Ten Years Later: Reflections on the Legacies of Immigrant Spring

As the militant protests against Donald Trump in California and across the nation attest, resistance to open racism and xenophobia is on the upswing. On May Day 2016, demonstrations from different sectors of the immigrant rights and labor movements once again hit U.S. streets.

United under the hashtag #OnMayday, demonstrations in Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Milwaukee and other U.S. cities cast attention on the U.S. Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on a Texas court’s ruling that blocked President Obama’s order to defer the deportation of some immigrants, and to encourage voter registration.

In Los Angeles, organizers also targeted police brutality, while Houston activists expressed solidarity with repressed Mexican teachers and denounced the assassination of Honudran environmentalist and indigenous rights leader Berta Caceres.

Organizations supporting #OnMayDay included United We Dream, the Center for Community Change, the AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union, and Voces de La Frontera, among many others.

Looking Back

On May 1st a decade ago, women and men living in the shadows shook the United States to its core. Subsisting on the poorest paid jobs and enduring the worst employment conditions of the economy, undocumented immigrants demanded the regularization of their status and basic respect for their human dignity.

As one sign proclaimed at a rally in Albuquerque, New Mexico: “We Pick, We Cook, We Serve Your Food.”

On International Workers Day 2006, immigrants and their allies took to the streets, walked out of classes, boycotted businesses and stayed home from work and school. For the first time in generations, the possibility of a general strike in the United States materialized, as West Coast shipping terminals were shut down and thousands of businesses dependent on immigrant labor and customers closed.

Suddenly revived as a day of labor and social action in the United States, May Day 2006 drew the active participation of between one million-plus to several million people, depending on the estimates.

Large demonstrations of 500,000 or more people each in Los Angeles and Chicago (May Day’s historic birthplace) were complemented by smaller protests in countless places like tiny Hatch, New Mexico, where a dozen students walked out of their high school. Overall, May Day 2006 was the biggest protest in the United States since the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War eras.

Immigrant May Day 2006 transcended U.S. borders. In Mexico, protesters blockaded border bridges from Tijuana to Matamoros, while farther to the south in Toluca indigenous Mazahua women gave away free tortillas to diners at a McDonald’s restaurant, linking Mexican economic and cultural sovereignty with a business known for exploiting immigrant labor in the U.S.

Addressing a rally outside the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos declared that the genuine struggle was about forging a new society so people would not have to migrate in order to find work.

In Central America, where migrant remittances account for an even greater share of national economies than in Mexico, people protested in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama.

Birth of an Immigrant-Labor Movement

Calling May Day 2006 “the first big revolutionary movement of the 21st Century,” Jose Mujica, leader of Chicago’s March 10 Coalition, stressed at the time that the demonstrations wereMay not only about immigration status but also improving working conditions. Mexican immigrants played the pivotal role in the protests, but other nationalities joined in–Chinese, Polish and Irish, to name a few.

Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Wisconsin’s Voces de la Frontera Action, later said the protest “ignited the modern immigrant movement”, which, she added, “should be recognized as part of the American labor movement.”

Camilo Perez Bustillo, former director of immigrant and refugee rights for the American Friends Service Committee, recalled activists’ discussions during 2003-2005 on the need for a truly mass movement. The 2006 mobilizations eventually attained a magnitude that surprised even longtime organizers.

“I think it was a really amazing moment,” Perez Bustillo said in an interview held for the 10th anniversary of May Day. “The movement really arose on its own, led by other actors and means.”

Stoked by legislation sponsored by Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner that sought to criminalize unauthorized immigrants residing in this country, May Day 2006 marked the high-water mark of a popular rebellion that began gathering steam in the late fall of 2005, building into massive demonstrations by March 2006 and culminating in the great outpouring on International Workers Day.

Fanning the outrage was rhetoric emanating from Washington and anti-immigrant sectors that likened hard-working immigrants to terrorists and drug traffickers.

Spanish-language radio stations and other media were instrumental in bringing people into the streets in a mobilization that had the spontaneous quality of a popular uprising, though well-established immigrant rights advocacy organizations supplied the framework and organization.

Yet prior to the global economic meltdown of 2008, many progressives in the United States, perhaps due white middle-class bias, were slow to grasp to significance, profundity, boldness and creativity of Immigrant Spring.

