Chicago Mass March of Half a Million Defends Immigrant Workers’ Rights

by George Saunders


“Most people don’t realize how much work we do. We are putting up all the buildings and cooking all the food.”

—Alex Garcia, Chicago-area immigrant worker

An immense outpouring by immigrant workers in Chicago partly shut the city down on Friday, March 10.

As CBS News reported on March 11, “From the air, it appeared to be an endless sea of demonstrators, flooding the streets to protest the recently-passed house bill, which would make it a crime to hire or even help undocumented immigrants. At the end of the day, organizers say it was more than half a million protesters. Police estimated the crowd at 300,000.” (Emphasis added.)

“I’m definitely surprised to see this many people,” said protester Cesar Garza. “I expected a small amount of crowd, but this is…wow! I’m really surprised.”

The CBS news report continued: “Many of the protesters were immigrants who took the day off work to attend the rally.”

“This is a ridiculous bill,” said Polish immigrant Paulina Cdnok. “I don’t understand how it got as far as it did, and they’re trying to make this a law—and then at this point it’s a police state.”

The power of this march may be gathered from the following major excerpts of a report written after the march by Chicago Tribune staff reporters Oscar Avila and Antonio Olivo, posted on the Internet March 13.

In a show of strength that surprised even organizers, tens of thousand of immigrants poured into the Loop Friday, bringing their calls for immigration reform to the heart of the city’s economic and political power.

What started as a word-of-mouth campaign, then spread through the foreign language media, grabbed the attention of the entire city by midday, as a throng 2 miles long marched from Union Park on the Near West Side to Federal Plaza.

Police estimated the crowd as large as 100,000, making it one of the biggest pro-immigrant rallies in U.S. history, according to national advocates.

[Here the reporters leave out the information provided by CBS News that organizers had estimated the crowd to be more than 500,000.]

Observers said the turnout could [have a nationwide impact,] launching a grass-roots pro-immigrant movement.

The trigger for the rally was a controversial federal bill that would crack down on those who employ or help illegal immigrants. But the broader message—carried mostly by Mexicans, but also by a smattering of Poles, Irish and Chinese—was that immigrants are too integral and large a part of Chicago to be ignored.

The rally drew some of the state’s most powerful [Democrat] politicians, including Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Mayor Richard Daley, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and dozens of aldermen and state lawmakers.

But the men and women who pushed baby strollers and waved homemade signs, the workers who clean hotel bathrooms and landscape suburban lawns, flexed their muscle too.

American flags bobbed overhead while also decorating shawls, placards and the scarf on a baby’s head. That dominant motif was set off by the colors of Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, and, of course, Mexico.

Urgent chants of “Si, se puede,” or “Yes, [we] can,” echoed off the walls of downtown skyscrapers, with drums adding a festive backbeat.

Despite the density of the crowd, shoulders and elbows rubbing from one sidewalk to the other, police said there were no incidents or arrests. But the event shut down traffic in parts of the Loop, and snarled the evening commute as marchers competed with office workers for space on jammed trains and rerouted buses.

As they transformed the Loop with their presence, immigrants made a powerful statement elsewhere by their absence.

Without his immigrant employees, a Northwest Side body shop owner gave up and closed for the day. An Italian restaurant in Downers Grove relied on temps to cook and managers to bus tables. High school students walked out en masse. “I have never been prouder to march, to show my commitment to a cause, than I have been today,” U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) told the crowd. “We have brought together the true fabric of what Chicago is, of what our country is.”

After a moment of silence for soldiers in Iraq, a young girl led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Jose Soberanis, 21, led a group with a poster of Martin Luther King Jr. that he had sketched with his 11-year- old sister, Cecilia. He equated his fight with the civil-rights movements of the 1960s.

“As the saying goes, ‘I have a dream.’ Well, we have dreams, too,” Soberanis said. “African-Americans were looking for social acceptance. That is what we want too.”

Hundreds of high school students were no-shows, and officials speculated that most of them attended the rally. At Farragut Career Academy in Lawndale, about half the 2,500 students walked out after attendance was taken at 10:40 a.m.

Josue Martinez, a Tilden High School senior who attended, said: “We’re supporting our parents and our parents’ parents, who came here and worked hard. A lot of classrooms are empty today.”

Whole shifts of workers left their jobs to underscore the importance of immigrant workers. One server from an Italian restaurant came in his work tie and apron, draped with a U.S. flag. Construction workers, still wearing hardhats, came straight from their job sites. Clerks from the El Guero market in Aurora piled into the store’s delivery van, riding on produce boxes.

Alex Garcia and about 10 co-workers from a Joliet commercial sign company rode a Metra train to Chicago’s Union Station, walked out to Union Park, and then retraced their steps as they marched back to the Loop.

“Most people don’t realize how much work we do, but it’s part of their daily lives,” he said. “We are putting up all the buildings and cooking all the food. Today, they’ll understand.”

Crowds stretched back at least 20 blocks from Federal Plaza at one point. The procession was so long that some marchers still hadn’t made it to the plaza when the two-hour rally ended.

A Chicago Green Party supporter wrote: “I’ve been seeing estimates of between 300,000 and 500,000. A couple members of the Pilsen Greens (the general area where the march went, where many Mexican American immigrants are from) said that it took hours to march less than a mile. Things were so packed, no one could move for hours, literally.   Also, according to news sources, this was the biggest march in Chicago’s history, bigger than 19th-century labor marches.”

