Dangerous Times--A Time For Heroes

By Travis Morales

Revolutionary Worker #956, May 10, 1998

Following is the presentation by Travis Morales at University of Houston Symposium, "Breaking Out of the Box, Combating the Oppression of Immigrants," April 17, 1998.

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.

Others today have eloquently described the urgency of the situation and the desperation facing many immigrants.

Authorities have been unleashing a series of attacks across the board against immigrants, as a key component of the repression that is escalating so severely throughout society. Deportations are soaring, and raids by the immigration police--La Migra--are commonplace in cities throughout the country. The U.S./Mexico border has an astonishing multi-billion dollar concentration of military might ranging from the latest hi-tech marvels of weaponry of the Army and Air Force to the clubs and guns of local sheriffs, all used to hunt and capture immigrants who dare cross North in search of work. Abner Louima, the immigrant who was tortured by police in N.Y. and taunted because he is Haitian; Esequiel Hernandez, the young Chicano who was shot dead in cold blood by a patrol of Marines in his hometown of Redford, in the Big Bend area; Alicia Soltero and Enrique Fuentes, two Mexicanos who were beaten nearly to death by California sheriffs on April 1, 1996, in full view of TV cameras, in a case called the Mexican Rodney King--these are experiences that typify and concentrate the ferocious repression directed against immigrants and others.

Even many of those "legal immigrants" who have "played by the rules" have been told--too late, the rules have changed and don't apply to you. In Houston alone, 20,000, who applied for amnesty 10 years ago and had their applications denied, now face deportation because the new 1997 immigration law killed their appeal process. People who committed minor offenses 30 years ago are now being arrested and deported because of new laws. People who worked here for years and paid their taxes are now being cut off food stamps and disability payments for the elderly, the blind and the disabled. Here's a basic fact which all of us here, and many beyond, must confront--all these attacks, and the laws used to justify them, are unjust--and people, in all good conscience, cannot comply with them.

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.

Let me get to the heart of the problem. People are being denied the right to live, because of where they come from. Young kids are being held out of school by their parents' justifiable fears that their kids' presence in school could lead to their deportation. People are being stopped by police because of their language or accent or the color of their skin. Anyone who saw the move Mi Familia knows what I'm talking about. The mother of the family, who was born in Los Angeles and is a United States citizen, is picked up and deported to Mexico in the 1930s because she is Latina. For two years her family in Los Angeles has no idea what has happened to her. Same today.

A few years ago, the powers that be concocted a ballot initiative in California called Proposition 187. Among other things it would have forced people working in schools and health care providers to examine the ID's of everyone receiving their services. Thousands protested in the streets, and thousands of others, including many doctors, nurses and teachers, said they would not enforce the hated, racist provisions of 187. After it passed there was a lawsuit against it. Proposition 187 was recently declared unconstitutional. But the fact is that the basic provisions of 187--and more--have been taken to a higher level by Clinton and Congress, and most of this went into effect on April 1, 1997.

For instance, this has meant the denial of a host of social services including Food Stamps and SSI disability insurance payments to blind, disabled and elderly "legal immigrants" as well as requiring some social service and health care providers to report undocumented immigrants to the INS so they can be arrested and deported.

People who have poured their life's work into some of society's nastiest jobs--are being rounded up and told that they are no longer welcome. Huge areas of this society are being declared "out of bounds" for many immigrants. In California the undocumented are denied a driver's license. They cannot cash checks and run the risk when they drive of being arrested and deported. Last summer check points were set up in the East End to check the papers of people driving down the street. Immigrants who pick fruits and vegetables, care for babies, clean up offices, and much more--are being told they can't drive on the streets to get to work. Basic public health care is being denied in all but emergency situations.

When we call for a movement of resistance and non compliance, we mean, quoting from a La Resistencia-initiated declaration of last April 1 and signed by over 50 groups and individuals: "Therefore, we call on social service and health care providers to pledge to act independently of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and other federal agencies, find the ways to provide all services to all immigrants in need of help, and refuse to report the undocumented to the INS." (Por eso hacemos un llamado a los trabajadores sociales y a los proveedores de salud a que actúen independientemente del INS y otras dependencias federales, a que busquen maneras de proveer servicios a todos los inmigantes en necesidad de ayuda, y a que se rehúsen a reportar a los indocumentados al INS.)

