A View from the Base

Against the Current, No. 166, September/October 2013

Joaquín Bustelo

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HERE IN ATLANTA, there was a very serious discussion both in meetings and on the Spanish-language talk radio station beginning a week ago over whether we should continue to call on the Senators to vote yes. And at least for the Senate, we stuck with calling for a yes vote.

That’s not based on some cost-benefit analysis by the leaders, but on community sentiment. The community is desperate for legalization, even one bought at a very high price. To understand why, look at the daily list of roadblocks and similar police activity, aimed mainly at catching undocumented people driving without licenses, either to feed the ICE deportation machine or simply to fleece them with fines (which the police departments keep). This is from “pase la voz,” an advertiser-supported text alert service to warn people about the roadblocks that has hundreds of thousands of subscribers throughout the Southeast. The original post contained real-time warnings of about 20 police roadblocks that day.

I think we should listen to this Atlanta community. Why? Three reasons:

1) The adult portion of the community are overwhelmingly working-class immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Half or more are still undocumented, and most of the rest used to be undocumented. The half of the Latino community that was born in the United States are mostly the children of current or former undocumented immigrants.

2) This community is under siege and has been under siege for more than a decade, but especially since the double whammy of the depression and the emergence of polimigra (the local police-immigration hook up), with Atlanta metro area counties being among the first to implement 287(g) programs [local-federal partnership for enforcement], and construction — a sector with a huge concentration of Latinos here — being hardest hit.

3) This community has resisted, and created a community-rooted immigrant rights movement that now has hundreds of veteran activists, a network stretching from Alabama through Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas that is completely horizontal and nevertheless has the capacity for concerted action. Its center of gravity is Atlanta, the largest Latino community in the heart of the territory that the slaveowners’ rebellion sought to separate from the Union.

The immigrant rights movement in the Southeast, which is centered in Atlanta, I believe is the strongest such movement in the country. It is very deeply rooted in the community. This is due not only to the leadership of Teodoro Maus and Adelina Nicholls, the two central figures in the movement and the other activists they have gathered around them, but also to the character of the community.

In metro Atlanta, this community was born with NAFTA and the pre-1996 Olympics building boom. There were no pre-existing groups with a presence here like the National Council of La Raza, LULAC, GI Forum, etc. The few tens of thousands of Latinos in Georgia had not produced a leading social layer or network.

The actual movement that exists today first jelled around a petition campaign against a state law (but mandated by Wash­ington) denying driver’s licenses to those without Social Security numbers, i,e. the undocumented. A year later, in 2003, the initial nucleus organized a demonstration of 3,000-4,000 people as part of the AFL-CIO sponsored “Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.” It was the largest local action held during that campaign.

That success allowed the central leader of the activists to move from being the marginalized head of the civil rights committee of the Coordinating Committee of Latino Community Leaders to being its president, with people from the activist wing filling most positions on the board. There was a lot more organizing and protesting over the next couple of years, and then in 2006 there was the explosive immigrant rights upsurge against the Sensenbrenner Bill.

We had a demonstration of 75,000 people, the largest protest ever held in Atlanta as far as anyone knows. We also had the first “Day without Immigrants” in the country, on March 24, which was then picked up by Los Angeles activists and others to project the May 1 “Great American Boycott.”

It’s very important to understand that this was much more like a Latin American “paro cívico” than a workers’ strike. A paro cívico is when many social layers, including business owners, unions, etc., agree on a moratorium on normal activities to protest, say, a dictatorship that is on the ropes.

I thought the former Mexican consul, Teodoro Maus (affectionally known as Don Teo) — who by then had retired and returned to Atlanta — was crazy to propose this. But he knew something I didn’t, which is that Jesus Brito, owner of the most prominent chain of Latino businesses in our area, Brito Supermarkets, 20 years earlier had been undocumented and — wonder of wonders — still identified with the community and was willing to close for the day. And he wasn’t the only one. Not by a long shot.

A Growing Movement

Following those 2006 protests the people who had been on the board of the Coordinating Council of Latino Community Leaders created the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR). We finally scraped enough money together for an office and a full-time staffer.

Among GLAHR’s main activities has been a daily two-hour talk show called “Glahr informa” which aired on three or four different stations over the years and eventually gave rise to Radio Información 1310, and now can be heard live here between 10 am and 12 noon Monday through Friday.

The movement has grown and diversified, finding multiple expressions including that radio station, the Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance, Freedom University, 25 or 30 local base committees in Georgia and neighboring states, the Georgia Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (GIRRC), and many others. On April 10, a Wednesday, we had a march and rally of 10,000 people in front of the state capitol. Two years ago we organized a protest of 20,000 people when the anti-immigrant HB-87 became law.

A lot of the reason for the success of this movement has been the tremendous weight of the undocumented within the community. Georgia’s Latino population is about one million (the census undercount was smaller in 2010 than previously, and it said 900,000 or so). According to the Pew Center, the undocumented immigrant population of Georgia in 2010 was 425,000. Of those, around 10% might not be Latinos, leaving 380,000 undocumented Latinos.

Now, Pew says their estimate of the undocumented in Georgia has a large margin of error, plus-or-minus 125,000, leaving a range of possible population of 300,000 to 550,000. But even the smallest number suggests more than a quarter of the Latino population is undocumented, not to mention those who used to be. And the bulk of the rest are their kids, who are tainted by the “illegality” of mommy, daddy or both.

This also explains WHY our community is such a target of attacks by polimigra: because so many people in our community are so vulnerable — and because it has set such a dangerous example in fighting and resisting, and even consciously infected communities for hundreds of miles around with the virus of fighting back.

I think people like me and others (including the central leaders of the movement here) have a duty to explain what is actually in this bill, to illuminate the discussion, but should not substitute our judgment for the one from those directly affected.

This bill is in a certain sense a truce, a halt to combat operations, only partial at that, and with very onerous terms. And it is only going to get worse as parallel legislation makes its way through the House and then — perhaps! — goes to a House-Senate Conference Committee.

But without being in those trenches, I don’t see how anyone can make a call or recommendation on whether the price is too high. And the rank-and-file militants in our community are still saying that the fight for legalization is the main thing.

September/October 2013, ATC 166