Immigrants: The New Civil Rights Movement
General Assembly 2004 Event 4031
The speaker, Dolores Huerta, won the hearts of every single one of the over 300 Unitarian Universalists (UUs) attending her speech by immediately claiming us as Godparents of the United Farm Workers because of the support she received from UUs across the country during the more than 30 years she has been championing for human rights for farm workers. She further endeared everyone when she spoke knowledgeably about and thanked Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) for all the support that they have given her in this work.
Señora Huerta received a standing ovation even before she began her speech when she was introduced by Rev. José Ballester as "a legend." Her presence at our General Assembly this year was a result of cooperative work by UU people of color, said Manish Mishra, President of Asian/Pacific Islander Caucus (A/PIC). It is important for all UUs of color in our denomination to network together and support one another's efforts. The organizations involved in bring Huerta to our General Assembly this year were A/PIC, Diverse & Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM) and Latino(a) Unitarian Universalist Networking Association (LUUNA). In addition to speaking at this General Assembly, Huerta would be speaking at a public forum arranged by LUUNA to be held at the 1st Unitarian Church of Los Angeles the same evening.
Huerta's list of accomplishment and awards are too numerous to be listed here. She has been arrested 42 times and was named one of the top100 most important women of the 20th Century.
"All of us come from immigrants," Huerta said. "The only indigenous people here are the Native Americans." The issues immigrants face everyday are issues of oppression. When Mexican immigrants are told to "go home", they can say, "We are where we are supposed to be. We didn't cross the border. The border crossed us!"
The wealth of the United States of American sits on the backs of wave after wave of immigrants who have provided cheap labor: first the Chinese and Japanese, then the Filipinos. When these immigrants began to settle and started to buy land, laws like the Exclusion Act were enacted to stop that. Other laws that forbid interracial marriages prevented these immigrants to from bypassing the Exclusion Act by marrying white persons in order to become landowners through their spouses. In the case of the quarter-million young Filipino males "imported" to this country as cheap labor, these young men were doomed to die before they could ever marry and have children.
Mexican migrant workers were recruited to fill the labor gap after World War II. They worked under conditions akin to slave camps. Although the government gave money to Mexican migrant worker's programs, most of the money was siphoned off by middle-men before it could reach the workers. Typically, a worker would get $15 every two weeks after all the deductions were made, which included having to pay transportation fares to and from work.
Stories about immigrant oppression don't often make front-page news, but they are happening everyday all around the country. Illegal immigrants are rounded up and jailed without due process. An application for citizenship can lead to deportation for misdemeanors committed in their youth.
Racism is part of the oppression suffered not just by immigrants but by all people of color. The percentage of felony committed by people of color is about 50%, same as that committed by whites, yet the percentage of conviction is 90% for people of color and 10% for whites. Police harassment for people of color occurs a lot more often. Three black youths gathered in a street corner is a gang and they are likely to be told by police officers to "bust it up," whereas three white youths is a youth group. Huerta asserts that a city should be judged not only by how it treats its women and children, but by how it treats its young black men.
Classism also contributes to the oppression of immigrants who are seen by society as the lowest rung of the social ladder. A rich celebrity convicted of a drug offence goes to a rehab center while the poor person ends up in jail.
The economic disparity widens between the rich and the poor as large international corporations create sweatshops in third-world countries while agribusinesses drive many small farmers out of their farms and out of business. As jobs are taking out of the country and machines replace human labor, the plight of immigrant workers become even more severe. After World War II, the US Government gave money to Germany and Japan to rebuild their economy. Today, US corporations and agribusinesses are draining money out of the third world countries yet the absurdity remains that hunger and poverty are rampant in our own inner cities.
Quoting Voltaire, Huerta warns that "Those who believe in an absurdity, will commit an atrocity."
Virginia Nesmith, Executive Director of National Farm Worker Ministry, was invited by Huerta to tell us more about the work of her ministry. Their website lists current efforts on boycotts, action alerts regarding laws and bills in the making, and news related to farm workers.
Huerta retuned to the podium for a period of questions and answers. People came forward to thank her for all the work she has done in creating justice for migrant workers. Others shared inspirational stories about their own congregations' efforts in support of Huerta's work. Yet others simply share information about other resources and organizations which support similar efforts.
At the conclusion of the event, the Grand Ballroom of the Convention Center reverberated with everyone responding to Huerta's call to actions:
"¡Viva la paz!"
"¡Viva la justicia!"
"¡Si se puerde!"
Reported by Kok Heong McNaughton; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.