended to legalize at least some people. Just a year ago, even discussion of limited amnesty was considered laughable among Beltway lobbyists.

To bolster its case for amnesty, the Federation has showcased the horror stories of a number of immigrant workers during its hearings, and Saturday’s was no exception. Ofelia Parra, a worker in Washington state‘s apple-packing sheds, described the mass termination of 700 undocumented workers in the midst of a Teamsters Union organizing drive, at the demand of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Carmen, a 17-year-old farmworker from the Central Valley, broke down in tears as she stood before thousands of strangers recounting how her lack of legal status kept her from going to college. “We can’t even move [to a bigger house] because we don‘t have a Social Security number to put down a deposit and turn on the utilities.” And day laborer Mateo Cruz, who cleaned restaurants for 40 days without ever being paid, told me how his employer “called the police and threatened to have me deported” after he’d objected. “I filed a complaint with the labor commissioner,” Cruz said, “and after two years, I‘m still waiting.”

Immigration amnesty for people crossing the border without papers is hardly a new idea in California. In fact, the first one followed San Francisco’s earthquake and fire of 1906, which destroyed the records keeping track of immigrants brought from China to work on the railroads.

“A hundred years ago, my grandfather and his brother crossed the Mexican border into California illegally, buried in a hay cart,” Katie Quan remembers her parents telling her. They had to sneak in, because after the rails were laid, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred any further immigration from China. When the fire burned down San Francisco‘s City Hall a quarter-century later, it destroyed the immigration records of the city’s Chinese residents -- rendering all of them quite literally undocumented. In the general amnesty for San Francisco‘s Chinese community that followed, Quan’s grandfather became a legal resident. (Quan, a former garment-union leader who now works at the Center for Labor Research and Education at UC Berkeley, recalled her family‘s history during an earlier AFL-CIO hearing in Silicon Valley.)

The most recent immigration amnesty was contained in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. It conferred legal status on about 3 million people who came to the U.S. before 1982. Those who’ve arrived without documents since then, however, have been trapped in the same illegal status the law fixed for those who came before.

The Urban Institute estimates there were as many as 5 million undocumented people in the U.S. just before the ‘86 amnesty -- a figure that dropped to 2 million to 3 million afterward. Today, most estimates place the number of undocumenteds around 6 million, but no one really knows. Neither sending the National Guard to patrol the high metal fence in Tijuana, nor beefed-up raids in immigrant communities, nor California’s Proposition 187 have been able to halt this flow of people.

The AFL-CIO‘s decision to back a general amnesty, however, has altered the political climate. “It’s really obvious that the change by the labor movement has made a whole new discussion possible,” says Victor Narro, a staff attorney at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. The extent of the change can be gauged by the breadth of the organizational support for Saturday‘s hearing, for which the AFL-CIO secured the co-sponsorship of more than 60 churches and community organizations, from the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional (the National Mexican Brotherhood) to the Catholic Archdiocese, each bringing busloads of people to fill the arena.

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