CHAPTER 32 e Tough Struggle For Immigration Reform SEIU Seeks Legal Path To CitizenshipI n the late spring of 2000, more than 20,000 people gath- ered at the Los Angeles Sports Arena for what was, atthe time, the largest immigrant rights event ever held in the serving as a United Farm Workers national vice president be- fore beginning his work with SEIU in 1986. ough far larger than most, the Los Angeles rally wasUnited States. representative of the scores of demonstrations, protests, prayer One of the major speakers that day was Eliseo Medina, a vigils, and other events that SEIU had begun organizing in theMexican American who had risen through the labor movement wake of Reagan-era immigration policies and laws. e 1986to become one of SEIU’s top leaders. He spoke passionately Immigration Reform and Control Act had been billed as a wayabout the injustice of an American immigration system that to punish employers who knowingly hired undocumentedallowed greedy employers to prey upon the vulnerable status of workers. But its practical e ect was to allow some employersundocumented workers. to exploit immigrants and take advantage of their vulnerable “Immigrants—documented and undocumented—are legal status.making enormous contributions to the economic well-being After working for years to pave the way for organized laborand to the cultural and civic institutions of this country,” Me- to throw its support behind legalization of citizenship for hard-dina said at the rally. “But what too many receive in return working immigrant workers, SEIU had emerged as a key playeris poverty wages, few if any bene ts, and terrible working in the national movement for progressive and comprehensiveconditions.” reform of immigration laws. e union helped to coordinate “Our immigration policies no longer protect the working and organize the pro-immigration reform campaign of a broadpeople of this country or their ght to form a union,” Medina group of labor, religious, and community allies.told the crowd, saying that the deportation of workers “not Prior to the June 2000 rally in Los Angeles, delegates toonly breaks organizing drives, it breaks families. at’s wrong SEIU’s convention held in Pittsburgh in May 2000 had ad-and we need to do something about it.” opted a resolution calling for repeal of the 1986 law. Taking Medina had come to the United States from Mexico at the action on that resolution, SEIU leaders including Medina andage of 10 with his mother and siblings to join their father, who Dennis Rivera, then president of 1199/SEIU, helped to con-was an immigrant farm worker. His career as a labor activist vene a series of forums sponsored by the AFL-CIO. In Newbegan when, as a 19-year-old grape-picker, he participated in York City, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and other locations,the historic United Farm Workers’ strike in Delano, California. SEIU spearheaded the organizing of the forums, reaching outOver the next 13 years, he worked alongside the legendary la- to labor, church, civic, and community groups.bor leader and civil rights activist César Chávez. Medina honed At these forums, workers as well as religious, labor, andhis skills as a union organizer and political strategist, eventually community leaders drove home the point that, rather than
242 STRONGER TOGETHER: THE STORY OF SEIUsticking with the status quo of policies that end up exploitingand punishing immigrant workers, the solution was a set oflaws and policies that would: A ssuming a leading role in the quest for the rights of im- migrant workers seemed to be SEIU’s destiny. e union had been founded in 1921 by a small group of immigrant jani- - tors in Chicago. And from those early days forward, the union umented—to unite and form unions; had reached out to—and been strengthened by—immigrant workers from every corner of the globe. By 2010, with 2.2 million members, SEIU represented other countries. more immigrant workers than any other union in the United States. While large numbers of the union’s immigrant work- ey said it was the only way to ensure that low-wage ers were Latino (and the union’s signature rally cry was “ Sí Seworkers, whether native-born or immigrant, would be able to Puede! Yes We Can!”), members of SEIU came from scoresearn enough money to support their families and pursue the of di erent countries. Languages spoken by SEIU membersAmerican Dream. included Spanish, French, Polish, Chinese, Tagalog, Korean,
THE TOUGH STRUGGLE FOR IMMIGRATION REFORM 243 cleaning o ces under the gaze of an unscrupulous supervisor. When she refused his sexual advances, she was red. As she said in media interviews after her part in the lm, “ ank God, because we have a union, we have won better conditions.” O ver the decades, SEIU’s position on immigration re- mained clear and unwavering. It was simply this: unity, not division and anti-immigrant hysteria, holds the promise of a better life for America’s low-wage workers. e failure of those workers to earn better salaries stems not from competi- tion from immigrant workers, but from the greed of employers who pro t from underpaid labor.Mary Kay Henry, a few months before she became SEIU president, spoke In the spring of 2001, SEIU once again renewed its callout in favor of the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to become the rst Latina for comprehensive immigration reform, and helped to lead aJustice of the United States Supreme Court. Key immigration issues, such asArizona’s restrictive laws, are expected to be resolved by the Court. national grassroots coalition of religious, labor, and community groups called “Reward Work!”Italian, Greek, Vietnamese, Arabic, Japanese, Creole, Hmong, ere were rallies and demonstrations in the streets ofand Portuguese among others. Boston; Chicago; Providence, Rhode Island; and Newark, New And on any given day, a snapshot of SEIU’s members Jersey. In June 2001, SEIU President Andy Stern joined withwould include people such as Luz Portillo, a Boston janitor a dozen immigrant janitors in front of the U.S. Capitol for awho had come to the United States from El Salvador; Ma- 24-hour fast and vigil for immigration reform. At the time,hira Selimbegovic, a Chicago service worker who had come President George W. Bush was pushing for an expansion of theto the United States in 1996 with her husband and two chil- guest worker program, which created a revolving workforce ofdren to escape the war in Bosnia; and Dr. Lorraine Williams, underpaid immigrant workers.a native of Trinidad and Tobago, who joined SEIU during her “We don’t need a new guest worker program,” Stern said.medical residency. “We need a ‘legalized worker’ program for those who are al- When the English lm director Ken Loach decided in the ready here.”late 1990s to make a lm about the struggles of immigrant At concurrent events, thousands of SEIU janitors marchedworkers in the United States, he turned to SEIU for expert as- and rallied in front of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalizationsistance. He based his movie Bread and Roses on the work and Service building in Los Angeles, and hundreds more rallied inlives of SEIU janitors in Los Angeles. Many SEIU janitors and front of the Federal Plaza Building in New York City.organizers were featured in the lm as actors and extras. Despite those and other e orts by SEIU and the Reward Two members who played parts in the lm were Local Work! coalition, Congress failed to respond to the call for le-1877 members Maria Ortega and Ernesto Vega of Los Angeles. gal reforms that would give hardworking, taxpaying immigrantSome scenes in the movie mirrored Ortega’s hardscrabble life of workers a pathway to legal status in the United States.
