At annual conference, immigrant rights activists extol need for reform

Activists, including Angelenos who took part in May Day protests, say they're hopeful about comprehensive immigration reform this time around, in part because they believe it has a broader base of support.
Activists, including Angelenos who took part in May Day protests, say they're hopeful about comprehensive immigration reform this time around, in part because they believe it has a broader base of support.

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Politicians, labor leaders, and other immigration advocates sounded optimistic tones about comprehensive immigration reform at an annual conference of the Council of Mexican Federations in North America, held in downtown Los Angeles.

“You’re one of the most active proponents of immigration reform here in Los Angeles,” said Congresswoman Judy Chu, exhorting the activists to keep pushing for reform. “Today, we have the biggest coalition ever wanting immigration reform, including the agriculture industry and high-tech companies."

The event drew hundreds of immigrant activists to Cathedral Plaza. Despite the uplifting speeches, some attendees privately acknowledged that passing a bill would be a steep uphill battle in the Republican-controlled House.

But that didn't stop speakers from laying out the importance of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

“Whether it’s the recycling industry, port truckers housekeepers or janitors, they’ve worked really hard in our economy, they’ve earned the right to get that piece of paper," said Maria Elena Durazo, who heads the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.

She said the lack of status opens the door to worker abuse.

“We know that a lot of the abuses and the exploitation are enhanced because workers don’t have their immigration status fixed,” she said.

Several conference speakers also argued immigration reform will bring big benefits and stability to the growing number of families of “mixed” status - that is, where some family members are U.S. citizens, and others lack documentation.

Manuel Pastor, who directs the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at USC, said his studies have found that more than half of undocumented Californians have lived in the country for more than 10 years.

“It’s a population with roots,” he said, which gives immigrant communities more leverage.

Pastor also said that the economic downturn has strengthened the position of immigrant rights activists, in part because immigration to the U.S. has slowed significantly.

“Business is rightly worried about where their workers are going to be in the future so business has come on board strongly,” he said.

The council's policy director, Omar Gomez, said a change in attitude toward immigrants is palpable in the Coachella Valley.

“They had raids that were happening on the streets [years ago],” he said. “Immigration [agents] were stopping people with no reason. And the community was in fear.”

Now, Gomez pointed out, the congressman representing that area is Raul Ruiz, a Harvard educated doctor - and son of migrant workers.

Based in Los Angeles, COFEM is an umbrella group for regional Mexican federations, which represent people living both in the United States and in Mexican states. The group's goal is to improve economic and social conditions for Latino immigrants. 

COFEM has been active in policy issues regarding immigrants in South Gate, the San Gabriel Valley, and the Coachella Valley, according to Gomez.

With Congress considering immigration reform legislation for the first time since 2007, it was a natural topic for the group's annual conference.

In her speech, Chu said most Americans polled support comprehensive immigration reform - as does President Barack Obama, who won with over 70% of the Latino and Asian-American vote.

“If Republicans do not want to entirely lose the votes of these communities in the future,” they need to pass a reform bill, Chu said.

With many members of California’s Congressional delegation home for recess, Chu urged attendees to raise their voices.

“It is a time," she said, "in which they must hear from their constituents - as many people, churches and businesses as possible - about passing immigration reform, and passing immigration reform now."