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Monday, May 17, 2010

Populist Tidal Waves, Hope, Fear and What is Possible: Arizona, Immigration and the Future of the Nation

In the US we are struggling between the vision of what is possible and a history of prejudice and fear.  With a striking increase in numbers, the growth of the Latino community in the US has led to two tidal waves forcing the resistant hand of politicians on immigration reform. These tidal waves feed off of each other. On the one hand we have the growing voice of the Latino community stepping into its economic and political power. On the other we have the hateful voice of nativists who fear this growing community and who are doing everything they can to try and subvert it.  Like so many movements before it i.e., that of the Suffragists, the Abolitionists, and those of the Civil Rights era, this movement is driven by people who believe that a better world is possible and folks who are willing to put skin in the game to make it so.

Earlier this month, hundreds of thousands of folks took to the streets across the nation to protest on behalf of immigration reform. It was the fourth in a series of yearly marches that started in earnest in May of 2006 to protest anti-immigrant legislation. In parallel to that a few days earlier in Arizona a heinous law was proposed which experts agree will lead to racial profiling.  Many experts have said that what we are seeing in Arizona and other states which are following suit including PA and TX with copy cat laws is at least in part caused by the broken immigration system and the unwillingness of the federal government to get serious about immigration reform.

The Arizona law definitely caused there to be a distinctly different flavor to the May 1st marches this year.  People decided to take to the streets in record numbers in solidarity with the Hispanics in Arizona and against this law.  Moreover, unlike earlier marches this year, where marchers listened patiently to the platitudes of politicians like president Obama, this time folks were not interested in hearing empty promises from politicians but in actions exemplified by the peaceful civil disobedience of prominent leaders.  Once ardent Obama supporter, Representative Gutierrez was arrested with a group of other leaders from in front of the White House while folks chanted "Obama show your face."

The culture of inaction that we have been living in has caused the murders of Latinos, the profiling of Latinos and could lead to the next iteration of segregation.  We can not be naive.  We can not forget our history as a nation. We have much to be proud of as Americans but also much in our history to cause alarm, i.e. the internment camps that Japanese Americans were put in during WWII, the Trail of Tears and let us not forget Jim Crow and the lynchings.  As David Neiwert shows in his excellent post on the great popularity of the interment of Japanese Americans during World War II the, "Polls on Arizona immigration law remind us of a historic truth: Discarding the civil rights of others is always a popular idea."

What happened in Arizona with this law, what is happening in Arizona with ethnic studies and the re-assigning of teachers who have accents, what happened earlier this year in Texas with the school curriculum these are all a part of a slippery slope and the erosion of human rights beginning at the state level which has national implications.  

Dr. Warren Stewart says, "You have awakened the 21st century civil rights movement."  He has it right.  They have awakened the sleeping giant.  Latinos have had enough.  Americans have had enough.  And we are standing up against these unjust measures.  We are sick and tired of the empty promises of politicians and with our allies, we are ready to step into our economic and political power to demand reform.

We are calling on our leaders to help us build a better future to live into.  It is time for national organizations to lead.  It is time for politicians like president Obama to make good on the campaign promises that they made to the Latino community.  On the campaign trail, while asking for our vote, president Obama promised to take us to the promised land.  We are waiting for him to help us bend the arc of the universe towards justice as he promised.

OR we will do it for ourselves.

In truth we already are doing it for ourselves.

Last week Latinos in Social Media the largest collective of Latinos in social media in the US launched the Latino2 campaign encouraging Latinos and everyone who stands for human rights to stand in solidarity with the Latinos in Arizona and against the unjust law and proudly declare I am Latino2.  The major league baseball players union came out against the legislation, individual baseball players have come out against the law, there are conversations about moving the All Star game from Arizona as a result of this and in Illinois there is a campaign encouraging the Chicago Cubs to move their spring training from Arizona to Florida.  The Phoenix Suns basketball franchise had players wearing "Los Suns" jerseys in Game 2 of its playoff series. Robert Sarver registered Republican and Spurs team owner was quoted saying that "...the result of passing this law is that our basic principles of equal rights and protection under the law are being called into question."  The Sherrif of Pima, AZ has said he will refuse to enforce this law.  Mexico's government has issued a travel advisory advising folks to not travel to Arizona.  Folks are talking about filing law suits against AZ.  In Arizona, the Tucson and Flagstaff city councils voted to sue AZ over this law, becoming "the first municipalities in Arizona to approve legal challenges."  In Austin, Texas the City Council passed a resolution to stop doing business with AZ, as has San Francisco, Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Oakland in CA, Milwaukee in WI, Boston in MA, St. Paul in MN,  New York in NY, Boulder in CO and Washington, DC.  Moreover, in DC  the city council, "sponsored a bill forbidding the police chief from sharing arrest data with federal immigration officials."  CNN today announced that a Phoenix Official has said that this law could cost the city 90 million.  Stars like Shakira, Ricky Martin and even Schwarzenager have spoken out strongly against the AZ law.  Political PACs like and MoveOn have come out with a new campaign targeting AZ.  And in the words of Sam Stein at HuffPo, the AFL-CIO has "written a stern letter to Secretary Janet Napolitano demanding that the Department of Homeland Security cut programmatic ties with law enforcement officials in Arizona or be complicit in the state's controversial immigration law." 

