It was a May Day to remember in the US. Well over a million immigrants and their supporters marched in towns and cities across the country on Monday. Workers struck in order to show what a “day without immigrants” would be like, and school students walked out of classes.
Mike Gonzalez, head of Hispanic studies at Glasgow University, spoke to Socialist Worker about the emerging immigrants’ rights movement in the US.
“The immediate cause of the protests is new proposed legislation which could limit immigration and prevent many of those already in the US from becoming citizens,” he said.
“There have been similar attacks on immigrants previously, for example in California about ten years ago. But there has not been a similar response in the past.”
This week over 400,000 marched in Chicago, where, 120 years ago, May Day was born amid a mass strike for an eight-hour day. A million demonstrated in Los Angeles. Thousands more marched in New York, Denver, Atlanta, Detroit, Houston, San Francisco and Phoenix.
In many areas strike action was solid. There are an estimated 11.5 milllion “illlegal” immigrants in the US, many working in agriculture, transport and construction.
Reports in the Washington Post reflected the impact of the action: “More than half of the 1,147 construction workers on projects at Dulles International airport did not show up.” The strikes “curtailed operations at least one major port, forced the closing of crossings at the Mexican border and halted work at meat-processing plants in the Midwest.
“At the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles—which averages 30,000 truck trips a day and is the busiest combined US seaport—there was little or no traffic as thousands of truck drivers, mostly Latinos, stayed home.”
Schools were also affected with many students staying away and some organising their own protests.
There was even solidarity action in Mexico, where US companies such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s were boycotted and marches were held.
“We remind the gringos that they are a country of immigrants. The work that gringos don’t like to do is being done by Mexicans,” said Felipe Gomez, one of the marchers.
The issue of immigration has split both the Democrats and the Republicans—the two big business parties that dominate US politics.
“The right is deeply divided over the question of immigration,” explained Gonzalez, “not least because many industries, especially in the Southern states of the US, are highly dependent on immigrant labour.”
The right wing of the Republican party wants to criminalise all “illegal” immigrants in the US. Leading Democrats have proposed a “compromise” which would force recent arrivals—about two million people—out of the country, making them reapply for “guest workers status”. The proposal has received tentative backing from George Bush.
Neither proposal is likely to satisfy the large and increasingly assertive Latino populations that live in almost every US city. “There are about 32 million Latinos in the US,” said Gonzalez. “In New York and Boston many are from the Caribbean, for example Puerto Rico. In Chicago there are large numbers of second or third generation Mexicans.
“Texas, of course, used to be part of Mexico. In California there are large numbers of Central Americans. In Miami you have Cubans and Venezuelans.
“Many of those demonstrating are quite established. There are lots of El Salvadorian flags on the protests. Many people fled Central America in the 1980s to escape civil wars and have been in the US for 20 years.
“These are significant groups, with certain levels of resources, money and political representation—mayors and people in Congress.”
At the moment, Gonzalez adds, more “respectable” figures are attempting to control the movement, using it to apply pressure to Congress. Democratic politicians spoke at many of the rallies.
But the call for strike action and a boycott appears to have polarised the movement. The call originated with grassroots activists in Los Angeles. The action was built through the internet and media catering to an immigrant audience, and through networks of union activists and rights groups.
In both Los Angeles and San Diego there were two sizeable demonstrations, one organised by those supporting the strike and boycott, the other by those opposed to it or neutral.
More action is planned. Jaime Contreras, president of the National Capital Immigration Coalition of Washington, said, “If we don’t have a bill we can live with, we will have a general strike and a general boycott.”
Additional reporting from Virginia Rodino