IN THE SPIRIT of the civil rights freedom rides of the ’60s, buses loaded with undocumented immigrants and their advocates will depart from nine US cities in late September, traveling town to town as the passengers share their stories, before converging for an October 4 mega-rally (hoped for attendance: one million people) in the Queens section of New York. The broad mobilization, sponsored by a coalition of unions, immigrants, and student and religious groups, is designed to build backing for changes in US immigration policy.
The conservative critique, periodically aired by WHJJ-AM talk-show host John DePetro and others, is that illegal immigrants flock to Rhode Island for welfare and other benefits. But the November 2001 death of Rosa Ruiz Barrera, a 22-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who was fatally injured in a single-vehicle accident in South Kingstown, tells another story.
As previously reported in the Phoenix (See "Justice delayed," News, April 5, 2002), Ruiz Barrera was among dozens of immigrant workers supplying the muscle behind the fish-processing industry in Narragansett, unloading boats, cutting open raw fish, and freezing and packing the seafood that winds up on restaurant and dinner tables across the world. She was killed when the driver of a van shuttling workers back to Providence lost control of the vehicle, and the driver vanished after his blood allegedly tested at more than three times the state’s drunk-driving limit. Ruiz Barrera’s death led fellow immigrant workers to charge they were being exploited — being paid below minimum wage and no mandatory overtime, among other things — by some of Rhode Island’s fish-processing plants. But when 35 workers at one of the plants, including Ruiz Barrera’s widower, lost their jobs after speaking out, it appeared as if they were the only ones who paid a price.
It’s this dichotomy — the way in which immigrant workers remain marginalized and vulnerable, even while taking on menial and undesirable jobs eschewed by most Americans — that has propelled growing efforts to reform US immigration law in recent years. As it stands, even hardworking and law-abiding undocumented immigrants are essentially ineligible for citizenship unless they’ve been in the country since 1972. (In another sign of the difficulties faced by undocumented immigrants, Rhode Island, which had been one of six states where people could use an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number to get a driver’s license — an obviously vital document — is doing away with this practice.)
Juan Garcia, a 52-year-old Guatemalan native who coordinates the Immigrants in Action organizing project at St. Teresa’s Church in the Olneyville section of Providence, seems tireless in his efforts. After nine years as an organizer — five as a volunteer — the steady buzz of his cell phone testifies to the constant demands of his work. And despite the prevailing clampdown on immigration after 9/11, Garcia enthusiastically outlines in accented English the proposal, backed by a coalition of labor, church, activist and student groups, to make it easier for undocumented immigrants to become citizens.
The idea is to create a three-year track toward naturalization for immigrants who demonstrate responsibility, self-sufficiency, and the lack of a criminal record. And with an estimated 10 million undocumented immigrants in the US, proponents describe the entry of these workers into the mainstream economy as a windfall waiting to happen. "We have the power to fly the country," Garcia says. "A lot of people have been waiting for 18 years."
Supporters cite globalization, the consequences of US foreign policy, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as additional rationales for liberalizing immigration policy. As Garcia explains it, the migration of factories to Mexico and Guatemala has displaced small farmers, leading migrants to the US in search of a better living. "These people have no rights, no documents," he says. "People need to work two jobs to survive — $6 an hour. Who can survive $6 an hour if you have a family and two kids?"
But the difficulty of making progress on immigration reform can be seen in the stance of even a solid progressive like US Senator Jack Reed. Reed has supported changing the registry date — the starting point for citizenship eligibility for undocumented immigrants — from 1972 to some time in the 1980s. "If you’ve been in this country [that long], obeying the law, you should have the opportunity to become a US citizen," says Greg McCarthy, Reed’s spokesman. But a blanket amnesty, McCarthy says, "would cover people who just entered the country recently as well," and could cause a rush of additional illegal immigration.
Prospects for an immigration bill were brighter a few years ago, and President George W. Bush, certainly cognizant of the growing Latino population in the US, had signaled his support. "But after September 11, there really hasn’t been any talk of immigration legislation moving through Congress," McCarthy says. "September 11 has had a chilling impact on the immigration debate."
This helps to explain why 150 undocumented immigrants and their advocates were somewhat underwhelmed by the response from Reed and other members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation when they traveled to Washington, DC, to lobby on the issue in May. In the absence of political support, advocates plan to press their case through grassroots organizing, including the freedom rides later this year. "At the end of the day, I think we’re going to have the support of our congressional delegation, it’s just going to take a lot more work than we’d like to have to do," says Matthew Jerzyk, director of the activist coalition Rhode Island Jobs With Justice. "With the federal election set for 2004, we can make immigrants’ rights a political issue."