In 2000 after living nearly four years in China, I left to the US. When people asked me why I was returning to the US to start again from scratch, I told them that I was returning because there was no where in the world like this country -- this was a nation of immigrants which drew on the strength of its diversity.  I was proud of being American, a daughter of immigrants from Latin America who could stand with her fellow Americans in that joint identity while still celebrating the culture of my parents and their ancestors. Now, for the first time there is a level of fear for me attached with being Latina and how I look. A few times now I have had to return home because I realize that I don't have my passport on me and I am fearful of having any issues if stopped.

That is not the US that I left China for. That is not the US that I came back for.  I am multilingual.  I have worked in countries all over the world.  I have lived in seven states in the North, South, East and West of this nation.  I was born and bred in upstate New York and went to an Ivy League University.  I am a published author, a public speaker and have been a talking head on major news outlets.  If I feel fear as a Latina daughter of immigrants I can only imagine how my brothers and sisters feel who do not have the same privilege and opportunities that I have.  In effect these laws will create an isolated, dependent and fearful citizenry versus an expansive, inclusive and generous one.  As an American, I long for the latter.  Instead of making our kids fearful of the other, we should be getting all of our kids to know one another and celebrate in the diversity that makes this nation as great as it is.

My father came from Mexico to Fordham University to pursue his PhD in theology and philosophy.  He became a social worker in upstate NY.  He spoke English with a very heavy accent but his connection with the kids was powerful.  I remember walking down the street with him in upstate NY and having people stop him and tell him, "Mr. Esquivel you changed my life."  At one point in his career he almost lost his job as a social worker because folks said his accent was too thick and it made him ineffective.  Then they surveyed the kids.  He was the highest rated social worker despite his heavy accent.  He was connecting with them, contributing to them and their life in a way that no one else was.  Imagine if he had been taken out of that position which he served in with commitment for over thirty years of his life because of his accent -- How many kids lives would have remained untouched, unchanged?

His story is not unique.

There are many immigrants making powerful contributions to society despite their accents and their countries of origin and we are lucky to have men and women like him, Schwarzenegger, Madeline Albright and the countless others who pick our fruits and vegetables, mow our lawns and like Albert Einstein develop the theory of relativity.  Immigration reform must happen this year and the immigration measures passed can not be draconian - they must not be draconian. They must reflect our history and our legacy as a nation of immigrants.  The Statue of Liberty and her inspiring words, Cesar Chavez's words: Yes We Can, the churches' words about taking care of the least of these, these are our better angels. These are the angels that we Americans need to be listening to.

We need to step forward bravely as a nation as we have before in the days of the suffragists, the abolitionists, the civil rights movement.  The struggles of human rights and civil rights are not new to us.  As a nation and as a people we continue to build towards the dream of what we can be.

There is fear.  There is hate.  But there is also love and hope.  I believe that coupled with our voices and with our leadership, the leadership of the grass roots, the people, the collective power of love and hope will win.  We will vote with our feet, with our money and with our electoral power.  And if our leaders do not lead us, we will step up to lead them to the promised land.  The Arc of the moral universe bends towards justice as Martin Luther King Jr. said but like President Obama said when he was running for office, it only bends that way if we place our hand on it and bend it.  We are bending it towards justice - the question now is who among our elected officials will partner with us in the coming days, weeks and years.  We are watching and we will remember and our electoral and financial voice and muscle will only continue to get stronger.  Sooner or later, it will be felt and heard.

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