What would you say of a nation that targets the labor force that drives its economy? The discussion panel that Mujeres Unidas presented on Sept. 13 addressed this question in honor of Latina/o Heritage Month.
The discussion event, “Somos Tu Pueblo / We Are Your People,” was comprised of four immigrant rights activists: Silvia L¢pez of Mujeres Unidas y Activas, Gerald Lenoir of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Allison Davenport of Centro Legal de la Raza (Oakland), and Evelyn Sánchez of Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition.
Professor D‚borah Berman-Santana, advisor of Mills’ Mujeres Unidas, welcomed the students and panelists, and she introduced the program’s M.C., senior Mar¡a Dominguez.
The panel discussed the question that if the situation in America is so dire for illegal immigrants, why are so many people risking their lives to cross the border?
“We came here searching for a better life,” Silvia L¢pez said. People immigrate to the United States today for the same reason that the European colonists immigrated to North America during the seventeenth-century: escaping imminent persecution and striving for a better future.
Using an interpreter, L¢pez addressed the large audience in the Student Union, saying that “the government is making cruel decisions.”
“The government does not value the work of our labor force … the housecleaning and agricultural work. We are handled as if we were criminals, [we are] treated as if we are disposable objects,” Lopez added. “In order for there to be justice now. we want the raids ended. Let us work and let our children get an education to better [their] lives.”
In a society that celebrates Black History Month and Latino/a Heritage Month, the panel asked why is the persecution of people based on class and race so rampant. Gerald Lenoir of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration said, “The immigration issue is the new race card, the resurgence of racism.”
Lenoir said that the “history of Latinos is all of our history, the history of our own people.” He pointed out that there are very few Blacks in the Immigration Rights Movement, and he affirmed that “African Americans should support the immigration debate.”
Lenoir even linked the Minute Men stationed on the Mexican border to the KKK for their abuse of human rights.
“Know your rights,” said panelist Allison Davenport of Centro Legal de la Raza, who zoomed in on the legal system’s harsh treatment of immigrants. She said that since immigration law is constantly undergoing legislative modifications, myths easily arise.
Davenport spoke to the number one myth: “Why don’t people play by the Rules,” clarifying that “there are no rules if you are illegal. [there are] no legal options.”
Americans can go to Mexico whenever they want, but Mexicans need a visa to enter the United States. Visas, Davenport claimed, are assigned “only to high income educated people,” so the immigration laws are based on class and racial issues.
Presently, those petitioning to enter the U.S. with a visa must wait. And entering the country illegally forces immigrants to forgo permanently the possibility of legally petitioning to enter the country.
The panel was pleased to learn that Mills students are getting involved in the fight for immigration rights.
“Some of the most kick-ass interns are from Mills College,” opened Evelyn Sánchez of the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition.
She then proceeded to touch on some disturbing facts: Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained and deported 217,000 people nationwide during the fiscal year June 2006 to June 2007. Since October, over 8,000 people in the Bay Area have been deported, and in the process, some legal residents and citizens were also swept away.
Sánchez asserted that these statistics are proof that there is an “economic and racial attack on people of color,” since Latino/a’s are kept in fear and thus work for very low wages.
Sánchez reiterated that the ICE raids compose a “system of oppression.” She then proceeded to enlighten the Student Union crowd on the ways immigrants contribute to the economy: through taxes – which many do pay -and by their contributions to the economy as consumers and low wage laborers.
The panel as a whole supported the notion that the United States was built on immigrants and that its economy cannot survive without its influx.
As long as the Latino immigrant community is threatened, panelists stressed, fear will keep its people working the lowest jobs. With no rights and meager wages, the U.S. will be a climate of oppression and injustice for too many.