“Serving the DREAM”

Pomona College will be hosting an event on DACA (“Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals”) this Friday, March 7 @ 10AM. Two representatives from USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal department responsible for the program) will be discussing this program, meant to serve undocumented youth, including the new renewal process. It’s a great chance for local schools, churches, and other organizations to connect to reliable information so they can better serve our families.

DACA

JFK’s Last Night Alive

JFK spent his last night alive with a room full of Mexican Americans!

The above photo was taken at the Rice Hotel, in Houston, on the evening of November 21, 1963.  JFK and LBJ and their wives were the guests of honor at an event sponsored by LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens.  Both the President and Vice President addressed the gathering of Mexican American activists.  The First Lady even offered some brief remarks in Spanish.

Considering I am a historian of the 20th century US, with a specialty in the history of Latinos, and with a fixation on the Kennedy assassination that stretches back to my childhood, I am unbelievably surprised that I didn’t know this before!

The story came to my attention because of a man named Roy Botello.  The 88-year-old, Mexican American from Texas was in the crowd that night and took some 8mm home movies of the evenings festivities.  The film was “sitting in a chest of drawers” in his living room for all these years.  Botello recently decided to donate the film to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, in Dallas, the museum dedicated to the assassination.

You can read more about the story here.

What is a movement?

On September 16, 1965, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) voted to join a strike of grape pickers begun by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). AWOC and the NFWA were distinct organizations–the constituency of the first were primarily Filipinos and the latter, Mexican. AWOC also had legal status and the support of the AFL-CIO, of which they were a part.

The NFWA saw itself as more than a labor movement. Its founded and leader–César Estrada Chávez–envisioned his efforts as a poor people movement, something that could fundamentally attack the inequitable power system which determined the poor quality of famrworkers’ lives. Though they didn’t plan on a strike in 1965, their larger project was threatened by being placed in the position of strike breakers. Their primary goal–recognition–would ultimately be served by the dynamic leadership role they played in the ensuing 5-year struggle.

In the same month they voted to join the strike, their English/Spanish newspaper–El Malcriado–began publishing pieces to help educate the Mexican famrworkers about the moment in which they found themselves. One piece asked “What is a movement?” It answered:

It is when there are enough people with one idea so that their actions are together like the huge wave of water, which nothing can stop.

The NFWA and AWOC merged in 1966 to form the United Farm Workers (UFW).

Demand your freedom

MLK Day is always a difficult “holiday” for me.  As a historian of the 20th century U.S., and as a person who is deeply committed in both my work and personal life to meaningful progress in eradicating racism, I recognize there is a danger in celebrating King as a “paper tiger,” as Michale Eric Dyson once wrote.  When we remember him as nothing but a bearer of love and integration we negate the sheer radicalism of his life–not only “back then” but now.

I recommend you spend some time today reading “The Last Steep Ascent,” an essay King wrote for The Nation.  Beginning in 1961, King wrote a piece for the magazine every spring, assessing the status of civil rights in the nation.  This one, published on March 14, 1966, was his sixth.

For those who might think the removal of legal protections for segregation was “the end” of the movement, King wrote:

The quality and quantity of discrimination and deprivation in our nation are so pervasive that all the changes of a decade have merely initiated preliminary alterations in an edifice of injustice and misery. But the evils in our society oppressing the Negro are not now so heavy a social and moral burden that white America cannot still live with them. That is the dilemma of 1966, for which the white leadership has no clear and effective policy. The logic of growth means that the civil rights odyssey must move to new levels in which the content of freedom is security, opportunity, culture and equal participation in the political process. Negro goals are clearly defined, their tactics are tested, suitable and viable. The lag is appearing in the white community which now inclines toward a détente, hoping to rest upon past laurels. The changes it must accept in the new circumstances, however logical, have not been faced nor accepted as compelling.

