December 29, 2006


The Immigrant And The Progressive

Progressives would do well to wake up earlier to the hope of immigrant power

By Roberto Lovato

Progressives, as they prepare their New Year’s resolutions, should make waking up earlier a priority in 2007. Only by waking up earlier can you meet people like Juan, who I met at a naval base near New Orleans shortly after Katrina made clear the failure of government as we knew it.

When I met him, the immigrant worker from Mexico was waking up at 4:30 a.m. to work 14-hour to 18-hour shifts at the Belle Chasse Naval Air Facility. He was recruited by a Florida company subcontracted by Halliburton — the general contractor and ultimate business power on the base — as part of a multi-million contract to remove debris drenched in jet fuel and other toxic chemicals spilled during the disaster. He and hundreds of other immigrants woke up early and worked ferociously every day, despite not being allowed to leave the base for several weeks. They were bathing in petroleum-tinged water and going days on a diet of Oreos.

After the contractor refused to pay Juan and others for weeks of work, the undocumented workers staged a work stoppage. Despite threats, and exposure to environmental and legal risk, Juan spoke truth to one of the world’s most powerful corporations — and did so on a facility controlled by the most powerful military on earth.

If progressives want allies in their efforts to end militarism and war, if they need help reigning in corporate power, if they want to save the planet from environmental degradation, if they are serious about improving the condition of U.S. workers, if they need a hand in rebuilding cities and their very movement, progressives would do well to wake up earlier to the hope of immigrant power like Juan’s.

The clearest, but hardly the only, expression of this hope burst onto the streets in over 200 cities earlier this year; the late spring demonstrations against anti-immigrant legislation in Congress were the single largest simultaneous political mobilizations this country has ever seen, on a scale more common in Latin America. Most progressives I know joined the chorus of mainstream and right-wing media observations that the movimiento “came out of nowhere.” But some of us saw this as yet another step in the long, bold and more global march of immigrant history that began in the farmlands and factories of this country.

But rather than embrace the movimiento as an extension of the Midwestern immigrant history that gave us the eight-hour work day, the end of child labor and other industrial-age victories at the heart of the progressive movement, too many of my progressive friends responded to the immigrant rights movement with limited curiosity, while remaining in front of their computer screens besotted by the spectacular achievements of digital age electoral politics that largely define progressivism today. This chasm between the street and progressive movement was evident in the mega-pixelized fact that none of the major liberal and progressive blogs gave any serious coverage to the months of marches or to immigration generally—and they still don’t. Millions marched without millions of bits to tell their story.

As a result, immigrants and the millions concerned about immigration don’t feel included under the largely white tent of progressivism. Their largely Spanish-language marches can’t simplistically be characterized as “progressive” because we lack the political vocabulary to talk outside the “left-right” boxes we’re still trapped in. And “new civil rights movement” doesn’t apply well to a movement whose march begins further south than Texas or California, in the insurgent continent that gave many of the movement’s leaders their ability to mobilize millions.

And such a situation is not lost on the likes of Republican operatives such as Karl Rove or Cuban immigrant and Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Mel Martinez, R-Fla. They will, no doubt, continue what had been their very fruitful efforts to broaden the mostly white tent of Republicanism by reaching out to Latino immigrants before the anti-immigrant, Minuteman camp of the party burned the expanding tent down.

By definition, immigrants represent fluidity and change. In fact, they are a moving, human reflection of the great global processes unleashed by big capital, processes that are also altering—and in some ways devastating—our values. Even some progressives have joined the Minutemen and haters like those in Hazelton, Pa., the town that recently made renting apartments to undocumented residents illegal, in blaming immigrants for cheapening our sense of work, citizenship, community, nationhood and country. (I do read your angry letters that start with something like “I think there’s a place for LEGAL immigrants, but….”) Instead, progressives should keep one eye on these complex causes and effects—the real political reasons behind catastrophes like Katrina or Iraq—and the other eye on the immigrants like Juan who are part of the solution.

If we are to effectively take on the global and domestic—and interconnected—challenges of the digital age, none of us can afford to work separately in the silos of single-issue politics or of a computer-based politic that ignores one of the most important, most reliably militant and bold groups in our midst. Immigrant-rights activists need to understand you better. And you need to understand them better.

There is a digital and physical fortress that protects a contemporary variation of Jim Crow—call it “Juan Crow.” Given the stunning demographic realities and enormous potential represented by people like Juan, the progressive movement’s failure to understand and support legalization and other demands of immigrant community demands will not lead us away from the expanding hurricane of dispossession that progressivism once challenged mightily.

If you want to find Juan, try going to Bourbon Street, where he’s still getting up early to do his part to rebuild the history of a movement, a country built by immigrants of all colors.

Roberto Lovato is a New York-based writer with New America Media.

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