The Minneapolis-based online publication www.fightbacknews.org posted the following report:

Chicago: General Strike for Immigrant Rights

Upwards of 200,000 people marched through downtown Chicago, March 10, chanting “Si, se puede!”—meaning, “Yes we can!” defeat the Sensenbrenner bill.

This legislation, HR (House Resolution) 4437, was passed in December by the U.S. House of Representatives and looks ready to move quickly through the Senate. If passed, it would make it a crime for organizations or individuals to assist undocumented immigrants. In other words, if your union or social service organization were to help someone who is undocumented, you would be guilty of “alien smuggling” and could face federal prison time.

Under current law, being an undocumented worker is a civil [offense] in the U.S. This bill will make it a criminal act…

Somos Todos America” (We Are All America)

Most of the marchers came from the Mexican immigrant community in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. They were joined by Korean, Polish, Irish, Arab, and other immigrant communities. Together, they made up the largest rally of any kind in the history of Chicago.

More than that, everyone present had to take off work or school. One of the key organizers, Jose Artemio Arreola, told Fight Back! newspaper, “Over 100 factories allowed workers to take the day off, because so many workers told the owners they were going for the general strike.”

Referring to the slogan of the day, Arreola continued, “We want the message to go out all across the country: Somos Todos America—We Are All America.” Arreola, together with Omar Lopez, initiated the Coalition Against HR4437, which called for the general strike just five weeks ago. Arreola hopes the groundswell of support that produced this historic event will produce a domino effect, with other cities around the U.S. holding rallies and general strikes as well. “If there is resistance everywhere, the senators will get the word and vote against this bill.”

Already, Los Angeles is planning two weekends of struggle. Latinos Against the War in East L.A. is raising [the issue of] immigrants’ rights in an action on the anniversary of the Iraq war, March 17. In addition, March 25 will see a rally against HR4437 and on March 26, immigrants’ rights will be the focus of the annual Chavez Labor Mass for the churches in the [Los Angeles] area.

As Andrew Pollack has reported, the key organizer interviewed by Fight Back News, Jose Artemio Arreola, is a member and leader of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), an example of significant overlapping connection between union and community work. An SEIU profile of Arreola is reproduced below. It’s from the Illinois SEIU web site http://www.seiu-illinois.org/news/

Andrew Pollack comments, in connection with the report that further protests are planned nationwide: “One would hope that in addition to unions representing immigrant workers, unions representing those who the bill would compel to rat out the undocumented (social workers, health care workers, teachers, etc.) will also mobilize.”

The SEIU web site’s profile of Arreola starts with the following headline:

SEIU member leader wins election to Mexican advisory council

José Artemio Arreola, an executive board member of SEIU Local 73, was elected to serve on an advisory council created by Mexican President Vicente Fox to aid immigrants in this country. About 1,000 Mexicans in Chicago elected Arreola and five other community activists to serve on the council.

Arreola is a custodial worker and member leader in [SEIU] Local 73. [Emphasis added.] Among others, he defeated State Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Cicero) in the election. Francisco Javier Salas, a radio host for Spanish-language WRTO-AM received the highest number of votes. Election organizers are hoping those who participated will vote again in next year’s Mexican presidential elections, which will be the first time Mexicans cast ballots from abroad.

In conclusion, we should note that the upsurge of mass protest and revolt by workers and peasants in Latin America is also finding an echo and expression in the United States.

Bill Onasch’s comments, in his March 12 Week in Review on kclabor Advocate Online, are worth repeating:

As Congress debates various pieces of legislation to intimidate and punish workers born elsewhere there were two truly massive demonstrations in defense of immigrant rights. The first, on Tuesday, in Washington, DC, packed an area from the Capitol steps to the reflecting pool—clearly 100,000 or more. In Chicago on Friday over [500,000] marched...

At the Chicago event Governor Blagojevich got swept away proclaiming, “Ustedes no son criminales. Ustedes son trabajadores” (“You are not criminals. You are workers!”) While not trusting this Democrat politician any farther than I could throw him, I have to say he was spot on with that remark.

Organized labor has come a long way in overcoming anti-immigrant prejudice and is today one of the most effective defenders of immigrant rights. But in keeping with their general philosophy of “practical politics,” trying to influence the bosses’ politicians, many union leaders are supporting a merely bad piece of “immigration reform”—the Kennedy-McCain bill—in hopes of stopping even more terrible ones that have been making progress in the House. That’s a losing strategy, in my opinion.

We cannot afford to concede a single inch to the bigotry and phony security alarms behind all of these bills. The only kind of immigration “reform” worthy of our support is elimination of sweatshop labor here and abroad. When workers have decent living standards, working conditions, and fair treatment everywhere there will no longer be a compelling need to leave one’s native land, often leaving family behind as well.

Until that day, our task is to build solidarity among all workers in the U.S.—and across all borders as well. “No human being is illegal” should continue to be a motto of our movement. Those of us workers born in the U.S. have far more in common with fellow workers who have come from Latin America, the Caribbean, China, eastern Europe, Ireland, and elsewhere looking for a way to provide for their families, than we will ever have with the American bosses who exploit us all.