To those who might think that progress for some can be ahcieved without sacrifice, he reminds us:

It is easy to conceive of a plan to raise the minimum wage and thus in a single stroke extract millions of people from poverty. But between the conception and the realization there lies a formidable wall. Someone has been profiting from the low wages of Negroes. Depressed living standards for Negroes are a structural part of the economy. Certain industries are based upon the supply of low-wage, underskilled and immobile nonwhite labor. Hand assembly factories, hospitals, service industries, housework, agriculture operations using itinerant labor, would all suffer shock, if not disaster, if the minimum wage were significantly raised. A hardening of opposition to the satisfaction of Negro needs must be anticipated as the movement presses against financial privilege.

Indeed, his words are as meaningful then as they are now. As an advocate for humane work and living conditions for the 2 million farmworkers in this country, I can find purpose and courage in his concluding remarks:

Negroes expect their freedom, not as subjects of benevolence but as Americans who were at Bunker Hill, who toiled to clear the forests, drain the swamps, build the roads—who fought the wars and dreamed the dreams the founders of the nation considered to be an American birthright.

You can–and should–read the piece in its entirety by visiting the following link.

Latinos Are Human Beings

“And I thought he was foolish, this man in his seventies, who had no idea what you must do. But the fanaticism of my twenties shocks me now. As I feared it would.”

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Let me say first that I am a supporter of “The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act”–better known as the “DREAM Act”–as I have been since I first heard about it in 2001, in its first incarnation.

That said, barring any unforeseen development in the Senate, the DREAM Act is currently dead. If it is not saved by an 11th hour miracle, it will remain so until at least after the 2012 election.

For me, my support of the DREAM Act has always been a rather complicated thing. It is not a support without qualification. It does not come from a belief that this law (should it become law) is in itself a form of justice. In fact, I willingly admit to the possibility that it may be a step backward in the cause for migrants’ rights in this nation.

My support comes from my belief that is it good policy, for that is what it is. It is policy. It is fair policy, though it could be more fair. It is productive policy, though it could do more to alleviate the inequitable distinction between the “legal” and the so-called “illegal.”

But it is just policy. It is not perfect, but policy never is. It is a creature of an imperfect realm–government–and is thus never going to surmount the shortcomings of the world of its creation.

I don’t expect the political process to produce true, equitable, humane justice. I am not so naive nor am I that optimistic in my view of power. I do expect it to not to stand in the way of what is just. I do expect it to move in the direction of what is just.

But I don’t believe it can be more than a tool in this movement–it is not the movement itself. As I do not expect the running shoe to run marathon for me, I do not ask policy to do the work only you and I can do.

True and meaningful justice in the realm of migrants’ right would entail far more than the DREAM Act endeavors to do and far less of what it promises. Humane immigration reform entails governments recognizing and protecting peoples’ innate human right to secure a livelihood, even when that entails movement across borders. It means respecting and rewarding work, especially when that work is life-reproducing. It is about not militarizing the border, not criminalizing that which you promote, and not nurturing systems that provide for the abuse of migrants.

True and meaningful justice in the realm of migrants’ rights would mean expanding, not contracting, our sense of who “counts” as a citizen. The notion that the undocumented have to prove their worthiness by being a student or in the military is offensive to me. They are here because we feast off their marginal status in our economy. Most have “proved” their worthiness long ago.

One of the causes of the DREAM Act’s imperfections in terms of migrants’ rights is its chief attribute in the realm of policy. It was and has been intentionally bi-partisan. It was designed to have as wide a reach as is possible while still securing as wide a base of political support. It is a compromise, bought by being explicitly limited, conservative in its scope, and uncontroversial in those it seeks to serve.

While I continue to do my part to advocate for what is truly and meaningfully just and right, I am not so inflexible as to ignore compromise when it can make real people’s lives better.

Now, with its death knell once again ringing, I find my support wavering. I am tired of compromising, of preparing for the imperfect, when this sacrifice produces nothing more than a recurring need for us to do so again, only to a larger extent. What is the value of compromise when it gets you nothing?