244 STRONGER TOGETHER: THE STORY OF SEIU And then came September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of eral other students from deportation to countries they barelythat day’s terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the knew. ey had entered the United States as small children,Pentagon, anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States rose became academic achievers, yet faced deportation because theyto new levels, and the ght for immigration reform became had no path to legalized citizenship. e campaign by SEIUeven more di cult. e years that followed did little to im- convinced U.S. o cials to delay their deportation.prove prospects for reform. e United States was ghtingwars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the U.S. economy nearly col-lapsed in 2008. e uphill battle to win political support forimmigration reform got steeper still. I n 2010, SEIU joined with faith, labor, and other immigrant rights advocates to launch the largest and most coordinated eld operation in the history of the immigration reform move- But in 2009, with President Barack Obama in the White ment. Holding nearly 100 rallies at district o ces, vigils, watchHouse and a Democratic majority in Congress, SEIU members parties, and press events across the country, activists said theand leaders pushed forward with the union’s decades-long cry time had come, once and for all, to get comprehensive immi-for immigration reform. gration reform passed by Congress and signed into law. In April 2009, the union put technology to use, launching e diverse Reform Immigration for America (RI4A) co-an online campaign to stop the deportation of high-achieving alition—which included law enforcement, faith leaders, laborimmigrant students. e campaign saved Walter Lara and sev-
THE TOUGH STRUGGLE FOR IMMIGRATION REFORM 245 “A comprehensive solution would couple enforcement at the border and in the workplace with a path to earned legaliza- tion for all hard-working immigrants,” Medina said. “It will also replace guest worker programs with a system that guaran- tees immigrant workers full labor and civil rights protections and a path to U.S. citizenship. “Done together, these reforms will nally restore the rule of law and eliminate the informal labor market that drives down wages and labor protections for all U.S. workers.” SEIU’s work on immigration reform was guided by the set of principles that the union’s members and leaders had devel- oped over the years. As those principles so eloquently noted, “ e need for comprehensive reform is urgent, not just for im- migrants, but for all of us. Until it is enacted, the absurdities of our current system will continue to drag our economy down-SEIU members and other immigrant rights supporters marched on the White ward and claim an ever-growing list of victims, including work-House as part of demonstrations urging immigration reform on April 30, 2009. ers who su er depressed wages...and families separated fromactivists, and business—organized an “immigration week of ac- their loved ones.”tion” in January 2010 to present its vision of the elements of Taking the long-term view of how to x the broken systemsuccessful immigration reform. of U.S. immigration laws, the principles called for expanding Eliseo Medina, who led SEIU’s ght for immigration re- both the union’s and the nation’s partnerships with immigrant-form, laid out the union’s view in a response to harsh new anti- producing countries. “ e long-term solution to uncontrolledimmigrant measures in Arizona in May 2010. immigration,” the principles stated, “is to encourage real eco- He attacked the “enforcement-only mandates” that waste nomic development and sustainable jobs in immigrant-produc-billions of taxpayer dollars on border walls and worksite round- ing countries, so that workers in those countries don’t have toups and divert attention from the practical immigration solu- leave their native country in order to support themselves andtions America needs. their families.” He said Congress should enact a balanced, comprehen- As Julia Marroquin, the 19-year-old daughter of a Local 26sive bill that gets undocumented immigrants into the system member in Minnesota, said at an SEIU-sponsored immigrationand under the rule of law; provides for smart enforcement reform rally in her city, “ is is our moment to put behind uson the border and in workplaces; and creates a visa system the failures of the past and to reform the U.S. immigrationthat protects labor rights and meets the economic needs of system once and for all, so that it supports all U.S. workers andthe future. strengthens this country that we love.”