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Immigrant organizing: patterns, challenges & opportunities.

Community organizing of immigrants/ immigrant communities is as varied as are the members of these communities. As the percentage of foreign born residents in the US has increased, so too has interest in organizing among and with immigrant communities.

This article explores some of the organizing methods, challenges and successes of immigrants who are organizing themselves, forming alliances with other immigrant groups and with other low-income, non-immigrant or mixed (immigrant & US born) community organizations that are fighting for social and economic justice in the United States. We draw primarily from our experience with grass roots community organizing in Los Angeles, California.

Most immigrants readily form or join existing cultural, recreational, social or "homeland" associations. These are important organizations in immigrant communities and often a starting place where mutual aid and cooperative efforts germinate. (The ONE and SVOC stories in the Winter issue of Social Policy are illustrative.) The reasons people immigrate to the U.S. have much to do with their initial openness to and potential for participation in community organizations focused on building power to challenge social or economic wrongs in the U.S.

Immigrants come to the United States for many different reasons--driven largely by political and economic forces. Worldwide, migration from sub-developed countries is rising. Extreme poverty in cities and countryside, economic adjustments imposed by international agreements such as NAFTA, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, civil wars, political instability and natural disasters are the main reasons that force people to leave their homelands. However, only two percent of all people migrating come to the US.


The members of immigrant communities can be categorized as:

* those who come here with money, and come to get an education or to invest, who may have some professional skills, and come here with legal documents;

* those who come with little or no money, who are poor, looking for work and new opportunities and who often come without legal documents;

* those who come escaping from "communist" governments, and are granted refugee or asylum status by the U.S. government; and,

* those who come here from "democratic" countries to escape hunger and abuse, but who do not receive protective status from our government.

The last category comprises the vast majority coming to this country. Organizing by and with these communities is the focus of this article.

Most immigrants who came to the U.S. fleeing persecution and repression, seeking expanded freedoms or great educational opportunities are likely not to join organizations fighting for social and economic justice in the U.S. unless or until they have experiences that challenge their sense of safety and well being or severely threaten or limit their opportunities.

The following example illustrates how a change in a sense of safety and a threat to opportunities can become a catalyst for organizing. Prior to 9/11, 2001 state immigrant rights coalitions had minimal or no participation from Middle Eastern or Muslim organizations. These coalitions typically address a wide range of political and economic needs and concerns of newcomers through organizing, educational outreach activities, advocacy and lobbying. Their membership usually reflects the immigrant population of their state or region. However, Central Americans, Mexicans and some Asian newcomer organizations are the staple of their memberships. Attempts to involve Arab and African groups have brought minimum interest until recently.

In the past few months since Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began implementing "special registration" requirements for some immigrants from countries with large Arab and Muslim populations, their interest and membership in state immigrant rights coalitions has increased exponentially. It remains to be seen whether this interest in coalition building and activism will remain regarding other issues of justice, but the door is clearly more widely open than ever before.

Similarly, most immigrants fleeing war, famine and abject poverty will not find their new living conditions in the US something to organize about. At least not right away. But experience has shown that if immigrants experience extreme discrimination or victimization in the US, they will form or join organizations to address these issues. The ten-year old Watts Century Latino Organization (WCLO) has found that Latino parents, even very new immigrant families, will come to meetings and organize concerning obstacles that prevent their children from getting good education. WCLO has not only organized and developed leaders among Latino parents but intentionally helped form a coalition with African American parents who share many common issues concerning the schools. Both organizing efforts involved educating parents about their and their children's rights, conducting activities that built trust among parents and helping parents understand the need to organize and build power so they can hold the schools accountable. This did not come easily for many of the Latino parents who have little or no formal education. The idea of questioning a highly educated principal was unheard of. Yet the slow, patient process of educating parents about school budgets and inequitable treatment, combined with the parents' strong desire to get a good education for their children, resulted in the parents' ability to challenge practices and win better conditions at two local schools. It is important to note that WCLO had to conduct meetings in English and Spanish and translate materials so that all parents could participate. Similarly, WCLO helped hundreds of recent immigrant families living in public housing demand and win more responsive police services.

These same families, who, with good reason, frequently feared the police and government representatives in their home countries, have been so often victimized in their public housing community, that their submission was at last broken. They have begun demanding better police services.