The students with whom I have worked with over the better part of the past decade make this measure a very personal one for me. Some of them have been “Dreamers”; some have been undocumented and, yet, due to one or more factors would not fall under the proposed legislation; and most have been neither, just dedicated students–in the prime of their socially conscious young lives–who have been moved to join the cause. I worry for what this kind of politics will mean for the youth working so hard to secure the measure’s passage.

I recently began thinking about what kinds of support I could offer them from my perspective as a middle-aged academic with his own history of political involvement. And then I realized, I have never been a part of a successful political cause.

My first real and sustained involvement in the political process came in 1994, when Californians passed what was called Proposition 187. Then the fight was about affirmative action, first at my university system and then statewide with Prop 209. Then it was bilingual ed with Prop 227. I have been hoping and working for immigration reform since the late 1990s.

Each time “we” lost. The issue sometimes moved toward our favor by the courts but more often this was not case. What’s worse, the terms of the battle have been entirely set by the Right.

Even at the time, the struggle to protect affirmative action seemed ironic. It was a compromise to begin with, a way for the system of power to assure a wider public that something different was being done without substantively altering the dynamics of power in our society. Thirty years later, the Left found themselves struggling (unsuccessfully) to protect this compromise as if it were progress to do so. The lessons are powerful for me.

The present moment in the history of the DREAM Act makes me want to tell young people to abandon ship. It is time we stop advocating for the middle when the other side is pulling that middle farther and farther to the right. The “center” has become a moving target in the world of immigration politics. In the time we’ve been working for our compromise, the Right has mobilized to such an extent that the bill’s original author isn’t even a supporter anymore.

This moment is a time to leave the political maneuvering to the policy people and the politicians. Those of us who stand for what is fundamentally right and moral must refocus our energies and foster movement toward our goals.

That can not happen in the current environment on a piecemeal basis. Compromise has failed. It’s time may return but the present moment is no longer it.

Now we need to set the stage for change by more actively confronting the debate at its core. Too many Americans do not recognize the basic humanity of Latinos. While we have been phone banking for compromise they have been converting more to their side–nurturing their army of hate, of fear, and of ignorance.

The targets have changed. We must recognize this and strategize with it in mind.

As a source of encouragement I offer two points. First, the unsuccessful fight on principled grounds is far more satisfying than the unsuccessful compromise. Even when we lose there are amazingly important things that are won, not the least of which is ground in the battlefield of people’s ways of knowing.

Second, almost anything is possible when we work together. History teaches us that real change only comes when people unite in mass movement. Even the great compromises of our past century were won in a context where people of conscience were actively demanding and mobilizing to secure even more.

Our day is before us if we so choose to pursue it.

History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands,
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For a new beginning.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.

From Maya Angelou, “On the
Pulse of Morning,” (1993)

Bracero Stories


Last week, Hector Tobar wrote an interesting piece in the Los Angeles Times on one man’s history as part of the “Bracero Program.” As Tobar adroitly concludes, “Many things have changed in half a century. And many things have not.”

Why Repealing Birthright Citizenship is More Difficult Than You Think

In recent months, the “movement” to repeal jus soli–or “birthright citizenship–seems to be gathering steam.

I use the term “movement” cautiously because, at heart, this is really about political posturing by the right. While there are groups of people who have consistently advocated for this kind of revision of the US Constitution, they haven’t done anything in the last half year to warrant this new attention. What has changed is the number of high-profile politicians and pundits who have made this their “cause of the day” in the hope of securing their election, re-election, and/or high ratings.

The most visible evidence of their work is a now mainstream discussion of the danger of so-called “anchor babies,” or children born to “illegal” immigrants. As this rightist argument goes, the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution–which bestows citizenship on anyone born in the US–acts as a motivation for illegal immigration by promoting a wave of pregnant migrants who come to the US to have children and then use those children to secure their own residency.

