Why I Can't Take My Eyes Off of Jesse Jackson

Published on Tuesday, May 2, 2006 by the Chicago Sun Times
Are Immigrants Putting Justice on Parade?
by Jesse Jackson

May 1, a day of worker celebration, began in the United States around the struggle for the eight-hour day. Now it is honored across the world, but largely ignored in the United States. How fitting then that this year, immigrant workers from across the world have revived the day, marching to defend their dignity -- and energizing an entire movement for social justice.

They march to make their humanity known. They march to make their views known. They march because they will not be victims or pawns, but will be the subjects of their own history in this country. The new immigrants seek precisely what has made our country great: They thirst for democracy and freedom, a job and security for their families, for citizenship rights and to leave repression and poverty behind.

Lower-wage workers in this country -- many of them African Americans -- worry that employers are using immigrants to displace them, to undermine good jobs, force wages down and weaken labor organizing. But the answer to that isn't to turn on other poor workers. It is to raise the minimum wage (frozen since 1997); bolster union organizing and create a card-check system so a majority of workers can choose a union; run a full employment economy, and crack down on exploitative employers and off-the-books hiring.

Part of the anger directed at immigrants comes from workers understandably scared as manufacturing jobs are shipped abroad and lower-paying service jobs take their place. But global corporations, not immigrants, are taking those jobs abroad. The answer isn't cleaning up immigration, but electing leaders who will challenge the corporate hold over our trade policies.

Each wave of immigration inspires hot anti-immigrant anger and rhetoric -- "illegal alien hordes" are pouring across the border taking jobs away from Americans. We heard it in the "yellow peril" that led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. It was directed against Irish and Italians immigrants at the turn of the century, who were portrayed as drunk, violent, lazy and dissolute. African-American migrants from the South were cursed as scabs on the "white worker." Now Mexican and other undocumented immigrants are said to threaten African Americans and other poor people, not to speak of the entire "American way of life." With hatred comes violence: Last week, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles and California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante received death threats. And a new "Kill Mexicans" video game is piercing its way through the Internet.

Immigrants of previous generations, including African Americans, should see the new undocumented workers as allies, not threats. They share with African Americans a history of repression, of being subjected to back-breaking, soul-deadening work -- or to no work at all.

They also share a common heritage. Less than 10 percent of enslaved Africans ended up in the United States. The vast majority were shipped to Latin America and the West Indies. People of color are brothers and sisters under and of the skin, whether we are called undocumented "Latino" immigrants or "African Americans."

As each wave of immigrants begins to demand fair wages, human rights or citizenship, they are denounced as threatening the American way of life. Critics want to send us back to Africa, back to the plantation, back to Mexico, back to China or shift us to even more barren Native reservations -- even those of us who have been here for generations.

But when the right wing of the House forced through its latest anti-immigrant legislation, which would criminalize 11 million people living in America and all those who provided them with any services, the insult turned to threat.

Criminals? No. They are our mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles. Illegal aliens? No. They are our friends, teachers, church leaders, health care providers and business owners. Whatever differences we may have are dwarfed by our common struggle. So in April and on May 1, immigrants and their human rights supporters took to the streets, reigniting this era's civil rights struggle.

This new immigrant freedom movement is being embraced by African Americans and today's movement for peace and social justice. In today's movement, many undocumented immigrants have already lost jobs, been detained or deported and separated from their families. But like African-American freedom fighters of the 1960s, their minds are "stayed on freedom." As I see it, their rallying cry -- "Si se puede" ("Yes We Can") -- is Spanish for "We Shall Overcome."

© 2006 Digital Chicago, Inc


Published on Tuesday, May 9, 2006 by the Chicago Sun-Times
Let's Deport Immigration Myths
by Jesse Jackson

In the red-hot debate over immigration, myth too often takes the place of truth. It is time to step back, take a deep breath and reflect before we react.

The truth is often distorted in ways that feed our divisions. For example, many contrast this generation of immigrants with the Europeans who came at the beginning of the last century. That generation, we are told, came legally, whereas this generation is coming illegally. That generation learned the language, whereas this one is writing the national anthem in Spanish.

But as Michael Powell of the Washington Post reports, this is mostly nonsense. Until 1918, the United States didn't even require passports -- the term "illegal immigrant" had no meaning. New arrivals merely had to provide their identity and find a friend to vouch for them. Customs officials tried to weed out the lunatic or those infected with disease or "anarchism." The Mexican-U.S. border was then unguarded and crossed freely. When finally passed, immigrant quotas exempted northern Europeans and Mexicans.

And all the same fears that exist now existed then. There was a huge backlash against German, Irish, and Italian immigrants. White Protestant reformers warned that they weren't learning English, that they were drunks, dissolute, lazy. Commentators warned of the "mongrelization" of the "white race." Conservatives warned that immigrants were importing European class warfare into America.

All those fears turned out to be unfounded. The immigrants by and large were immensely hardworking. They learned English and assimilated. Their energy helped fuel America's rise in the 20th century. And the fears this time are likely to be similarly unfounded. The children of today's immigrants are learning English. The newcomers are by and large hardworking. If they are competing at low wages now, they are also at the center of drives to raise the minimum wage and to organize low-paid workers.

We ignore the many contradictions of our immigration policy. Cuban immigrants are invited into America, welcomed and subsidized. Immigrants from neighboring Haiti are locked out and shipped back.

Vigilantes hunt immigrants coming over the Mexican border. But the Canadian border is basically unguarded, and undocumented immigrants from Canada raise no interest and are never called "illegals." Yet, so far as we know, the terrorists coming over the border have come through Canada, not Mexico.

Even as the vigilantes organize to keep undocumented workers out, employers organize to bring them in. They lobby for guest-worker programs, for seasonal exemptions for farm workers, for exemptions for high-tech workers. Or they just routinely hire undocumented workers as a source of cheap labor. But it is also true of liberal, upper-middle-class professionals, happy to have nonunion undocumented workers take care of their lawns, their children or their dogs.

The U.S. military provides an accelerated path to citizenship for legal permanent residents who can present a green card at enlistment. There are some 37,500 foreign nationals from 200 countries in the active-duty and reserve forces. Seventy-one have died in Iraq, three in Afghanistan. Non-citizens perform well; they also tend to serve longer than citizens do.

Undocumented immigrants are not allowed in the military in peacetime. But Section 329 of the Immigration Nationality Act says that an "alien" who "has served honorably" in the armed forces during a period of conflict "may be naturalized" whether or not he or she "has been lawfully admitted to the United States." This is an old tradition. In the Civil War, some 20 percent of the Union forces were not citizens; many were signed up directly off the boat. The second U.S. soldier who died under fire in the Iraq war had entered the United States illegally. With the Army and Marines having difficulty meeting their recruitment goals, more conservatives call for letting undocumented immigrants gain citizenship by agreeing to serve.

We need comprehensive immigration reform -- reform that removes the discrimination that embraces Europeans and excludes Africans, or hunts Mexicans and hugs Canadians. But we should remember that America is a nation of immigrants -- that's a fact, not a legend.

© 2006 Digital Chicago, Inc.



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