Victimization by crime and the lack of police response is also the catalyst that is bringing hundreds of newer immigrants in Memphis, TN to organizing meetings. Sizeable numbers of immigrants from Mexico, Latin America and some Asian countries began settling in Memphis in the last 10 years. Memphis and Tennessee now have the second fastest growing immigrant population in the South. Numerous smaller political and civic organizations of immigrants have sprung up over this time. A dramatic rise in crime, with as much as 50% of the robberies perpetrated against Latinos, coupled with the lack of linguistically and culturally appropriate police services, gave rise to a broad, grass roots coalition Federacion de Latinos Unidos, FLU--United Federation of Latinos. FLU's demands include: bilingual officers, dispatchers, 911 operators and more patrols at "hot spots." The immigrant leaders of FLU also feel its important to reach out and gain support of some of the African American leaders in Memphis who share concerns about rising crime and police services.

In newer immigrant communities that do not already have a group such as WCLO helping them build power or that lack role models of people like themselves to learn from, the initial organizing can be even harder. Alisa Glassman, who organizes newcomers around immigrant issues as part of the faith-based, Industrial Areas Foundation-affiliated Washington Interfaith Network, recently observed that in Washington, DC, 98% of the immigrants are recent newcomers. They see fewer role models to help them ease their way. She, too, engages in relationship/trust building as a first step to engage newcomers from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, the Congo, Caribbean countries and Central America. She finds it advantageous to work with the faith communities these immigrants belong to. Small house meetings with a trusted clergy member present help newcomers feel safe to voice some of their fears and frustrations. The house meetings build trust and identify concerns that can be acted on by the leadership team. [Typically, the leadership group in each participating congregation in a faith-based federation is called a "leadership team."] "The teams are really important to help leadership emerge, especially among newcomers who feel less safe or for whom organizing is unfamiliar." The team provides a real sense that you are not alone; that you can take risks; that you can be open and grow; that you will be supported and nurtured in doing so. A recent immigrant from Sierra Leone was a member of a WIN leadership team on a recent action on housing problems. This was his first time to challenge authority regarding a problem in this country. But his heavily scarred face bears witness to retaliation he experienced when challenging the government in his homeland. As a new WIN leader on the team, he could play a role but was told "you don't have to be the one to speak this time if you don't feel ready."

Arturo Ybarra, founder and director of WCLO was first moved to action as a young university student in Mexico City. Twenty years later he applied his organizing skills in his Watts neighborhood, a low income African American community experiencing a large influx of Latino immigrants. As with WCLO, the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates of Los Angeles, Casa Maryland in Baltimore, FLU in Memphis, the National Day Labor Organizing Network and numerous other social change organizations have been founded by immigrant leaders who were involved with progressive social movements in their homeland. Those who bring organizing skills and positive experiences with collective action from their native country often provide leadership for change in the US. The recent unionization victory among nurses at Cedar Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles was helped, in large part, by the leadership of a nurse who is a veteran activist of the anti-Marcos struggle in her native Philippines. But, applying those skills and experiences can be difficult and daunting in the new US context. Some organizers have chosen to create organizations that focus on solidarity and support for the native country. Others have chosen to address the social and economic issues of their compatriots and other low-income people in the US. This can be especially rough on organizers who bring their own economic and political analysis from their native country and then try to apply it to communities here.

"The issues don't have the same urgency and intensity as back home," comments Erik Montes, a community organizer from the Philippines now working in Los Angeles. "At first I was using my own political analysis as a lens to find who to involve in the local organizing work here. If people did not share my leftist class analysis I assumed they would not be willing to take action. That became a very limiting means to determine who was a potential leader or who would be willing to act on issues."


In 1997, The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), The Korean Immigrant Worker Advocates (KIWA) and the Pilipino Workers Center (PWC) started discussions that lead to support for each others' organizing efforts among low-wage immigrant workers in Los Angeles. Typically these organizing campaigns were to pressure owners to pay back wages they owed workers. These workers are subjected to multiple health and safety violations. Their jobs offer no benefits and little hope for advancement; they are often temporary or part time. Daily, they face verbal and physical abuse, harassment, blacklisting and threats. They work in industries not usually unionized. There is little or no enforcement of existing US labor laws. Further, there is generally a lack of interest or response from mainstream US organized labor.

