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News ::
May Day Rally for Immigrants' Rights (english)
01 May 2003
On May 1, a 500 person rally for immigrants' rights was held in front of Boston City Hall. One major concern was securing amnesty for all undocumented immigrants. The speakers emphasized that immigrants came here looking for a better life and contributed a great deal to the country. Since September 11, immigrants-especially those from Arab or Muslim countries-face greater persecution under the USA PATRIOT Act.
May Day Rally for Immigrants’ Rights
by Matthew Williams

Boston, MA; May 1, 2003—At 3:00 today, a two-hour rally for immigrants’ rights was held in front of Boston City Hall. At its height, there were 500 people at the rally. It was held as the Boston City Council had hearings on whether or not to pass a resolution calling on the federal government to grant amnesty to all undocumented (“illegal”) immigrants. Besides the call for amnesty, many of the immigrants at the rally were concerned about such basic securities as being able to obtain drivers’ licenses and being free of harassment from their employers. Many of the speakers emphasized that immigrants came here only looking for a better life and contributed a great deal to the country. In the climate of fear after September 11, immigrants face greater persecution at the hands of the federal government under the so-called USA PATRIOT Act; immigrants from predominantly Arab or Muslim countries have been subject to particularly harsh attacks by the government.

The crowd of 500 people looked to be about half people of color, most of whom were probably immigrants, and half Anglo supporters. People from organizations connected with civil liberties, global justice and the peace movement came out to show their support. There was also a large anarchist contingent, fresh from their own May Day march.

Although this history has been largely forgotten in the US, May Day—also known as International Workers’ Day—has its origins in the labor struggles of the nineteenth century United States. In 1886, there were nation-wide strikes for an eight-hour workday. In Chicago, these efforts were lead by anarchist labor organizers. During a rally for the eight-hour day on May 1, an unknown person (possibly a police agent) set off a bomb killing several police. Some of the anarchist leaders were framed and executed for this crime as part of a general effort to suppress the labor movement. In memory of the martyred anarchist labor organizers and the struggle for the eight-hour day, labor movements the world over now recognize May 1 as a day in honor of labor struggles and working people.

Now, as in 1886, many of the most oppressed and exploited workers are immigrants. Immigrants tend to hold the lowest paid, most undesirable jobs, such as migrant farm work and janitorial work. Rocio Saenz, a trustee of SEIU (Service Employees’ International Union) local 254 and an immigrant from Mexico said, “Employers are using immigration laws to intimidate people from organizing. They are using them to stop and silence workers.” A prime example of this in Boston is UNICCO. After last year’s citywide janitors’ strike, UNICCO and other cleaning contractors made important concessions to the janitors. Now UNICCO is trying to get out of these agreements by wielding immigration laws against its primarily immigrant employees, silencing them with threats of deportation.

Mark Lohan, an immigrant from Ireland, now an organizer with the Painters and Allied Trades District Council #35 but for four years an undocumented immigrant himself, said, “No worker should be undocumented—any worker should be able to earn a decent living without fear. We need to make sure every worker gets what they deserve, that no worker is undocumented, that no child is called illegal, and that everyone can advance their families.”

Several people held signs, some in English, some in Spanish, saying things such as “Immigrants Are Not Terrorists”. A repeated theme was that “As immigrants we came to this country to work, not to destroy or be terrorists” in the words of the rally’s MC, Maria Elena Letona of Centro Presente.

Gerthy Lahens, an immigrant from Haiti and a community leader, said, “Immigrants never take anything for granted. We are here to make our lives better—and to make this country better.” Because immigrants perform many basic services that are generally considered menial, such as janitorial work and food service, the US economy is actually highly dependent on immigrant labor. Lahens observed, “After September 11, America is cutting everything—they don’t even care for their own people. They are cutting social services, education, welfare. This is often life-threatening.”

A strong effort was made to keep the rally bilingual. Although most of the speeches were in English, the MC would summarize them in Spanish afterward. One speaker, a worker from El Salvador, spoke entirely in Spanish about the difficulties of working only with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and not a green card. There were also several musical acts in Spanish, breaking up the speakers.

Although poor immigrants from all countries are facing increasing repression at work since September 11, the group that has born the brunt of the repression from the federal government are people from predominantly Arab and Muslim countries. Nancy Murray of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts, said of the actions taken by the government under the so-called USA PATRIOT Act, “Today the government is rolling back our rights. They are making war on our rights, especially the rights of people of Middle Eastern decent and Muslims. Thousands are being detained and religiously and ethnically profiled. Many live in fear of being arrested and deported because of some small problem with their immigration documents.” Since September 11, thousands of men of Arab and South Asian origin have been held incommunicado for weeks or months by the government. The government has refused to release a list of names, even when ordered to do so by the courts. Non-citizens can be deported for engaging in free speech activities the government deems undesirable and even US citizens are being held indefinitely as “material witnesses to terrorism”.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time such repression has happened in this country. Carl Takei, a Japanese-American with the New England Immigrant and Detainee Response Network, noted that, “Over two hundred years ago, a band of motley revolutionaries established this country, in the name of freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom from arbitrary power. That was the promise of America, regardless of where you come from. Sixty years ago, my family saw that promise broken.” He recounted how, during World War II, armed FBI and military agents rounded up all Japanese-Americans Including his grandparents) and imprisoned them in concentration camps for the duration of the war, based on a racist doctrine of collective guilt. “Today our government is breaking the same promises, using the same pernicious tactics in an FBI campaign against Arabs and Muslims.” Murray pointed to another example, from shortly after World War I (when her Hungarian grandparents immigrated to this country)—the Red Scare, in which many immigrant workers—especially labor organizers—were rounded up and deported, often because their were guilty of holding the wrong set of beliefs, such as anarchism or socialism.

Takei finished his speech by pointed to the nearby Federal Building, where the offices of the FBI and immigration officers of the so-called Department of Homeland Security are located, and said, “They are not America! We—immigrants and the children of immigrants—are America and we are here to make them keep their two-hundred year old promise!”


To get involved with the organizers of the rally (the Massachusetts Legalization Coalition), see their website at
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