Neumann-Ortiz credited Immigrant Spring for blocking Sensenbrenner’s legislation, which was approved in the House but failed to pass the Senate. Growing by leaps and bounds, the immigrant movement faced an intense xenophobic and racist backlash. As evidenced by Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s bombastic comments smearing Mexican immigrants as criminals and his rival Ted Cruz’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., it continues to frame the immigration question and U.S. politics a decade later.

The mass protests of 2006 were followed by ICE raids on immigrant communities and stepped-up deportations, first under the Republican Bush Administration and then the Democratic Obama Administration. Milking a taxpayer fed cash cow, the private prison-industrial complex benefited from government contracts to imprison hundreds of thousands of immigrant men, women and children pending deportation.

Shrouded in the rhetoric of fighting drugs and terrorism long before 9-11, two laws passed in 1996 during the Clinton Administration greatly facilitated detentions and fast track deportations that continue to this day.

Both the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act contained provisions that made it easier for the government to deport immigrants.

In the case of the latter law, asylum claims became more difficult for people fleeing violence and repressive regimes, Human Rights Watch noted in a recent statement.

From Offense to Defense: The Battle Moves to the States

After the unprecedented offensive in the stunning spring of 2006, the immigrant movement soon found itself on the defensive.

“It was an intense period of mobilization of about three months,” Oscar Chacon, director of the Chicago-based Alianza Americas, told CNN’s Carmen Aristegui earlier this year. “(Immigrant Spring) managed to frustrate the approval of the (Sensenbrenner) law, but when a great part of the population didn’t know how to maximize things it fell short.”

According to Perez Bustillo, the movement divided over the “Faustian Bargain” of trading the regularization of immigration status in return for an escalation of a beefed-up Border Patrol and border militarization, as outlined in the ultimately unsuccessful Kennedy immigration bill and a subsequent, and also unsuccessful legislative effort, by the so-called bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators.

After the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform stalled in Washington, the action turned to the states and municipalities where a wave of legislation attempted to deny immigrants basic human rights. Arizona’s SB 1070 invited racial profiling by giving local police the power to detain persons suspected of being in the U.S. without proper authorization.

Perez Bustillo credited the May 2006 uprising for cultivating the activism at the local level that became critical in the coming years. From 2008 to 2011, he recalled visiting immigrant workers who labored in the isolation of Alabama chicken plants, but were fighting an SB 1070-style law.

“I remember people talking in northern Alabama,” he said. “What they most remembered is when they walked out in 2006, and for them that was the birth of their activism.”

Neumann-Ortiz too, detected the Spirit of ‘06 in subsequent struggles outside Washington D.C., including her own state of Wisconsin, where immigrants participated in this year’s February 18 Day Without Latinos and Immigrants.

Thousands of Wisconsin immigrants stayed off the job, boycotted businesses and staged high school walkouts in protest against measures pushed by Republican Governor Scott Walker and local lawmakers inspired by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council. The first bill, SB533, restricted counties from spending money on issuing local IDs. It was signed into law by Walker on April 25, 2016. The second bill, AB 450, portended turning public employees into immigration police. Like 2006 and the Sensenbrenner bill of old, the new legislation demanded a “dramatic” popular response, Neumann-Ortiz said.

The result was a “strong show of force that expanded not only into the city but into the rural areas and the dairy industry,” she added. “I feel like what happened in Wisconsin this year was like what happened nationally in 2006.” AB 450 passed the Wisconsin State Assembly, but failed to advance in the Senate.

The surge in immigrant activism in places like Wisconsin and Alabama, far from the coastal cities and U.S.-Mexico border states that traditionally drew immigrants from south of the border, reflected how Latino immigrants have become an inseparable part of the economic and social fabric of the United States.

The post-2006 years witnessed the coming of age of the Dreamer Generation, the children of undocumented immigrants, who marched, occupied and sat-in against deportation and for the right to remain in the only country many had known.

The Dreamers’ persistent activism resulted in the Presidents’ Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program that delayed immigration proceedings for Dreamers and allowed them to legally work and study at institutions of higher learning.

Transnationalization of the Migrant Movement

While immigrants and their supporters struggled on multiple fronts in the U.S., a transnational migrant movement emerged in Mexico and Central America. For Perez Bustillo, who was active in the movement south of the border between 2005 and 2013, the deportation of U.S. immigration activist Elvira Arellano back to her Mexican homeland in 2007 was a transformative movement.