CHIRLA, KIWA and PWC had a clear vision of what was needed to put some measure of dignity back in the workplace and a realization of the huge challenges to do this--limited resources for organizing, a lack of understanding by the general public as to the conditions in such workplaces, and ethnic and language issues. The youthful organizers from these three organizations, themselves immigrants, decided to "dive in." They began to organize bus-boys, parking lot attendants, day laborers, gardeners, and others.

In 2000, after a few years of working together, the three organizations were heavily involved with KIWA's "Koreatown Restaurant Justice Campaign." The campaign had reached an impasse. One of the most abusive employers in Koreatown owned "The Elephant Snack Corner". Twelve workers were engaged in a fight for back wages. After some months, the workers needed to feel support. KIWA, CHIRLA and PWC contacted other organizations and asked for vigorous support of these workers on May 1st (Workers day/labor day in many other countries). The result was impressive. A multi-ethnic group of over 300 workers turned out and rocked Koreatown! They took the streets around this restaurant and protested for several hours. That moment was one of realization for all three organizations. It was clear these communities could be united in solidarity with the workers of this restaurant, and could be united for other fights too.

The event invigorated the partnership and challenged it to develop strategies to grow this new force. During 2000 and 2001 meetings and workshops among these same workers were held to clarify purposes, themes and points of unity. During these meetings it was clear that beyond workplace injustices, the need for legalization, California identifications and driver licenses for the undocumented were the most pressing, important and shared concerns among the workers. During 2001, the Garment Workers Center was created with the help of these organizations and it became a part of the emerging partnership. The immigrant workers themselves, in meetings conducted in three and four languages, decided to move from campaigns of mutual support to creating an ongoing partnership. Together they created MIWON, the Multi-ethnic Immigrant Workers Network.

Prior to this important decision, the workers met in workshops to learn about each other's cultures, discussing common problems and aspirations, and learning some of the history and various struggles in their home countries and in the US-such as the Civil Rights Movement.

During 2001, MIWON began to work for legalization. It was becoming a hot issue. President Bush and Mexican President Fox talked about creating legalization for Mexicans. MIWON was loudly saying that legalization should not be limited to the people of Mexico. They organized a 4,000 person march calling for broad legalization--a call the marchers made in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Tagalog and English. During this time MIWON leaders met several times to develop a common "Immigrant Workers Rights" platform. Workers shared their stories (family histories, hopes, struggles) as part of developing the platform. That process brought them closer together.


Unfortunately, the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11 of that year changed the reality and lives of many. Immigrant communities were transformed into targets of persecution, backlash and hate.

Many immigrants experienced dual heart aches--one part ached to see the suffering of the American people of which they felt a part; at the same time, it reminded some of the horror of war and violence that they experienced in their homeland. Some immigrants also saw their hopes for immigration reforms dashed. MIWON approached the Los Angeles City Council with their workers rights platform as a way to move forward again. On December 18th, 2001, the UN International Day of Migrants & Families, the City of Los Angeles passed a resolution adopting MIWON's workers rights platform. While it was a symbolic gesture, the message was important and contributed to a positive spirit. A MIWON leader described it this way, "On that day in the corridors of City Hall, immigrants stopped being the enemy and regained their dignity."


Post 9/11-elected officials were all saying that a legalization program was impossible. MIWON, feeling they must keep the issue alive, organized another May 1st event. Los Angeles witnessed perhaps the largest march since the anti-Proposition 187 march when, on May 1st, over 15,000 people--Latinos, Asians, and sizeable numbers of African American and "Anglos" from 80 organizations marched under MIWON's banner of Legalization Now! Stop Immigrant Bashing! The addition of a sizeable number of African American and "Anglos" along with many others came, in part, because MIWON had joined the National Campaign for Jobs & Income Support (NCJIS), an alliance of over 1,000 community organizing groups and networks in 45 states that addresses issues of poverty. MIWON had actively helped build the Los Angeles Chapter of the Campaign. In doing so, many important alliances were formed with community organizing groups that have multi-racial and both immigrant and non-immigrant memberships. These new organizational "friends" such as Los Angeles ACORN and People Organized for Westside Renewal & Empowerment (POWER) have consistently supported MIWON events.

