A Real Day Without Mexicans?

A Real Day Without Mexicans?

April 15 / 16, 2006

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April 17 , 2006 All Eyes on May Day A Real Day Without Mexicans?


Outgoing Mexican president Vicente Fox’s long-treasured pipedream of an immigration agreement with Washington went up in smoke in early April when Republican senators torpedoed a compromise measure that would have legalized millions of undocumented workers living north of the border and guaranteed hundreds of thousands of unemployed Mexicans short-term jobs in the U.S.

But the proposed reform carried by Senators Ted Kennedy (Dem Ma.) and John McCain (Rep. Ariz.) would have also paved the way for the mass deportation of 3.4 million Mexicans now living in the U.S., the largest forced repatriation in the annals of the Americas.

From the first days of his presidency in 2000 – Fox was elected the same year as George Bush – the Mexican chief of state has made an immigration agreement with Washington the defining issue in his stewardship of the nation – and has been repeatedly rebuffed by his White House counterpart.
“The Whole Enchilada”, a concept coined by Fox’s first foreign minister Jorge Castaneda Jr. – both legalization and a guest worker program in the same package – was put on the table during Vicente Fox’s first state visit to Washington in September 2001 and excited mild interest in the Bush inner circle. At that time, legalization numbers were in the 3,000,000 range, less than half of the Mexicans now living in the U.S., according to statistics compiled by the Pew Hispanic Research Foundation.

But the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington a few days after the huddle with Bush derailed Fox’s dream as the border shut down and Mexican workers were adjudged potential terrorists by U.S. security agencies. The Whole Enchilada went down the drain.

Then in 2004, Bush, with an eye to upping his numbers among Latino votes in the coming presidential elections, fished half of the enchilada out of the garbage and proposed a guest worker program to accommodate U.S. business needs for a stable supply of low-paid Mexican labor. No legalization program was attached – Bush loathes legalization, which would be tantamount to an “amnesty” that would reward “law breakers” and lead to “anarchy” in his words.

Although no guest worker program was actually ever proposed, the initiative was applauded by Fox and Bush took 44% of the U.S. Latino vote, up 14 points over 2000. Two years later, with an anti-immigration backlash in full flower, the U.S. president has revived his guest worker proposal – to accompany forceful border security measures as spelled out by the U.S. House of Representatives in HB 4437 passed in November 2004 and the most virulent anti-immigrant bill introduced in Congress since the 19th century alien exclusions acts.

Dubbed the “Ley-Sensenbrenner” here after the nativist Wisconsin Republican who guided the bill through the House, HB 4437 would criminalize 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S., about 56% of them Mexicans – felony penalties could be applied if Sensenbrenner becomes the law of the land. The bill also criminalizes all humanitarian aid provided for undocumented workers by the Catholic Church and other social agencies, a transgression that would be punishable by five years in prison. The Ley Sensenbrenner also allocates tens of millions for the construction of 700 miles of walls along the border in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona and doubles the size of the U.S. Border Patrol (the “Migra”) to 30,000.
The specter of the Ley Sensenbrenner being voted up by the Senate and the demand for real immigration reform that would offer a path towards citizenship has precipitated unprecedented mobilization by both documented and undocumented Mexicans living in the U.,S.

Like a giant awakening from long hibernation, this March and April nearly 2,000.000 Mexicans and dozens of other immigrant groupings took to the streets of U.S. cities to vindicate these demands. The mobilizations began in Chicago, a city built on immigrant labor, when a half million mostly Mexicans turned out this past March 10th. Two weeks later, 500,000 marched in Los Angeles. Although the two cities contain the largest Mexican populations in the U.S., the campaign snowballed into dozens of smaller cities: 500,000 marched in Dallas on April 9th, the largest political demonstration in Texas history. 300,000 marched in Phoenix Arizona the next day. Even Salt Lake City, not known as a destination for Mexican workers, drummed up a reported 50,000.

