Claiming Our Rights, Envisioning Our Future: Communities Organizing for Justice

This weekend, YDS sent two Coordinating Committee (CC) members, Co-Chair Maria Svart and At-Large CC member Christina Huizar, to "Claiming Our Rights, Envisioning Our Future: Communities Organizing for Justice, A National Conference for Immigrant and Refugee Rights," organized by the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR), in Houston, TX January 18-20, 2008. The conference brought together over 600 grassroots community leaders and organizers from around the country to share, strategize, and organize around immigrant rights. YDS had a table in the exhibit hall and participated in the Youth Encuentro. Although this was not a socialist conference per se, we found that many conference participants expressed democratic socialist ideas in their politics or actions, and we were honored and inspired to be taking part.

Workshop themes were as diverse as "From Fragments to Unity: Challenging Wedge Issues and Working Together"; "Connecting Globalization, U.S. Immigration Policy, and the Wars Abroad"; "Immigration Reform, the 2008 Elections and Beyond"; "Reproductive Justice, Not Just for White Ladies Anymore..."; "Detainees, Deportees, and Families Fighting for Freedom"; "Exploring Frameworks for Reclaiming the Immigrant Rights Debate"; "Community of Color Dialogues for Justice and Human Rights"; and "Migration for Development: How Guest-workers are Becoming a Global Economic Commodity." Participants came from all walks of life and simultaneous translation headsets allowed monolingual people to fully engage with the dialogue.

The most dominant idea at the conference was that the Compromise Immigration Reform had been a mistaken compromise for the movement that sold out vulnerable communities because of the enforcement and guest worker elements, and the arduous path to citizenship outlined in the bill. NNIRR and organizations running workshops for the most part urged the movement to prioritize leadership from working class immigrant communities and focus on worker and community organizing, though not completely disengaging from electoral work. Many institutions that are influential in the immigration debate in America, such as the larger unions and middle class advocacy organizations, were conspicuously absent.

One goal of the conference was to highlight the problems facing immigrants, including the exploitation of day laborers in New Orleans, ICE raids all over the country, collaboration between local law enforcement and immigration officials, to name a few. It seemed that everyone present had a tale of oppression, discrimination and hardship to relate, yet the atmosphere of the conference was not at all hopeless or beaten. Indeed, a special effort was made to include the victories that have been won in the struggle as well as the defeats. For example, a worker from New Orleans spoke of how ties between the African-American community and the day laborers have been strengthened lately. When community organizers and workers were arrested and detained in typical anti-organizing tactics by police in the pocket of the exploitive employers, New Orleans community members posted bail for them in a moving act of solidarity. The workers are repaying their debt of gratitude by helping community members rebuild their houses. This is just one example of many acts of solidarity between immigrants and their advocates and other diverse groups.

YDS participated in Youth Encuentro, where about fifteen youth and/or student groups, based in larger community groups or independently, shared stories, ideas, and inspiration. Haitian, Mexican and Chicano/a, South Asian, Khmer, Chinese and other youth found many similarities in their local campaigns against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and deportations, high school sharing of students' citizenship information with ICE, military recruitment in high schools, parental notification requirements for teens to get abortions, and racial profiling and disparate treatment from school and police authorities. Some of the groups had opposed the federal DREAM Act because it included a path to citizenship via the military, in addition to one via college, since many working class immigrant youth are discouraged from attending college.

In both the youth workshops and in the broader conference there was evidence of a growing awareness of the need to address LGBTQ immigrant issues, specifically and in depth rather than allowing them to take a backseat. Conference goers were encouraged to contemplate the intersection of various forms of oppression, including homophobia, transphobia, patriarchy, et al. It was encouraging to see that the general consensus was that these are important issues deserving of equal consideration.

Coming out of the conference, the youth group hopes that NNIRR will devote staff time to developing a national youth network for immigrant rights, and YDS hopes to be a part of that network. We also make the following recommendations to the CC based on our experience at the conference:

1. YDS chapters pressure their high schools and colleges to refuse to collaborate with ICE, so that immigrant youth are not deported nor are they used as a hook to reach and deport thier entire families.
2. YDS National provide more training and advice to enable YDS chapters to actively support and engage in coalitions with local community based groups, especially where there are emergency response networks set up to prepare for ICE raids and deportations.
3. YDS CC designate an LGBTQ Issues Coordinator to focus on LGBTQ issues, including the intersection of LGBTQ and Immigrant Issues.
4. YDS National distribute "Over-Raided, Under Siege," a NNIRR report citing over 100 cases of human rights violations and abuses against immigrant and refugee communities, to YDS chapters.
5. YDS chapters attend local "Trade, Migration and Human Rights" NNIRR speaking events in 2008.
6. YDS National and chapters attend NNIRR regional Refugee Rights Training Institutes when possible.
7. YDS become a dues-paying member of NNIRR, which involves attending NNIRR events, participating in one or more committees, and paying annual dues of $50.

Maria Svart is the Co-Chair for YDS and Christina Huizar is an At-Large member of the Coordinating Committee.

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