There is a limitation to these alliances: they tend to be shallow, only coming to play for major events unless real work is done together to learn about one another. MIWON, ACORN, POWER and the other groups that make up the Los Angeles Chapter of the NCJIS held "common ground workshops" in which leaders learned about each other, dealt with stereotypes, identified common concerns, and learned to be accountable for organizational commitments.

Around the U.S., other immigrant rights and community organizing groups have also found workplace issues as the starting place for organizing immigrants. Dozens of organizing groups, sometimes in partnership with labor unions, have created Workers Centers. There is a great deal of experimentation with organizing low-wage workers in ways that most traditional labor unions have not been able to do. Many Workers Centers employ a range of strategies--mixing organizing and leadership development with worker education, English as a Second Language classes and various services. Some also function as hiring halls; others campaign to change the practices of day labor agencies or target the working conditions of a single industry. The latter is the mission of the Garment Worker's Center in Los Angeles. Some Workers Centers are immigrant-specific, such as Voces de la Frontera in Milwaukee, while others organize a multi-racial constituency. The membership of San Lucas Worker's Center in Chicago, while predominately Latino, has African American and low income whites members as well.

Worker Centers that show the greatest promise are those that organize within a broader organizing context. That's because work place issues, often great starting points for organizing, are not the only concerns of workers. The best of these Workers Centers, including all those named above, develop leaders that address both workplace and broader community issues. And they create alliances when beneficial.

Ten years ago most community organizing groups had small numbers of new individual immigrant members or group affiliates participating in their organizations. These organizations addressed many issues that are important to immigrants but rarely addressed immigrant-specific issues such as language access, the INS backlog in processing applications for citizenship or the fight to legalize undocumented immigrants. Today almost every major community organizing group or network has "legalization" as one of its priorities.

We see both tremendous challenges and opportunities for organizing within and among immigrant communities. The organizations we've discussed are a break from the dominant, well-intentioned, advocacy approach in which someone spoke for immigrant rights and against their exploitation. For example, instead of lawyers filing suits, the workers themselves organized and directed their demands at both employers and state regulatory agencies. Instead of publicists speaking to the media in behalf of workers, workers themselves--often lacking more than elementary grade education-learned how to speak to the media, sometimes through a translator or sometimes in not-yet-perfectly spoken English.

Good organizing among any population or community requires hard work--listening, challenging, thinking things through with people and training them in the skills needed to effectively act on their decisions. It requires courage, vision, discipline, and creativity. It requires a belief that those who are affected by issues can and must define the problems and shape and fight for the solutions. It requires a continuous struggle on the part of organizers not to "do for" people, but to "do with" them--to act according to the 'iron rule.' There are no short cuts when it comes to building an organization owned by its members. At the heart of this struggle is the question of democracy: do we believe that people can and should make the decisions that affect their lives or not. That is a radical question. The organizations we've reported on engage in this struggle. That makes them radical in its original sense: they seek to go to the root of the matter.

Mary Ochs has been a community organizer for over 30 years. Her early organizing experience includes work with the National Welfare Rights Organization (Milwaukee and Indiana), Human Justice Coalition (Indiana), Metro Organizations for People (Denver) Massachusetts Fair Share, and San Mateo (CA) Organizing Project. She is currently the National Field Director for the Center for Community Change. Mary is married to union organizer Antonio Dorono.

In 1990, Mayron Payes came to the U.S. from El Salvador, where he had participated in the student movement that opposed the government. In Los Angeles, CA, he joined El Rescate, a Central American legal and social organization. Mayron worked as community health educator, and later became a board member, of Clinica Msgr. Oscar A. Romero, the city's largest free community clinic for immigrants. Mayron is Workers Rights Project Coordinator for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA); his responsibilities include organizing low wage immigrant workers in non-unionized industries. He has a ten-year-old son, Ruben.
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Title Annotation:Special feature: the push-pull of immigration
Author:Ochs, Mary; Payes, Mayron
Publication:Social Policy
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
Previous Article:Editor's introduction.
Next Article:Organizing practice: building powerful relationships.

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