By Jono Kinkade
Investigative Desk Editor
They are tired of having their voices ignored.
But on May Day, their voices got a little bit louder.
It began at the Quarry Plaza, where a mass of 150 people gathered to listen to speakers discuss immigration, labor, and justice. Students, community members, and faculty, many wearing green to show solidarity with campus workers, gathered in front of a large banner reading, “Sí Se Puede,” hanged from the balcony of the student union, evoking the phrase, “Yes we can!” which was made famous in the days of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union.
Yolanda Lopez, an employee at UC Santa Cruz and a member of AFSCME, spoke into the megaphone, setting the tone for a long day of marching, chanting and celebrating.
“We are not criminals,” she said. “We work hard and we deserve a better future.”
This year’s May Day march had a spirited mix of immigration and labor issues in a time when both topics are particularly hot at UCSC. The speakers, signs, and banners carried messages about both immigration policy and worker solidarity, often focusing on the current contract negotiation between the University of California and campus workers in the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME Local 3299 union.
*Take It to the Streets*: As the immigration topic joins the global celebration of International Worker’s Day, it has been a fitting reminder of the roots of the celebration. The 1880s saw years of intense labor organizing across the country as workers fought for an eight-hour workday. In Chicago, a series of violent clashes between police and striking workers, which began May 1, 1886, ultimately led to a group of men being sentenced to death for allegedly throwing a bomb that killed a police officer in Haymarket Square. Of the five men who were later hanged, all were German immigrants.
May Day in 2006 marked a monumental time for immigrant rights, when federal legislation threatened to strengthen the criminalization of undocumented immigrants while tightening up border security. The bill — House Resolution (HR) 4437, labeled the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act — was introduced in December 2005 by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the same congressperson who introduced the USA PATRIOT Act.
In response to HR 4437, the United States saw millions of people take to the streets to oppose the criminalization of immigrants. The 2006 May Day marches were the biggest demonstrations in the history of the U.S., according to Dana Frank, professor of history at UCSC. In some cities, like nearby San Jose, it was the biggest march the city has seen. The bill did not come into law, but the struggle for immigrants’ rights has continued.
*The Immigration Debate Hits Santa Cruz*: At UCSC, the bill triggered students and community members to form MIRA, the Movement for Immigrant Rights Alliance.
“With the unprecedented mass mobilizations of 2006 in defense of immigrant rights, May 1 has been reconceptualized to include the struggles of workers deemed ‘undocumented,’” read a statement released by MIRA.
In the two years since the 2006 marches, the numbers of those taking to the streets has declined. This comes as a reason for continued mobilization for Mariella Saba, a third-year literature and theater student who was a founding member of MIRA and Students Informing Now (SIN), a group working to educate people about the struggle experienced by immigrant workers and students.
“May Day is a moment to just stop and recognize that a lot still needs to be done, that worker and immigrant rights need to be recognized,” Saba said as she walked down Bay Street toward downtown.
“[HR 4437] was not just going to criminalize undocumented people, it was going to criminalize anybody who offers support,” Saba said. “This is a form of repression that we cannot stand by.”
For many in the local communities, this repression has been all too real.
Between Sept. 7 and 9, 2006, 107 people in Hollister, Watsonville, and Santa Cruz were detained during raids by officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a federal agency created in 2003. Of the 107 people picked up — most of them from their homes — 90 were immediately deported.
Since then, ICE raids have continued. Last week, on the day after May Day, ICE agents raided 11 El Balazo taquerias around the Bay Area, arresting 63 people. On Tuesday, May 6, ICE agents raided homes in Berkeley and Oakland, and school officials in those areas reported seeing ICE vans driving near elementary schools.
Regarding those detained in the restaurant raids, ICE released a statement saying: “A few of the illegal aliens encountered during the enforcement action, including those who have prior criminal convictions or deportations, will be detained. They will be transferred to ICE contract detention facilities in northern California.”
Some of those detained were released immediately because of health concerns.
ICE has also been under scrutiny for events at the detention facilities, including a recent New York Times report that found that 66 immigrants have died in detention facilities, and 13 of those in California.
Those living or working with the communities targeted by ICE — also known as “La Migra” — have seen how the raids affect families and support networks, in areas where people are especially forced to depend on each other. While these communities contribute to society and the economy in many ways, through moral or financial means, members are often left without the ability to have driver’s licenses, health care, or other basic rights.