Arellano staged a long protest outside the U.S. Embassy that became a “cause celebre” in Mexico. She also enthusiastically supported Central American migrants who suffer human rights violations and atrocities on their life-and-death sojourns across Mexico.

The movement of surviving Mexican ex-guestworkers and their family members for a long overdue, just compensation related to their labor in the United States under the 1942-64 Bracero Program was another “piece” that helped bind the movements of North and South, according to Perez Bustillo. In his long view of migrant movement history, 2010 was another watershed year. In 2010, the connections between NAFTA, CAFTA, border militarization, migrant containment and human rights atrocities were laid bare by the combined events of SB 1070 and the cross-border protests against the Arizona legislation, the San Fernando Massacre of Central and South American migrants in Mexico, and the grassroots mobilization outside the official world migration forum in Puerto Vallarta.

Perez Bustillo also cites the Mexico Chapter of the Permanent Peoples Tribunal (PPT) in which he participated, an international tribunal of conscience that found the Mexican State guilty, with U.S. complicity, of human rights violations, including massive human rights violations against migrants.

The PPT issued its conclusions in November 2014 in Mexico City, amid the national convulsion over the forced disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa college students only weeks earlier. It never received any response from Mexican or U.S. government agencies, despite having delivered copies of the judgments to both, according to Perez Bustillo.

The Legacies of Immigrant Spring    

In the tumultuous election year of 2016, it’s fashionable among U.S. progressive commentators and activists to point to Bernie Sanders’ run for the Democratic nomination as a sea change in U.S. politics.

But the seeds of a shift were sown 10 years ago with Immigrant Spring. The massive popular mobilization foreshadowed other social movements in North America and around the world–the Spanish indignados, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the Fight for Fifteen, and even Bernie Sanders’ 2016 race for the White House.

The low wages, marginal working conditions and gaping inequality that boiled beneath the demand for legalization are now front-and-center issues in the U.S. political landscape. This leftward evolution was evident in May Day 2012 actions organized by immigrant rights organizations and the remnants/offshoots of Occupy Wall Street that demanded regularization of immigration status, workers’ rights and an end to rampant inequality.

Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection was arguably made possible by riding the coattails of these movements, as the U.S. President renewed his still-unfulfilled pledge of comprehensive immigration reform and positioned himself as the progressive, middle-class candidate versus the one-percenter elitism of Mick Romney. Obama, however, ultimately cast in the paradoxical role as the champion of DACA but also “the deporter in chief,” was unable to effectively counter rising xenophobia and racism, said Alianza America’s Oscar Chacon.

This year’s May Say events built on the previous organizing. “We will continue building the people power we need to defeat the hate and racism of Trump and the Republicans,” said Cristina Jimenez, co-founder and director of United We Dream.

“May 1st isn’t a Clinton or Sanders rally, this is OUR day to say no to the hate in politics, to demand respect for working people and an end to the criminalization of black and brown people. Our communities face a choice–are we going to let them criminalize, bully and deport us? United We Dream says no way, we are here to stay.”

Wisconsin’s Voces de la Frontera launched a boycott against the home improvement store chain Menards, to protest the company’s political contributions to Governor Scott Walker. “We know Latinos and immigrants are much of the construction workforce in the U.S., and Latinos and immigrants are working-class who do a lot of repairs in their homes,” Neumann-Ortiz said.

Looking back over the last 10 years, Voces de la Frontera’s executive director assessed the U.S. immigrant rights movement as maturing and expanding in its reach. Thousands of people atended the 2016 Milwaukee May Day rally.

According to Perez Castillo, the transnational migrant movement has achievements under its belt, but more collaboration is needed on both sides of the border.

“I think there is still this ‘in the Beltway vs. outside the Beltway’ dichotomy in the immigrant rights movement,” he said. “More than ever the work has to be done at the state and local level. There’s a lot going on, but it’s fragmented in a sense.”

The transnational human rights and migrant advocate also appealed for breaking down “the walls on both sides of the border” that separate movements in the North from their counterparts in the South so greater coordination takes place.

Special thanks goes out to Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui for inspiring a reexamination of Immigrant Spring.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.