In New York City, Mexicans, the fastest growing ethnic minority in that melting pot metropolis were joined by strong Latin American, African, Chinese, Arab, and even Irish contingents. 100,000 gathered in the U.S. capital on April 10th at the Washington monument invoking the memory of Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington. A new civil rights movement was being born, trumpeted Senator Kennedy.
“Aqui estamos y no nos vamos!” (“Here we are and we’re not leaving!”) shouted marchers, “No One Is Illegal!” and “Si Se Puedes!” (“Yes you can!”), the battle cry of Chicano martyr Cesar Chavez, the 15th anniversary of whose death coincided with the mobilizations. At first the marches unfurled against a sea of red, white, and green Mexican flags.

Almost overnight, this unexpected outburst of indignation and resistance was shaped from a rainbow of resources into a national (and bi-national) movement. Old line Latino political organizations such as La Raza Council, the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA). the League of Latin Voters (LULAC), MALDEF (a sort of Mexican-American NAACP), and the Mexican Hermanidad (the late Bert Corona’s stronghold) hooked up with unlikely political allies in regional service clubs that have become a driving force among Mexicans living in the U.S. With Mexican workers now sending $16 to $20 billion USD home each year, these clubs from feeder states like Zacatecas, Michoacan, Guanajuato, and Jalisco have increasing political clout on both sides of the border.

In metropolitan areas with substantial Mexican and Mexican-American populations, wildly popular local disc jockeys such as “El Mandril”, “El Cucuy”, and “Piolin” in Los Angeles and Chicago were brought on board and volunteered to get the word out. Teenage (and pre-teen) students from San Jose California to El Paso Texas abandoned their classrooms and marched from school to school to build support for the rallies. The Catholic Church provided religious legitimacy to the mobilizations – Los Angeles’s Cardinal Roger Mahoney sent a thousand priests in handcuffs to Washington for the first day of Senate hearings to graphically protest the anti-good Samaritan penalties in the Sensenbrenner “law.”

Both Big Labor and Big Business rounded out this impromptu coalition. Unions like the Service Employees International and the Hotel and Restaurant Workers with big Mexican memberships (both just bolted the AFL-CIO) turned out tens of thousands. On the other side of the ledger, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed guest worker and legalization efforts that would insure business an ample supply of exploitable labor.

The spring mobilizations constituted what is called in Mexico a “coyuntura”, literally a “coming together”, but perhaps best translated in American as “a singular moment.” And yet the broad-based spectrum of the movement and the most massive public demonstrations since the beginning of the U.S. war against Iraq hardly seemed to have any impact on Congress where the Senate badly fumbled the ball – a compromise version of Kennedy-McCain failed to muster up 40 votes on the floor and Republicans, under the baton of majority leader Dr. Bill Frist, McCain’s leading rival to succeed Bush in 2008, introduced so many poison pill amendments that the proposed final product would have been indistinguishable from the “Ley Sensenbrenner.” Just then Jesus Christ intervened and Congress went home for a two week Easter recess.
Although the debate could resume in May, it seems like the “coyuntura” for meaningful reform has passed for now and will not be resuscitated until at least after November congressional elections. Any bill that eventually emerges from the Senate would have to be reconciled with Sensenbrenner, which passed the House by almost a hundred votes. At the end of the line, George Bush reserves the right to veto any law he doesn’t like – and he doesn’t like “legalization”.

“We march today and vote tomorrow” is a popular cry in the streets of North America this spring but whether those on the march can or will have much to say about the direction of future U.S. elections is dubious. Many participants are non-citizens (both legal and illegal) who do not vote in U.S. elections, and for those who might qualify for citizenship under the most liberal proposals, voting is still 16 years down the line, by which time many of the incumbents will be dead.
Nonetheless, the apparent demise of the Senate compromise bill has a silver lining for Mexicans living in the U.S. Under its provisions, warmly championed by Vicente Fox (“a victory for those of us who believe immigration is an enrichment”), 7,000,000 undocumented workers, 4,000,000 of them Mexicans, who have resided in the U.S. for five years or longer could be placed on a citizenship track by paying $2000 fines and all back taxes for every member of their family, a sum that will be prohibitive for many “indocumentados.” They will elect to continue to live undocumented in the shadowy corners of America.

