By Craig Stevens
The Trump administration’s escalating antiimmigrant rhetoric and attacks on migrants’ and refugees’ rights have led not only to inhumane treatment of immigrants, particularly Latinx and other immigrants/refugees of color and Muslims, but to a police state for undocumented workers and families being targeted by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security). That was the powerful message delivered by Guillermo Perez, founder of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the national Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), and Monica Ruiz, Executive Director of Casa San Jose, at a Battle of Homestead Foundation (BHF) forum May 4th on “Family Separation at the Border: Its Impact on Pittsburgh, a ‘Welcoming City.’”
The national LCLAA was formed in 1972 to “educate, organize and mobilize Latino(a)s in the labor movement. It represents the interests of more than 2 million Latino(a) workers in the AFL-CIO and independent unions throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico.” (LCLAA website)
The BHF May 4th forum followed a showing earlier in the week of the PBS Frontline documentary, “Separated: Children at the Border,” as part of BHF’s 2019 series, “1919: Bridges from History,” exploring issues facing workers 100 years ago and today. There are striking parallels between the post-WWI “Red Scare” attacks on immigrant workers and labor organizers and today’s trumped-up “national emergency” on the southern border and attacks on undocumented workers and families. BHF will be posting a video recording and powerpoint from the forum on its web site in the near future. For this and information on BHF and its 2019 program series go to: www.battleofhomestead.org.
Immigrants Role in Labor Organizing and the Building of this Country Some of the key points Perez made were: “For much of its history, the U.S. operated a de-facto open border policy…The concept of ‘citizenship’” was first restricted to “free white persons, so the distinction of being native versus foreign born was less important to one’s status than one’s race. The plight of indigenous Americans illustrates this perfectly: it wasn’t until the passage of the Snyder Act in 1924 that all native Americans were granted citizenship.
“At no time in our history has the percentage of foreign born been more than 15% of the U.S. population…our country has been built by working people, most of them native born, many of them immigrants and the children of immigrants, and a significant number of them enslaved. In 1800 more than a fifth of the U.S. labor force was slave labor.” (Power Point)
Every wave of mass immigration has faced a nativist, anti-immigrant backlash, like the recent wave of mostly Central Americans seeking asylum and refuge in the U.S.
Every wave of immigrants has contributed to the labor movement, organizing strikes and pushing demands for better working conditions and union rights.
However, it wasn’t until the year 2000 that the AFLCIO took a pro-immigrant workers stance, due to pressure from service workers unions that were in the forefront of immigrant workers organizing.
Perez educates labor, community and faith-based groups to build solidarity with immigrant workers and to support Latinx workers’ organizing efforts. Perez also has organized undocumented workers who have suffered “wage theft” to win back promised wages. However, with the threat of ICE detentions and raids, undocumented workers have not been contacting him for assistance as much as in the past.
Perez has also played a central role in mobilizing Latino/as for Pittsburgh’s May Day march and celebration here. (See May Day photos in page 15 of this NewPeople.)
Fondo Solidario – Bail Bond Fund The Pittsburgh LCLAA chapter holds an annual celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15) to celebrate the contributions of Latinos to our communities and culture. Since 2014, the event has raised $70,000 to benefit local immigrant rights and labor work in the region, including Casa San Jose.
This year $12,000 of funds raised were given to the new Fondo Solidario (Solidarity Fund), a bail bond fund which provides 0% interest loans to people detained by ICE. Perez said that ICE detainees’ bail can run as high as $25,000, a prohibitive amount which leads to long detentions, greatly increasing the likelihood they will be deported without receiving adequate legal assistance and support from their families or community.
Contributions to Fondo Solidario can be made out to Casa San Jose and designated for the “Bail Bond Fund” and mailed to: Casa San Jose, 2116 Broadway Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15216.
Guillermo Perez can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org; (518) 253-9120; and PIttsburgh LCLAA’s Facebook is: @lclaapittsburgh.
Craig Stevens is a retired Community Social Worker and long-time Thomas Merton Center member.