Throughout California, thousands of people have been hitting the streets across the nation to demand amnesty for unauthorized immigrants. Massive student walkouts and protests have helped form the backbone of this movement. Mills students are among those fighting for immigrant rights, but the numbers of those participating are noticeably low.
When Yolanda King and Susannah Heschel, daughters of famed civil rights activists Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Heschel, spoke at Mills last Monday, one student asked them, "What would a modern-day civil rights movement look like?" According to many contemporary activists including Jesse Jackson, this is it.
Right now, the House of Representatives is considering a bill that would turn millions of undocumented people in the United States into felons along with anyone who helped them cross the border or secure work. It would also extend the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border by 700 miles.
The Senate is also debating a bill that would provide illegal immigrants temporary work permits and allow them to apply for permanent citizenship if they wait six years, pay a $2,000 fine and learn English and civics.
Proponents of the HR bill say that strict penalties against illegal immigration are necessary for a secure, terrorist-free America, but let's get clear on the population of people these bills target. According to the Pew Research Center, most of the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in this country are from Mexico (about 56 percent of the unauthorized population in 2005). About 22 percent are from the rest of Latin America.
Let's for a moment pretend that we can ignore the fact that brown-skinned and Spanish- speaking people established homes in California long before white-skinned and English speaking immigrants knew what the Pacific Ocean looked like. Or that xenophobic legislation promoting the mass round up or expulsion of thousands of immigrants in times of war tend to become hugely embarrassing moments in history years after the fact (consider the extreme example of Japanese internment camps during WWII.) It's simply difficult to see how these undocumented people pose more risk to this country's security than, say, our own foreign policy with respect to the Middle East.
Many of the immigrants affected by the proposed bills have been living and working in this country and paying taxes for years, and yet they have none of the rights and protections assured U.S.-born workers.
On the other hand, the Senate's proposed bill is a step in the right direction towards amnesty for this country's undocumented immigrants. Or is it?
Without citizenship and legal documentation, immigrants are a highly vulnerable and exploitable population in the workforce. But temporary work permits are just that-temporary-and they could very well be more beneficial for big business than for currently undocumented immigrants.
Consider this possibility: A large surplus of low-wage service workers remains available to profit-hungry employers in times of economic boom. Then when recession hits, profits sink and workers are no longer needed, they can be efficiently located and sent back to their countries of origin.
The majority of unauthorized people living in the U.S. crossed the border in search of better lives and conditions for themselves and their children. Now they're organizing and demonstrating en masse for the right to vote and for legal protection, participating in democracy in the same way women and African Americans did before they too were given these rights: by marching in the streets.
Let's join them.