Members of community fighting to help get immigrants equal rights

Trio hopes to help with several immigration issues
Members of community fighting to help get immigrants equal rightsBy Lydia Chavez, CORRESPONDENT Meet Emilia Otero, Socorro Campos and Stacy Kono. They are on the front lines of local movements that disregard the esoteric political debate of immigration policy and deal with the reality of an ever growing immigrant population.

Sometimes they are individuals with a good heart -- Otero, businessmen with a memory of his own hardships -- Campos, or an advocate who works with a nonprofit -- Kono. But, in myriad ways, individuals, alone or through nonprofits and elected officials, are working to give immigrants -- documented or not -- legal standing. In short, if Washington is still fiddling with new immigration legislation, these local initiatives that include voting rights, the ability to get a business license, a bank account and pay in-state tuition, are pushing ahead, reshaping local ordinances and state laws to recognize a new reality.

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"The United States has had the highest period of sustained immigration in its history," said Louis Desipio, a political scientist from the University of California at Irvine. Indeed, 48.6 percent of the country's foreign born residents arrived after 1990, according to the U.S. Census. And the percentage of the population that is foreign born, close to 12 percent, is approaching the historic highs of nearly 15 percent in 1890 and 1910.

Michele Wucker, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York, said there are two reactions to those numbers. "There are alarmists who spew lofty principals about what an American and citizenship should be and then there are people on the ground who are interested in getting everyone who lives in communities to understand that they are not only allowed, but expected to make a commitment to the place they live," she said.

Increasingly, from the Bay Area to New York, those people on the ground are effectively changing the ways in which immigrants are treated.

"There's been legislation passed at the city level and at the local level which clearly acknowledges the huge influx of immigrants in New York and recognizes those human beings as needy and deserving of social services," said Ray Hayduk, a professor of political science at the Borough of Manhattan Community College of New York.

Hayduk pointed to local legislation to protect immigrants from unscrupulous consultants and an executive order to insure that immigrants, regardless of their status, have access to city services.

Most recently, there's been an upswing of cities looking to give immigrants the right to vote in some local elections. San Francisco approved a measure last week that will be on the November ballot, Washington DC's City Council attempted to pass a similar law this month, and New York City is now working on legislation to extend the vote. Already, immigrants can vote in several cities including Takoma Park, Maryland and Chicago.

But the building movement to offer immigrants the right to vote is only one of many initiatives that acknowledge the large number of immigrants. These measures are not without opponents. The politics around drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants in California is a case in point. So are the voting initiatives that have roused argument and lawsuits. Nevertheless, there have been real gains on the local level, immigration specialists said.

Wucker pointed out that even the business community -- which has long looked at the immigrant community as little more than cheap labor -- is now also waking up to its consuming potential. To this end, institutions like Citibank, Bank of America and their competitors are developing programs" to attract the immigrant.

These include making it easier to bank in the United States with identification cards issued by the consulates and to send remittances to family abroad, she said.

Often these efforts to change laws and link the immigrant to the legal world have modest beginnings and revolve around labor issues. Take for example, Otero, a Mexican immigrant who has lived in Oakland for 40 years. Having successfully raised her children, she said, "I had a moral obligation to give back to my community." So, enlisting the help of her daughter, Shelly Gaza, she began working with the fruit vendors.

Over a two-year period that included Otero flying to Guadalajara, Mexico to buy pushcarts at a reasonable price, she and others successfully changed city law to recognize both the fruit vendors and taco and tamale trucks.

When she started, Otero said, everyone told her, "it's just not possible." But slowly, with help from businessmen like Campos, who runs Otaez, a popular Fruitvale restaurant, and elected officials like Ignacio de La Fuente, also an immigrant, the fruit vendors moved from the parallel world of the immigrant to the above ground economy.

In November, two city ordinances confirmed the new status on the fruit vendors and taco and tamale trucks.

At 7 a.m. on a recent morning, Otero watched the now legal enterprises as some packed fruit at a health department approved commissary. They were the late shift. Immigrants who run the tamale trucks arrived at 4 a.m. and had already left to catch their morning customers.

Spanish was spoken, but profit and loss was the lingua franca. Vendors like Georgina Coria Arvizu sounded like any small business owner. After taxes and permits, she said, shaking her head, it's tough to make more than $800 a month.

Arvizu is a legal resident, but many of the new immigrants don't have legal residency, and the community that reaches out to them hardly cares, immigration specialists said.

"There's an enormous influx of workers who can't normalize their status and an enormous demand for their labor," said Janice Fine, a senior researcher for the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Community Change.

Fine studies work centers like the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates in San Jose and Oakland. In many ways, she said, the centers echo the settlement houses founded by Jane Addams in the late 1800s that helped the immigrant with labor, language and social issues. But before the 1920s, the immigrant's legal status was not an issue. Nowadays, the work centers face the additional task of helping immigrants who may be undocumented and fearful of their position.

In Oakland, Kono, the program director, and her associates work with the Asian low-income women who are among the 3,600 garment workers in Alameda County.

"We let them know their rights and we can refer them to legal resources if they want to file a complaint," Kono said. Since the federal government now forbids the Legal Aid Society to use federal funds to help undocumented residents, Fine said, other nonprofits have emerged. In Kono's case, she sends her clients to the Asian Law Caucus for help.

Kono said her organization's forte is mobilizing the women to advocate for themselves. "The angle that we use is that the immigrant workers contribute to the local state and community level and so we also need to give back to them," she said. As a result, the women organized to get a health and safety project on ergonomics and were able to win a $25,000 grant from the city to pursue the work.

Fine said that when she first started studying the work centers in 1992, fewer than five existed. Now, more than 133 work centers have opened across the country and she estimated that as many as 10 to 20 new ones will be added each year.

"Their first function is to teach workers that they have the same rights as all American workers," Fine said. "Employers are not supposed to hire them, but once they do, they are supposed to stick to the laws."

  • Immigration