AS THE REPUBLICAN Party energetically strives to extend its control of the White House and Congress, the big question is whether the fast-growing Latino population in the US offers a greater advantage to Democrats or Republicans. It might seem like a curious query in heavily Democratic Rhode Island, but the political inclinations of Latinos — from the ultra-conservative Cuban expatriates of south Florida to California’s GOP-leaning Mexican-Americans — tend to be far more heterogeneous around the US.
In politically important states with the largest Hispanic communities — New York, Florida, Texas, California, and Illinois — "It’s a young community without the institutional memory, so allegiances can quickly be shifted if someone comes up with a message that resonates with Latino residents," says Pablo Rodriguez. "Luckily, for the Democratic Party, the policies of the Republican Party speak for themselves and are soundly anti-immigrant." Similarly, state Senator Juan Pichardo, a self-described Democratic partisan, points to Bush’s support of cuts in the AmeriCorps national service program as an example of how GOP policies are contrary to the interest of Latinos.
A popular East Providence politician once told Dan Garza that being a Republican in Rhode Island is like trying to pee up a rope. And as Garza knows, trying to cultivate Latino Republicans is even more difficult. Even with the chairman’s steady work and articulate manner, the Rhode Island chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly has only about five members. But Garza, a pithy Ohio native and former Democrat who traces his heritage to Texas and Mexico, believes the GOP message of family, church, and self-reliance still has a lot of resonance for Latinos in the US.
Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University, offers some backing for Garza’s outlook. As West notes, Latinos from places with a social Democratic government, like Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, tend to back Democrats, while those from more Catholic-oriented countries, like Mexico, lean more to Republican candidates. Nationally, says West, "The Latino vote is up for grabs between the two parties. Republicans have made a major pitch for Latinos, although historically that vote has leaned Democratic. Republicans think that Latinos are more conservative than African-Americans, so that gives them some hope of making inroads among that group."
The local Democratic-Latino relationship isn’t without some degree of strain. Adopting an otherwise even tone during a recent interview, Melba Depena, president of the Rhode Island Latino Civic Fund, says, "The Democratic Party has been taking us for granted, locally and nationally." She cites a lack of sufficient support for some Democratic Latino candidates, but declined to elaborate beyond saying, "It’s a growing issue," and "a big problem." (Bill Lynch, chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, says he’s mystified by the criticism, adding, "In Rhode Island, the Democratic Party has done everything we can do — and continues to do — to bring more and more minorities, including Latinos, into our party and the party system . . . We have worked very hard and have been fortunate to have some great Latino candidates elected.")
Another local source of division has been the rivalry between Latino and black candidates, sparking comparisons to the past competition between Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans. As Shannah Kurland, then the outgoing director of the activist group Direct Action for Rights & Equality (DARE), wrote in the spring 2001 issue of Colorlines, "Does the expansion of Latino political power have to come at the expense of black representation? And beyond the identity of the individuals representing districts of people of color, are our communities even talking about racial justice when we engage in electoral work?"
The question remained relevant last fall when Pichardo’s election as Rhode Island’s first Latino state senator came at the expense of Charles Walton, the state’s only black senator. Critics blamed legislative redistricting, while legislative leaders said they tried to do their best with a difficult situation after downsizing in the General Assembly. But even though Walton’s loss represented a bitter pill for some, the wider progressive gains of the 2002 political season (including the election of Pichardo, Cicilline, and Miguel Luna, Kurland’s husband, to the Ward Nine seat on the Providence City Council) seemed to somewhat mollify concerns.
As far as the black-brown rivalry, Depena says new strategies are needed to avoid the pitting of one minority candidate against another in the future. "It’s not easy," she says. "There’s opposition from both sides, but there are some great people on both sides that are interested in a coalition, and I think we’re headed in that direction."
In the minds of some, the grassroots organizing on behalf of candidates like Cicilline and Luna — in which Latino single mothers and other unconventional political activists helped to chart the future of Providence — marked a democratic high point in a city with no small tradition of political skullduggery.
"We really tried to build a multi-racial community that built Latino political power and recognizes that racism doesn’t care whether you’re Latino or Liberian, or Dominican or Puerto Rican," says Jerzyk, who took leave from his Jobs With Justice post to manage Luna’s campaign. "That’s a big obstacle, to try to bridge those perceived differences and to try to create a common agenda for immigrant communities, communities of color, [and the greater good.]"
There’s little doubt that Latinos in Rhode Island are on the political rise. The more tantalizing question is how they will exercise their growing power in the years to come.
Ian Donnis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 1 page 2
Issue Date: June 27 - July 3, 2003
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