Chris Alonso, a member of the Watsonville Brown Berets and the local chapter of Migra Watch, a network of community groups that watchdog ICE, has seen the effects of the detentions and deportations.
“ICE has a history of pulling people from work or coming to their homes in the middle of the night. In some cases, children have been left at school, waiting for their parents, who were sitting in a detention facility before being deported,” Alonso said. “They are splitting up families by doing this, and it needs to be addressed.”
Neidi Dominguez, a third-year student who has been involved in both SIN and MIRA, agreed that there is still more work to do, especially in having the right people hear their voices.
“Even when you had millions of people marching in LA in 2006, it still did nothing at the White House,” Dominguez said during the march.
Part of MIRA’s message also focused on a meaning behind the saying, “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.”
“There are reasons why people are leaving their native countries and migrating,” Dominguez said, discussing factors that often lead to forced migrations, including environmental disasters, economic and political interventions, and war. Many of these interventions also come as a result of U.S. policy, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Proponents of NAFTA saw that the trade agreement would create jobs and raise the standard of living across Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, as well as improve economic disparities. Critics, however, have said that it has done just the opposite, and has caused widespread poverty across Mexico while undercutting the economies of many rural communities.
For Dominguez, and many other critics of NAFTA, the trade agreement lies at the base of the immigration debate. Some studies have shown that immigration from Mexico to the U.S. sharply increased after the induction of NAFTA.
“People should have the right [to not have to] migrate,” Dominguez said. “The U.S. should be held responsible.”
But Mexico is not the only North American nation facing economic woes; the U.S. is experiencing a few of its own.
“The disparity between the amount of inequality and the distribution of wealth is coming to a boiling point,” said Martin Garcia, a graduate student in literature and a resident at Family Student Housing. As he walked down the hill, carrying his young daughter on his back in what Garcia said was her first protest, he said, “The disparity between the amount of inequality and the distribution of wealth is coming to a boiling point.”
*The Struggle on Campus*: In the complexity of issues felt during the May Day march, a strong sentiment was that of solidarity for the workers back up on the UCSC campus.
Throughout this school year, the UC and AFSCME have been at a stalemate while negotiating a new contract to cover many of the service employees on campus. AFSCME organizers have moved from the closed-door negotiations to public spaces to slowly begin applying pressure on the university. The union is asking for what organizers and union members consider a fair contract, which would include a living wage according to local market standards, as well as benefits like health care.
Dana Frank, professor of history at UCSC, agrees that it is time for the UC to give the workers what they deserve, and noted the continued student support “shows [the workers] have an enormous power behind them, that they’re not alone.”
“People have connected the dots,” Frank said. “I think the students realize how the university treats its workers, and we want that to stop. We know about how the AFSCME workers have been treated, and we don’t understand why the university won’t give them a just contract.”
For union members and student, community, and faculty supporters, applying pressure has been a way to work toward arranging a bargain that suits their needs. The Student-Worker Coalition for Justice, which supports AFSCME, and the union were both involved in MIRA and planning the May Day march.
If AFSCME does not received the desired contract, union members might vote to determine if they will go on strike. But for many, especially workers who cannot afford time away from work, a strike is a last resort.
Saba, who has been active in the various efforts on campus relating to labor and immigration, sees how important student support is to the workers.
“Today we feel the student support, and the workers need that,” Saba said. “We are a greater majority on campus. The school doesn’t function without the students or the workers.”
*Coming into Town*: After a couple hours of walking from UCSC down to Santa Cruz, the march landed at Beach Flats Park, after being rerouted from San Lorenzo Park, where the SCPD had denied organizers the use of the stage for speakers and music.
Once everyone landed, what was a traffic-blocking demonstration became a celebration that — while still political — focused more on culture and community. Colorfully dressed Mexican folk dancers took the floor while bags full of watermelon slices were passed from hand to hand. Later, Watsonville-based hip-hop band Para la Gente (For the People) rocked politically charged messages of liberation. MIRA organizers and representatives from other groups like the Brown Berets and Iraq Veterans Against War (IVAW) spoke about issues all intertwined in the fabric of struggle that saw students, community members, local politicians, and the neighborhood locals united on May Day.
The celebration embodied that which members in MIRA and SIN have been asking for all along: for a little bit of justice, and for their voices to be heard.
_Julia Guest and Nicole Dial contributed to this report._