Another 2.4 million Mexicans out of a total 4,000,000 undocumented workers who have been in El Norte for two to five years would have to leave the U.S. and reapply as guest workers with no assurances of re-entry. Finally, 900,000 Mexicans (out of a total 2,000,000) with less than two years in residence, would be forced to return to Mexico without recourse. The total number of Mexicans to be repatriated – 3.4 million – would constitute a return migration of biblical proportions and the largest forced deportation in the history of the Americas.

How this forced repatriation would be carried out boggles the mind. Would police and military sweep neighborhoods as they did in Los Angeles in 1931 and force families from their homes? Would detention camps be established in remote areas as the U.S. inflicted upon the Japanese in 1941?

Moreover, the deportation of millions of unemployed workers will cripple the Mexican economy and ratchet social tensions up to the breaking point. The border, a safety valve for frustrated Mexican youth, would soon look like Iraq.

Despite so ominous a scenario, anti-immigration zealotry is at fever pitch north of the border. One Arizona talk show host, Brian James, upped the bar by calling upon his listeners to converge on the border one day each week with high-powered weapons (he even advised what caliber of ammunition to carry) and shoot to kill those coming across the line. A Mexican restaurant in San Diego was firebombed and the words “Fuck Mex!” spray-painted on its walls. Los Angeles’s first Mexican-American mayor Antonio Villaraigoza has received dozens of death threats. Vigilante Minuteman and women (including one German who had been recently naturalized) camped out on the Douglas Arizona ranch of Roger Barnett, whose “Ranch Rescue” conducts for-profit “human safaris” against undocumented migrants, and barbecued Mexican flags to counter the April 10th pro-immigrant mobilizations.

The Mexican flag is right in the eye of the backlash. Watching them fly on television screens across the United States was “a repellent spectacle” for Fox News anchor Brett Hume, a sentiment echoed by CNN’s anti-Mexican mouthpiece Lou Dobbs. To temper the backlash, march organizers began putting the Stars and Stripes in the hands of Mexican marchers. Meanwhile, on this side of the border, Mexicans marching in solidarity with their “paisanos”, wavied the Mexican flag and the U.S. flag was burned at demonstrations in front of embassies and consulates.

Despite the deep-sixing of a Senate bill that would have legalized millions and its probable replacement by something that looks a lot like Sensenbrenner, Mexicans are not going away – or if they do go away, it will only be for one day, May 1st, when a national boycott based on the popular film “A Day Without Mexicans” (now retitled “A Day Without Immigrants”) has been called. Mexicans and their allies across the U.S. are urged not to go to work or school or shop.

May 1st is, of course, International Workers Day and with high concentrations of Mexicans working in construction, farming, meat-packing, janitorial, hotels (700,000 according to industry sources), restaurants (600,000) and other services, the impact could be pronounced – no pork chop would be packed or house roofed in the U.S. if the Mexicans were sent home. “Who will take care of your kids?” a sign at the New York City march asked.

Gearing up for possible mass walkouts May 1st, industries in Houston, Detroit, Seattle, and a half dozen other cities have already fired hundreds of Mexican workers who participated in earlier marches. Unions, ever eager to organize the unorganized, are challenging the firings.

Will the voice of Mexicans and all immigrants be heard in U.S. halls of power? Congress and the White House are notorious for not listening to aroused constituents. When 12,000,000 people around the world – 2,000,000 of them on the streets of the United States – marched to stop a war that had not yet begun February 15th, 2003, George Bush turned a deaf ear. Today, 150,000 Iraqis and nearly 2400 U.S. troops are dead.

JOHN ROSS is the author of Murdered By Capitalism.


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JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org