I want to point out a few things that are missing in the wider debate, “realities” which should guide your understanding of this very important issue. The first one is simple enough–this “movement” has very little chance of ever being successful.

Repealing or amending part of the US Constitution is an extremely difficult thing to do. It is prohibitive by design, since nobody wants a country where the fundamental laws of the land can change with the whims of the age. Accordingly, changing any amendment requires the rarest of political conditions. To do it, supporters of a new Amendment (which is how you amend another Amendment) would need to follow one of two courses: 1) get a two-thirds majority of both the House and the Senate to pass the Amendment, and then get three-fourths of all States to approve it; or 2) get two-thirds of all States to hold a Constitutional Convention proposing the Amendment, and then get three-fourths of all States to approve it. Neither one of these scenarios has a chance of mustering even the slightest chance of coming to pass relating to the 14th Amendment.

Now, this reality is an important one to grasp, before we engage in any other debate about the issue. The only reason this “movement” has seemingly become so successful is because politicians–from Lindsay Graham to John McCain–are spouting off about “anchor babies” and the reasonableness of having hearings on repealing jus soli. But these politicians know the process that is required of such a move. They know it has no chance of passing, let alone ever being considered by the House or Senate under this (or any recent) configuration. So why doth they protest?

So, before we continue, let’s get our head around the fact that this is an esoteric discussion being led by politicians who are trying to secure their electability among a small yet vocal fringe of their party.

The second reality passing us by is the second point I would like to make: repealing birthright citizenship opens a mess of legal complexities, many of which do not benefit the US. Supporters of this act like the issue is an easy one since all it would do it stop Mexicans from coming to the US and having their babies. What it would really do is provoke a global war on citizenship.

Let’s say a child is born in to an “illegal” parent in a United States where jus soli is not the law of the land. We say this child is not a citizen and they must be deported. But to where? Having been born in the US, they are not a citizen in any other nation of the world. Barring bureaucratic measures taken by the parent on the behalf of the child, they would now be a human being who has no citizenship.

You can’t deport them without the other nation agreeing to take them, which is highly unlikely since they have no vested interest in accepting, en masse, people they consider to be your citizens. So now you have a class of people within your national borders who are neither citizens–ostensibly deprived of rights as basic as the right to exist within your national limits–and yet who are, in fact, legally present within your nation. How do you house them? What do they get to do? What do they not get to do? Do you raise them in federal orphanages? Do they go to school? What happens when they turn 18?

How about this: let’s say we have a child born to an “illegal” mother but the father is “legal.” What about the reverse? Is the child deprived of citizenship or not? Does this differ if the “legal” parent is a naturalized US citizen, a US-born citizen, or a legal permanent resident (LPR)? What if we decide one parent who is a citizen is enough? Are there penalties for pro-creating with an “illegal”? And what about victims of rape? What about women who do not divulge the father’s name or status?

And then there is this complication: what level of “illegality” is necessary to strip a native-born child from becoming a US citizen? Only if the parent is residing in the US without authorization? Do we include people who are here “legally” but working “illegally”? What about people who were once here legally but have overstayed their visa? Does it matter when the migrant gets pregnant? Let’s say they child is conceived when the parent(s) are legal but born when one or both are not? What if the child is born on the exact day a visa expires? What if the migrant has been here for years, unauthorized, but then gets pregnant. Certainly not an “anchor baby.” And what about legal guestworkers who get pregnant and have children while they are working?

These scenarios are hardly far fetched. When you are dealing with a nation the size of the US, who actively promotes the informal importation of as many unauthorized workers as we do, these scenarios are common. They would also clog the US legal system and bring it to a standstill while we worked it all out. Whatever the solution, there would be so many ways around it and/or so many gross violations of common decency as a result, nobody would be pleased with the outcome.

