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California and the West

Immigration Rights Leaders to Press Case for Amnesty

Convention: Focusing on an issue that reverberates strongly in California, workers will demand attention from state delegations and federal legislators next week.


Building on a burgeoning grass-roots movement that already has made inroads in Congress, labor and immigrant rights leaders will aggressively push their case for a new general amnesty at next week's Democratic convention.

Immigrant workers and community activists plan to station themselves outside the daily gatherings of every state delegation and to relentlessly pester the dozens of federal legislators who will be in town.

They will speak of justice and the contributions immigrants have made to the economy, but underlying those arguments will be a simple, blunt message: If you want the support of Latino voters, you need to give us this in return.

"We want to make sure we don't just get a smile and a pat on the back," said Eliseo Medina, a vice president for the Service Employees International Union, who has been spearheading labor's efforts to reform immigration laws. "Speaking to us in Spanish is very nice, but we want our political leaders to show us something real."

At the same time, reform advocates are wary of harming the Democratic bid by pushing too hard--at least in public. That's one reason relatively few members of the Coalition for Immigration Reform will join a protest march for amnesty and fair trade next Thursday, which will end at Staples Center about the time Al Gore delivers his acceptance speech as the Democratic nominee for president.

"Our eyes are on the prize, and that is the November election," said Linda Chavez Thompson, a vice president of the national AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization representing 13 million union members. The federation surprised many last February by reversing its long-standing policy on immigration and calling for amnesty.

Both major parties have set out to woo Latino voters. To that end, the Republican convention in Philadelphia last week featured a prime time speech in Spanish, live ranchera music and a montage of Latino faces.

But candidate George W. Bush has not yet stated a position on expanded legalization programs, and members of the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Immigration Reform said they were rebuffed by the party before the convention.

"They're talking about inclusiveness, but we're still waiting for a call back from them," said Juan Jose Gutierrez, the director of One-Stop Immigration who is now on the service employees union payroll to build community support for amnesty.

While hardly embracing the idea of a general amnesty, Democrats, prodded by labor, have been more receptive to liberalizing immigration laws. The party's national platform, to be adopted next week, calls for "adjusting the status of immigrants with deep roots in the country" and for "strengthened protections for immigrant workers."

Last month, Gore endorsed legislation that would offer legal status to an estimated 1.1 million undocumented immigrants, primarily from Central America and Mexico. The bill by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), known as the Latino and Immigrant Fairness Act, is one of at least six circulating in both houses of Congress that would help various groups of long-term residents gain legal status. And the California Democratic Party recently voted to embrace the AFL-CIO policy on immigration.

Coming less than a decade after a nationwide backlash against illegal immigration, typified by California's Proposition 187, the movement toward more lenient policies has been helped by a booming economy and a resulting labor shortage. The National Restaurant Assn., for example, recently spoke out in favor of enhanced legalization programs.

The political power of Latino voters has also grown, particularly in California, where union members and new citizens were a decisive factor in electing Gov. Gray Davis. Although the immigrants who would be helped by a legalization program cannot vote, many have relatives and friends who can. And California unions have recruited thousands of members--many of them noncitizens--to staff phone banks and walk precincts.

If the case for immigration reform can be made anywhere, it is here in Los Angeles, home to a large share of the nation's estimated 6 million undocumented immigrants and the epicenter of the national reform movement.

Los Angeles unions were the driving force behind the AFL-CIO's turnabout last February. And activists here have led the nation in building coalitions with religious and community groups, and tapping into well-organized Mexican hometown clubs. A labor-sponsored forum on amnesty in June drew an overflow crowd of 20,000 to the Los Angeles Sports Arena.

Organizers initially viewed the convention as a prime opportunity to show delegates and legislators firsthand the problems and promise of immigrant workers. But as the date approached, plans to lead tours of immigrant neighborhoods fizzled. "Once we looked at the schedule, we saw how difficult it would be to squeeze that in," said Medina of the service employees union.

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