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California and the West

Mexican 'Hometown Clubs' Turn Activist

Immigration: Coalition backs calls for a new amnesty program. 'Everyone has friends or family members who are undocumented,' official says.

June 08, 2000|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A potentially powerful coalition of Mexican "hometown clubs" based in Los Angeles has been formed to support organized labor's call for immigration reform, including a new amnesty.

The highly organized associations represent several million immigrants in California and funnel billions of dollars to their hometowns each year for civic projects. But they have never before come together to influence U.S. policy.

The development, announced Wednesday by club presidents from Zacatecas, Jalisco, Guanajuato, Oaxaca and Sinaloa at the County Federation of Labor, marks a turning point for the clubs, which are increasingly looking for ways to help fellow immigrants here.

It also demonstrates solid support for a new amnesty by longtime immigrants, many of whom are now U.S. citizens and successful business owners. In fact, many club officers directly benefited from the 1986 general amnesty, which granted legal status to more than 3 million immigrants.

"We're all affected by this problem, one way or another," said Manuel Gutierrez, secretary of the Fraternidad Sinaloense de California. "Everyone has friends or family members who are undocumented. The support for this idea is unanimous."

The announcement comes days before a planned AFL-CIO forum on immigration, which is expected to draw at least 5,000 participants to the Sports Arena on Saturday afternoon. The forum, which will involve testimony from church and community groups as well as union organizers and workers, is the fourth and final in a series of immigration town hall meetings called by the AFL-CIO in recent months.

The umbrella group for U.S. labor reversed its long-standing policy on immigration in February, calling for a new amnesty, a repeal of employer sanction laws and aggressive enforcement of worker protection laws for undocumented workers.

The Los Angeles event will feature testimony from immigrants from as far as Bangladesh and Vietnam, organizers said. But Mexico will be the best-represented country by far, reflecting local demographics. For that reason alone, the involvement of the newly formed coalition is key.

The pairing of the club coalition with the county federation could also be an organizing bonanza for local unions, which are aggressively recruiting immigrant workers.

"This is tremendously significant. It's really what should have been happening for the last 40 years," said Raul Hinojosa, director of the North American Integration and Development Center at UCLA. "These kinds of networks were a backbone of the labor movement 100 years ago. Italians, for example, had very strong hometown networks that labor tapped into in New York.

"What's interesting is that in this current wave of immigration, the labor movement has taken so long to find them. . . . These immigrant networks are already organized. That's an incredible advantage."

Some clubs have been in existence for more than three decades. They typically raise funds for projects in Mexico through dances and raffles. Many organize annual beauty pageants, and host bands and dancers from home.

Recently, however, the clubs have become increasingly focused on helping immigrants here, providing scholarships to children of immigrants, and holding citizenship classes and voter registration drives. "We have been serving the Mexicans in Mexico, and forgot the ones here," said Pablo Ramos of Guanajuato. "Now we want to look at how we can be more effective with our people in Los Angeles."

Clubs loosely joined forces six years ago to oppose Proposition 187, the California initiative that restricted public services to illegal immigrants. However, the group disbanded after the election.

"Now they have made a serious compromise to stay in this for the long run," said Ben Monteroso, an assistant regional director with the Service Employees International Union, who first approached club presidents with the idea of forming a coalition. "They came here and worked hard and became successful, but they know the majority of Mexican people aren't doing so well," Monteroso said. "The only way to change that is to change the immigration laws."

Club leaders said they have heard many stories of undocumented immigrants working for less than minimum wage or under unsafe conditions. Several also expressed concerned that tight border controls have made the crossing far more dangerous, causing many deaths.

"Today, we are united here to say that we are part of this nation," said Guadalupe Gomez, president of the Frente Civico Zacatecano. "We pay taxes. We have houses. We have children born here. We are part of this nation, and it's time that they listen and take us into account."

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HOMETOWN SUPPORT

U.S. immigrant clubs are a growing source of funding for some Mexican towns. A1

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