Breaking Out of the Box--Combating the Oppression of Immigrants

Revolutionary Worker #956, May 10, 1998

HOUSTON, TEXAS--April 17th. "Breaking Out of the Box--Combating the Oppression of Immigrants," a symposium at the University of Houston, confronted the challenges of building a movement of resistance and non-compliance to the attacks on immigrants. Panelists reflected a diversity of viewpoints and experiences. And all the participants--from Houston, San Diego, Santa Ana, El Paso, San Antonio, and the Rio Grande Valley--shared a deep sincerity and determination to fight to win.

Jaime Martínez, secretary/treasurer of the IUE-AFL-CIO, District 11 and regional director of Coordinadora 2000 from San Antonio, summed up the October '96 March on Washington: "It was a success that we managed to bring together people of all races, immigrants from all nationalities, from different countries to protest and make a statement in Washington, DC that we will not take a backseat any more to anybody, especially to the scapegoating of our people in America." He gave numerous examples of the great injustices that are being carried out against immigrants. He pointed to the beating death of a San Antonio man, Eli Montesino, by police and to the 342 complaints filed by 92 immigrant women of "violations of their civil rights, verbal and physical abuse, destruction of personal property, illegal arrest, and rape" when they crossed the Mexico/U.S. border. "We're still waiting for justice," he said. "In this country," he said, "there is no respect for human life."

"In the early 1960s, people lost their lives, gave their lives for the struggle," said Linda Reed, director of Afro-American Studies at the University of Houston. "For the ones that survived, they spent time in prison and jails, and it was in a big way a consciousness-raising for America. It made many more Americans aware of the indecency, that many more human beings were suffering in this country." Drawing on the experience of the civil rights movement, she noted "the power of the individual to connect with the community of people to bring about changes for everyone. And this is a very significant power."

José Palacios received a standing ovation when he came up to speak. José was arrested and convicted in California because he refused to go along with laws that make it illegal for undocumented people to drive a car. He is facing further persecution by the State of California today. They are trying to strip him of his teaching credentials and rob him and his family of the ability to survive.

"In the seven years that I worked for the Dept. of Motor Vehicles, I had noticed that slowly but surely the regulations and restrictions and requirements to get a California driver's license or ID card were getting harder and harder," Palacios recounted. "When I began there in October of 1989, the only requirement was to present a birth certificate, either from this country or any other country. And the only thing we needed to do was to verify the actual birthdate and process that information for either of the two documents. Then later on they began to require a social security number, and initially we would just key that information into the computer and process it. As time goes on, they began to require us as employees to verify if those numbers are authentic and legally issued. And if we noticed that a card was not legally issued, we were supposed to report them and confiscate the card. Eventually the computer system of the Dept. of Motor Vehicles was fed all the social security numbers issued by the Social Security offices and the machine itself would know whether or not the numbers that was keyed in was legal or not. And recently in the last two to three years, the last requirement is that they should have a legal resident card in order to apply for these documents. These requirements have obviously had the greatest impact on the workers of central California because many of them do not have legal papers. So it has forced them to actually break the law.

"It seems to me very unjust that these immigrants--who are supplying their labor and consequently millions of dollars in profits to this economy of central California--are denied these simple documents. These documents do not give them any privileges as far as residency in this country is concerned. The only thing that they need them for is simply to cash their checks, to drive to and from work, to take care of their children, and simply to survive."

Palacios expressed his belief that "the authorities are afraid that immigrants and minorities are growing in number, and in power, and so in control." He spoke to his upbringing and the convictions that led him to the stand he took, "Whenever I see people in need, people that are poor, people who are disadvantaged, people that are being treated unfairly, I feel it from my heart that I need to do something to help these people." José put out a call to everyone, "Let us unite, my brothers, and strengthen our efforts to resist and not comply with these attacks on immigrants and minorities. Not all of us are in the position I had, in which I was able to act directly, to resist these injustices that are being forced upon our fellow brothers and sisters. But we can all do our little part in order to contribute to this struggle to fight for justice and equality in the land."

Yolanda Garza-Birdwell, a long-time political activist, talked of her experience with MAYO (Mexican-American Youth Organization) in the late '60s and early '70s in Houston. In one example, "MAYO wanted a community center in the community. There was a vacant church in the middle of the community. We asked the owners if we could use the facilities, we had meetings, we had mediators, we wrote letters, we asked for help to see if we could use the church, and at the end, they told us no." With the backing of their community base, the youth took over the church and occupied it for some time. They had meetings, they had sports, they had art classes and a breakfast program. She said, "We felt important, we felt empowered. The place was not being utilized. We needed it, we took it." "To the young people," she said, "You can do it.... So you have to be organized. My message is belong to an organization, be visible, be vocal. Yes, you're going to make mistakes. But you know what will be the worst mistake? Not to defend yourself, not to say anything."