Some people have thought that Bill Clinton and other Democrats would be more understanding of the plight of immigrants and less likely to unleash vicious repression against them. Let's look at the record. Deportations have reached record levels in the Clinton era. The border has been turned into a war zone, and hundreds of unarmed Mexicans die there every year. Laws that discriminate against entire categories of people have been passed and implemented for the first time since the end of Jim Crow. The number of Border Patrol agents has gone through the roof, and La Migra is now the largest federal police agency.

Here's a prime example of the hypocrisy of Clinton, and why we can't be lulled or fooled by it: After Esequiel Hernandez was gunned down last May, a delegation from Redford went to meet with government representatives in Washington D.C. They told the officials that they hadn't realized they live in a zone where U.S. troops have "rules of engagement" that enable them to shoot to kill. They said they wanted justice for Esequiel. One of the people they met was Doris Meissner, the head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who listened patiently. Less than a week after the Redford delegation left D.C., Meissner gave her answer. She went to the Rio Grande Valley to announce the latest buildup of military and police forces along the border. And not much later, a grand jury declined to charge any military or government official in the shooting death of Esequiel Hernandez.

Getting Clear on the Border
Let's Take on Some Particular Questions

Some say--many of these people are here illegally. They are breaking the law just by being here. Why should that be tolerated? Doesn't a country have a right to have its border respected?

Let's be clear. The United States has absolutely no right to be talking about anyone violating its borders. The United States has a whole history of going all over the world violating borders with invasions, drive-by bombings, organizing coups to overthrow governments, training and financing death squads and contras, assassinating government officials. Look at Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Iraq, Grenada, Vietnam, Chile, the Philippines, Korea, and Somalia, just to name a few. As we meet today, the U.S. has been training 300 Mexican military officers at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, in techniques of low intensity conflict which include torture, assassinations, and death squads, so they can go back to Mexico and put down the uprising of the indigenous peoples in Chiapas. Just who is violating whose borders? The only reason the U.S. flag flies over this part of the world is because the U.S. stole half of Mexico in a war of conquest so that slavery would be legal in Texas.

It's like Stacy Merkt of the Sanctuary Movement said back in the '80s. The U.S. sets the house on fire and then blocks the doors so the people cannot escape. With the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico has been turned into one huge maquiladora where people earn $3 or $4 per day handling all kinds of toxic chemicals. Mexico has been flooded with cheap U.S. grain so that Mexican corn and bean farmers cannot compete and millions face losing their land. U.S. corporations can make billions in profits in Mexico but people can't come here to survive?

Entire industries in this country reap enormous profits from the labor of immigrant workers. Agriculture in the Rio Grande Valley and in California, construction, manufacturing in Houston, electronics, garment, food service and others. Mushrooms growing in Pennsylvania, tobacco harvesting in the Connecticut valley, canneries in Alaska.

To have people benefiting from the obscene profits being wrung from the labor of immigrants turn around and call them "illegal" is the ultimate in hypocrisy.

Some say immigrants are a prime cause of problems in today's society. I say, get serious. Ask yourselves--is it the fault of immigrants that schools are falling apart because of budget cuts while prisons and jails have become a growth industry with the jail population tripling in Texas? Is it immigrants who shut down the steel mills and auto plants of the mid-west and the aerospace industry in southern California? Is it an immigrant scrambling across the heat sensors along the Rio Grande and carrying all his possessions on his back to work at low-wage day labor jobs who has flooded poor communities with poisonous drugs brought in by the planeload?

A Time for Heroes

People look at what La Resistencia is calling for and say if they did that, they would be breaking the law. Finding the ways to resist, to not comply, will mean many things for different people. But I'll say unequivocally that defeating the ferocious attacks on immigrants this system has unleashed will require non-compliance. Bob Dylan once sang, "To live outside the law you must be honest." Today, I say, "To be honest, you must live outside the law." 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. There would still be "no dogs and Mexicans allowed" signs up in South Texas. Universities like this would be all white. Today, the law demands that children with contagious and dangerous diseases be denied medical attention. The law demands that pregnant women who live in corporate-created toxic zones of south Texas be denied prenatal care. The law demands that children be cut off from receiving the food they need to live. Everyone here should ask themselves--do they think that these are just laws which should be respected?

