I gave several talks about the connection between capitalism and immigration as part of the Student Labor Week of Action. My second stop was at Wooster College, where I am currently sitting in a college house scribbling through this entry. Both talks were sponsored by the campus Young Democratic Socialists and Latino students clubs. For many students, it was their first introduction to immigration’s push and pull factors that are caused by capitalism (esp. “free” trade agreements and World Bank/International Monetary Fund policies) and what it means to be an ally for many non-immigrant activists.
As an activist, I and others who stand in solidarity with the immigrant rights movement have an important role in discussing immigration with our peers. I use my talks to give students tools to start conversations with their friends and family; to dispute myths about immigration, and to explain why progressives are tied together in a movement for social justice. Students need to articulate that the undemocratic foreign economic policies of the U.S. and its allies cause many people’s livelihoods to be destroyed. Therefore, we have to defend migrants against such unfair generalizations that they are all criminals; that they are skipping short waiting periods to enter this country; and that they have opportunities available to them in their home countries.
Another important topic that came up in the discussions was avoiding “divide and conquer” strategies and the role of allies in struggle. At Butler University, the topic brought up by some African-Americans attending my talk was a few of their relatives blame immigrants for the loss of jobs in the black community. We agreed how dangerous the old tactic of pitting working people of color against each other is and that we must work to build coalitions to overcome it. The students stressed that we should combine self-interest and solidarity in building a broader immigrant rights movement. As long as immigrants can be exploited, everyone including African-Americans, everyone is vulnerable to having their standard of living hurt. Everyone except, of course, those who profit from the system.
The importance of the role of allies was a hot topic as well. Professor Michelle Camou, who spoke with me at Wooster, reflected important lessons she learned about ally work from her days at a Denver Workers Center. She felt that non-immigrant allies play a critical role in several respects. She was able to use her privilege to talk with employers in order to make sure they knew there were people looking out for the undocumented workers. As an ally, she could take more risks such as reporting abuses of workers because she could not be deported. She told stories of how allies and undocumented immigrants would discuss strategy, and how they would often disagree. Over time, each side would learn from each other. Healthy dialogue proved to be beneficial in building trust, solidarity, and victories.
Lastly, I believe the most critical part of my talks is when we discuss language. I make sure to talk about why terms like “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” are dehumanizing. A Butler University Latina student – who is a child of undocumented immigrants – echoed my sentiments and told us how much that language upset her and the need for us to combat it. Such discourse creates a sense of “the other” – one who is below everyone else and not entitled to the same rights. If there is one aspect I want students to walk away with from my talks, it’s changing the way they frame the immigration debate. Even small victories such as that have ripple effects.
At the end of each talk, we passed around the Coalition of the Immokalee Workers petition for Burger King. YDS chapters and many allies around the country are using the Student Labor Week of Action as an excellent opportunity to combine theory and activism. While my talks are important is changing the way students look at the immigration debate, I would feel at a loss if they took no action for justice. The immigrant rights movement is a new civil rights movement; we can’t just change the way we think! We must struggle to change the system itself!