Cici Ortiz from HIRC (Houston Immigration & Refugee Coalition) spoke to the need to empower immigrants and to fight unjust legislation. She told of HIRC's work to take on border issues and abuses, such as the murder of Esequiel Hernandez in Redford, TX by Marines a year ago. She outlined their programs to defend the rights of the undocumented. She described their efforts to have social service providers document their experiences in helping immigrants have access to public benefits, and in their efforts to restore food stamps to legal immigrants.

"I am nervous...of the rage that we feel, that we are watching very closely the 20th century coming to an end and a step closer to the 21st century," began Isabel Martínez of Fuerza Unida. "The American government continues creating laws against the civil rights movement, especially against us, the immigrants. We are all here because we came to this country with a great dream that we all call the American dream." Martínez described their experiences in organizing themselves after Levi Strauss closed their factory in San Antonio and moved to Central America--99 percent of the workers were women and 95 percent were immigrants. The plant shutdown awakened these women to the great injustices going on around them, and they have continued to fight in the communities to defend immigrants.

Martínez spoke to how the government knows that the family is important to immigrants, and with the recent laws, they are trying to disintegrate the family. He said, "That is why at this time we are supporting José Palacios and the symposium. So we can keep fighting against all these laws that the American government has put on our backs. We are here to disobey the laws just like José Palacios did. The great example we have is himself. And we are conscious and some years later on, the American dream will probably not be a dream, and it just might be a nightmare."

Roberto works with an agency that provides services for immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. He spoke to the experiences he has had in the war on immigrants at the border. Pointing to a beautiful La Resistencia banner behind him, he broke down how each of the demands are what immigrants face every day in the Valley. One example on the militarization of the border: "When people cross the border now, they ask you if you are an American citizen. They say being naturalized is different. They have asked people to prove it. They're harassing the Hispanics. Now they're requiring that any person that's been naturalized and became an American citizen to carry the naturalization certificate with them. It's 10 inches by 8 inches. You have to put a chain around your neck to carry that thing."

Araceli with Comité en Solidaridad con El Pueblo de Mexico from San Antonio spoke of "a great monster who has no flags and no rights to exploit people. This great monster is capitalism--which is now called `globalization.' " She exposed what is going on in Chiapas, Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Michoacán--where indigenous people are going hungry, and where many workers, peasants and groups are being repressed by the military, supported by the American imperialist government. She concluded, "We need to go home and not sleep peacefully. Get some rest, but we need to prepare ourselves so we can fight against this monster. Because this monster called globalization will devour us if we don't prepare ourselves."

Travis Morales, a spokesperson for La Resistencia and a supporter of the RCP, said, "These are dangerous times. That danger brings with it great challenges. And as much as it's a dangerous time, it is a time for heroes." He spoke to the need for people to find the ways to resist. "What does La Resistencia mean by resistance and non-compliance? I want to start by explaining why this symposium is titled `Breaking Out of the Box.' The box to which we are referring means the actions allowed or tolerated by the very system which is enacting and enforcing these harsh anti-immigrant measures. If we get trapped within this `box,' it means we would be compelled to focus our attention and concern on an ever narrowing circle of people who have not yet been declared `non-human,' while the vast and growing majority face Migra raids, ID checks, denial of services, and a maze of bureaucracy unintelligible even to experienced immigration attorneys."

Travis took on the questions and obstacles that people have faced in building this movement--discussing the many ways that people can resist and not comply with the unjust laws. "How can there be meaningful protest that limits itself to what the enforcers of oppression will allow? We in La Resistencia deeply believe that people's lives are more important than unjust laws. If people never defied unjust laws, slavery would still exist."

"We need to create an atmosphere that lets immigrants know they are not surrounded by a sea of hostility, but that they are among friends. We've got to popularize and promote La Resistencia's slogan--'I won't be a snitch for the INS.' The non-compliance poster developed by the Immigrant Rights Action Coalition and promoted by La Resistencia has got to be taken out and put up in hundreds of locations in many cities and towns... Courageous resisters like José Palacios are the `role models' for the rising generation. They set an example for the rest of society. They must be vigorously defended."

Discussion went on through the night and the next morning as plans were developed for defending José Palacios and linking up with forces fighting border militarization. People put their heads together to come up with ways to widely popularize and spread the use of the non-compliance poster as a key weapon in developing a climate of resistance throughout society. Many questions were addressed such as the dilemma of many social service providers--how do they carry out non-compliance when their funding is at risk. Others got into the need to reach out broadly, to network, and to organize in the communities, through the churches and trade unions so that the needed services can be provided to the immigrants. By the end of the weekend, there was a sense of solidarity, a strengthened sense of conviction and determination to stop all the attacks on immigrants.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)