Finally–and I think the most compelling reality that exposes this entire effort for the political smokescreen that it is–the advocates of repealing jus soli are basing their analysis on a bunch of misinformation. When it comes down to it, “anchor babies” do not exist in any measurable fashion. The offensive phenomenon of “stop and drop” is a myth.

This recent report from the Pew Hispanic Center is causing a stir because it estimates that better than 12% of all the children born in the US are born to “illegal immigrant parents.” This seems to statistically demonstrate the level of our “crisis.” But, the report also calculates that as many as 80% of the “illegal” parents have been in the US for one-year or longer. (In case you didn’t know, human babies take about 9 months to gestate.)

Furthermore, because of the data they used, the report does not separate between those children who have one parent who is “illegal” and those who have two. Other fairly recent reports (one, two, three) suggest the number of children with “mixed” parents (in terms of legal status) may be rather high.

So where does this leave us?

If the politicians and pundits know everything that I just described to you, then they are purposefully manipulating the information in order to strike fear in their constituencies. You might ask why they would do such a thing.

If they don’t know what I have just described to you, then they are dumb, uneducated, and/or misinformed. You might ask yourself why people who are elected to represent you don’t do the simple work of research and learning about complex issues before they take stands on them. You might also ask why people who make millions of dollars on TV talking to you about these issues don’t either.

In either case, repealing the 14th Amendment is not only a bad idea, but one that works against any stable democratic republic. And, when it comes down to it, it will do nothing to curb the flow of “illegal” immigration to the US, a phenomenon that exists because of two things: systemic poverty in Mexico and active recruitment and labor needs in the US.

Schwarzeneggar supports Jim Crow

This  governor of California vetoed SB 1121.  The bill would have ended 70 years of blatant racial discrimination in California by extending the same overtime rights you and I enjoy to the nearly half million farmworkers toiling in the fields.

Let’s be clear:  this is a public official supporting with his power and authority the systematic abuse of the thousands and thousands of people who do the work that keeps you alive.  There is little other way to look at it.  History will judge him an even worse racist than those of 50 or 100 years ago because Schwarzeneggar should have known better.

The reason he gave for his veto is that the cost would be too high for the industry, forcing them to higher fewer workers. He wrote: “Unfortunately, this measure, while well-intended, will not improve the lives of California’s agricultural workers and instead will result in additional burdens on California businesses, increased unemployment and lower wages.”

This is the same reason that was given when they tried to ban the short-handle hoe; or get rid of the Bracero Program; or limit the use of cancer-causing pesticides; or force employers to provide restrooms for workers.  Like all those cases, the reason is bullshit.  In each of these instances, profits rose after the industry was forced to act ethically.

If you are so-inclined, you can email the governor and tell him what an ass he is.  If there is an afterlife, I hope his is spent bent over in the hot sun feeding a bunch of fat people who don’t know (or care) he exists.

Contact him at governor@governor.ca.gov.

Support Overtime for CA Farmworkers

This is a picture of Arturo Rodriguez (UFW President); Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter, CA); Msgr. James Murphy (Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament); and scores of farmworkers. They are kneeling in California’s State Capitol building and praying that Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggar will sign SB 1121 into law.

The bill–which is now on the Governor’s desk–would give farmworkers the same right you and I already have: overtime pay for overtime work.  Schwarzeneggar only has a limited amount of time to sign it.

Authored by Florenz, the bill “would lift a 1941 exemption in state labor code that excludes farmworkers from getting overtime pay after an eight-hour day or a 40-hour week. California farmworkers now get overtime pay only after a 10-hour day or a 60-hour week.”

You can read more about it here and here.

The 450,000 farmworkers in California deserve more than time and a half.  They perform the life-giving work that you and I depend on to do, well, everything we do.  Right now, you owe them your support.

Call or email Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s office NOW and tell him to sign the farmworker overtime bill into law.  Dial 916-445-2841 or send and email via the official correspondence link.