In Spring Branch, when school began last August, district administrators told parents they were required to provide a Social Security number to enroll their kids in school. This is actually not true, but countless people kept their children out of school for fear of being reported to the immigration police. The Houston Chronicle has reported that people with serious illnesses and ailments are refusing to go to clinics for the same reason. We can't wait until an incident like Spring Branch happens again. We can't allow a situation where people in need go untreated by health care professionals. We've got to create a movement that prevents such developments, that puts the perpetrators of them on the defensive and that exposes and defeats them when they do occur.

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. Doctors, nurses, and people working in clinics need to make sure that their services will be available to all, regardless of legal status. Teachers and administrators need to begin ensuring that no child will be denied an education. Immigrants need to know that there are places they can go where their Social Security numbers won't be checked. 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 to be taken out and put up in hundreds of locations in many cities and towns.

At the beginning I said it is time for heroes. I mean people like Jose Palacios. Courageous resisters like Jose Palacios are the "role models" for the rising generation. They set an example for rest of society. They must be vigorously defended. The state of California is trying to set their own example by persecuting him. We will turn this back on them by defending him, learning from him and promoting his example. Every time someone is attacked, hounded and persecuted for doing what's right, we will embrace, cherish, learn from, and defend them with all our strength. When the legal system and the authorities in this country attack people for providing health care, for seeing that kids can attend school, or that pregnant women can obtain prenatal care, I think that there are a lot of people out there who want to defend those under attack.

A Movement of Resistance
and Non-Compliance

This points to a fundamental weakness of those who are carrying out all these attacks on immigrants. They rely on people like us to be their first line of assault, their snitches, their eyes and ears. They want people who decided to devote their work to education to decide that there is a section of children who don't deserve education; they want people who decided to take health care as their profession to deny their services to certain people because of where they were born.

I know, from our work in La Resistencia and from talking to many people--many social service workers and others won't go along with this. But to give strength to individual desire to resist, we need to build a mass movement that makes itself felt throughout society. Today is a good step in that direction.

But this whole dirty war on immigrants must be ended. We need to rely on our own efforts to build this movement. People can and must act in a variety of ways. Like Jose Palacios. Putting up the non-compliance poster. Campus protests against English Only, and other ways. We need to create a social atmosphere where immigrants feel welcomed and respected, not persecuted and hunted.

There are historical examples from which we can learn; examples that provide vision and heart to our efforts. The courageous young people who initiated Freedom Rides and sit-ins in the early '60s faced beatings, bombings, arrests, and imprisonment, but their struggle was a key part of ending the racist Jim Crow era. The people who burned their draft cards and found other ways to resist the war machine helped expose the unjust war the U.S. was waging against the people of Vietnam.

Today, I think we all have to ask ourselves what we want to be counted for. The fight waged in society on this question will be a big part of determining what the future will look like--and how future generations will regard us. Will the future be one of increasing repression from a powerful and wealthy state, jails bursting at the seams with youth, a militarized border where the ultimate in high-tech weaponry is used against impoverished people looking for work; a future where suspicions about everyone abound and we are all taught to keep our eyes down and worry only about ourselves? Will people in the future look back and note how many people looked the other way, pretended not to notice when the immigrants were being deported, denied health care and education, and brutalized by La Migra and the police? Or will they note that this generation stood up and produced heroes, like the ones who defied the vicious murderous brutality of the Klan and the police to take on Jim Crow segregation in the South? People who had compassion and understanding, and did the hard work needed to make a real impact, a difference, in defying and resisting the unjust, mean-spirited repression of official society.

In La Resistencia, we have four points of unity around which we are working to build a movement of resistance and non-compliance towards all attacks on immigrants.

1) People are driven from their homelands and come to the U.S. to survive. (Arrojados de su país por la necesidad, los inmigrantes vienen a Estados Unidos para subsistir.)

2) All people have a right to survive regardless of legal status. (Toda persona tiene el derecho de subsistir sin que importe su estado legal.)

3) Being an immigrant is not a crime. Human life is more important than laws. (Ser inmigrante no es un crimen. La vida humana es más importante que las leyes.)

4) People with legal status have the responsibility to defy and resist unjust laws, struggle alongside our brothers and sisters who have been deemed illegal, and protect them. (Toda persona que sea "legal" tiene la responsabilidad de desafiar y atacar las leyes injustas, luchar lado a lado con nuestros hermanos y hermanas que sean declarados "ilegales" y protegerlos.)

Making these points come to life in the months ahead will take a lot of effort and perseverance by a lot of people. But this is a battle which has to be waged. I call on everyone here to join us, join and link up with La Resistencia, in organizing this movement of resistance and non-compliance.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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