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Immigrants Divided on Boycott

One advocacy group calls for a May1 walkout while another urges protesters to go to work and classes first.

April 20, 2006|Teresa Watanabe and Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writers

Sharp divisions are emerging among organizers of the pro-immigrant rallies that brought hundreds of thousands of marchers into the streets across the nation, with two leading coalitions calling for starkly different approaches to the next major action scheduled for May 1.

In separate Los Angeles news conferences Wednesday, the March 25 Coalition of 100 political and immigrant rights organizations reiterated its call for a boycott of work, school and consumer activity to demonstrate immigrants' economic power.

But the We Are America coalition -- which includes the Roman Catholic Church and 125 labor, business and immigrant advocacy groups -- urged people to attend a rally after work and school.

Both coalitions say they are united on the ultimate goal -- adoption of just and humane immigration reform legislation -- but differ over whether a boycott would be counterproductive by jeopardizing workers' jobs and students' grades. Some advocates also expressed fear that a boycott would increase negative public opinion, which began building after thousands of students walked out of classes last month, many of them waving the Mexican flag.

A boycott would create chaos as well as a backlash by giving fuel to the anti-illegal immigrant movement, said Spanish-language DJ Renan "El Cucuy" Almendarez Coello, a key figure in urging people to attend the March 25 rally in Los Angeles, which drew an estimated 500,000 people.

"We came here to work and not to say 'don't work,' " Coello said in Spanish at the We Are America news conference at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, which featured Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala and more than 20 immigrant workers and advocates.

But Nativo Lopez, a boycott supporter and president of the Mexican American Political Assn., said a more confrontational approach in the model of Cesar Chavez and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was needed to shake up the nation's power structure and demonstrate the indispensable role that illegal immigrants play in the economy. He questioned why organizations that celebrate the civil rights leaders through Masses and annual memorial events balk at following their tactics.

"Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King were extremely militant advocates of Gandhian principles of civil disobedience, and they lived by those principles," Lopez said in an interview. "So what's the ruckus about a boycott? We need to put the focus of power with the worker and immigrants, not in the hierarchies, to resolve the immigration reform debate."

The two coalitions are also divided over immigration policy, with differences over proposed guest-worker programs, terms of legalization and employer sanctions.

Some of the We Are America coalition members support proposed Senate legislation that includes a guest-worker program and would offer most undocumented workers the chance to get in line for legalization after paying a fine and learning English. But Lopez's coalition rejects a guest-worker program as exploitative and is backing full and immediate legalization of all undocumented workers.

Despite the division, most experts said it would not harm the overall cause of reform. In fact, internal tensions drive and even benefit all successful social movements, including those that promoted women's rights and racial equality in the 1960s, according to David Meyer, a UC Irvine professor of sociology and political science who recently wrote "The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America."

"Having what you might call a radical flank is advantageous to those people trying to bargain with the system because you can portray yourself as the reasonable alternative," he said. He added that internal divisions also promote more creativity and experimentation with tactics.

Lopez said the divergent tactics stemmed from the different nature of the organizations involved.

He said some of the We Are America organizations may feel constrained from joining the boycott by their mission, funders, or in the case of organized labor, their collective bargaining agreements that prohibit strikes.

By contrast, he said, most of those in the March 25 Coalition are Latino grass-roots organizations, such as his Mexican political group and various chapters of Hermandad Mexicana, the nation's largest organization of Latino immigrants that claims a membership of 30,000 families.

Lopez said that many of his coalition members draw their inspiration from the late Bert Corona, a Latino activist he described as the "modern founder of immigrant rights" who started the Hermandad organization in San Diego in 1951 and was a mentor to Chavez.

Lopez said his coalition emphasized the direct and central role that immigrants should play in forming national policies that affect them.

But even within his coalition, members disagreed over tactics -- most prominently, whether students should stay out of school.

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