Sunday, April 30, 2006

Building the Movement for Immigrant Rights

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“For I was hungry, and you gave me meat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in. Naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came unto me.”
— Matthew 25:35-36 (quoted in the mission statement of the Border Angels)

When the current round of massive demonstrations for immigrant rights started on March 10 with 300,000 people in the streets of Chicago, much of America was stunned. Triggered by the passage in the House of Representatives of HR 4437, a bill by Wisconsin Congressmember James Sensenbrenner that would turn undocumented immigrants into felons, make it illegal to offer them assistance, and further militarize the U.S.-Mexico border — already the most heavily militarized border anywhere in the world between two nations that aren’t at war with each other — the Chicago march led to a groundswell of similar actions throughout the nation. City after city reported some of the largest demonstrations in their histories: 500,000 in Los Angeles and Dallas, 30,000 in Phoenix and Washington, and 100,000 in San Diego on April 9.

But the marches didn’t just happen. Among the organizing efforts that helped build them was a remarkable cross-country tour that started in San Diego on February 2 — the anniversary of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which ended the U.S.-Mexico war and put nearly half of Mexico’s previous territory under U.S. control. (That huge chunk of land is now the states of California, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico.) The leader of that tour, Enrique Morones, spoke to Activist San Diego on April 10, the day after San Diego’s big march, in which he’d participated as part of the organizers’ contingent in front. He told the remarkable story of his 20 years of activism for immigrants’ rights and how his cross-country trek helped build the spectacular mass actions that seem to have derailed the Sensenbrenner bill and encouraged both Republican and Democratic Senators and Congressmembers to consider more moderate alternatives.

“I’m a native San Diegan,” Morones said. “I was born and raised in San Diego. I went to high school not to far from here, Saint Augustine High School, here in North Park. I went to grammar school in Sherman Heights, the Barrio Logan area, Our Lady of Angels. Because I was lucky was I able to get some scholarships to the University of San Diego at the undergrad and graduate levels. So I went to [Roman] Catholic schools the whole way. My parents came here legally. They’ve been here for over 50 years. My dad’s from Mexico City, my mom’s from Cuyacán, Sinaloa. And my older brother and sister were born in Mexico.”

Morones first became involved in border activism in a small way in the mid-1980’s. He was then the marketing director for Cristál, a Mexican hotel chain, and on Sundays he went to a church that routinely collected clothes and blankets for people in Tijuana. “When I was working for Cristál Hotels there was a young lady from El Salvador who said, ‘Enrique, you like to go to Tijuana all the time, and bring clothes or whatever, and the church donates things? How would you like to go to where the migrants actually live in San Diego?’,” Morones recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, yeah. I know a lot of migrants who live there.’ She said, ‘No, no, no, not the ones you know who live in apartments, but the ones that live in the canyons.’ And I said, ‘I would like to see that.’”

What Morones saw in the canyons of northern San Diego and the North County area shocked him and changed his life. “It was unbelievable that these people lived there then, and still live there today,” he said. “Because up on top of these hills are these multi-million dollar homes, and you see the flowerbeds, and then you see all these people in the canyons below. It was really sad, and we’d go into these canyons and we’d talk to these people. We’d minister to them a little bit. We’d bring them water and food.”

Morones soon became interested in the gritty details of how the migrants in the camps actually lived. “I asked them some of the basic questions, like, ‘Do you have a doctor that comes by and gives you pre-natal health care when you’re pregnant? Or the children, do they go to school? How do you communicate? How do you get letters? You don’t have an address. You live in the canyons.’ They’d tell me stories about how they’d work for the wealthy people on the weekends — because during the week they’d work in the fields — and then the person wouldn’t pay them. They’d say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to pay you, but I’m going to call the Border Patrol.’ It was very inhumane. So, I thought, we’ve really got to reach out to these people. So we did. We started really reaching out to them. That was in the mid-1980’s.”

Death Comes to the Border

According to Morones, the stakes both for undocumented immigrants and the activists trying to help them got raised dramatically in 1994, when the U.S. government instituted “Operation Gatekeeper” in San Diego and similar, equally colorfully named programs at other major border crossing points. The idea behind Operation Gatekeeper was to reduce the flow of undocumented immigrants into the U.S. by building fences across the border and dramatically increasing the number of Border Patrol agents. What it actually accomplished, Morones said, was to discourage immigrants from entering the U.S. at the traditional urban centers — and drove them into the desert, making the crossing far more dangerous.

During the hearings on the border fence, Morones recalled, he and other immigrant rights activists tried to warn the U.S. government that this would happen. “I told them, ‘The people will continue to cross, but instead of crossing directly from Tijuana to San Ysidro, for example, they’re going to start crossing in the desert.” The people I was meeting with back then said, ‘No, no, no. They’re going to stop crossing.’ I said, ‘I don’t think so. I hope you’re right, but I don’t think so.’ Unfortunately, I was right. Before Operation Gatekeeper started, one person would die every month crossing the entire 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border. Since Operation Gatekeeper started in October 1994, we calculate that 10,000 people have died, almost 900 people per year. Ten thousand. Officially, the number is 4,000, but we think the number is much higher.”

Morones told his audience at Activist San Diego several horror stories about people who’d died crossing the border. One of them involved a woman named Lucrezia Dominguez, whose husband was already settled in the U.S. She wanted to join him and bring their two children, 12-year-old Jesús and seven-year-old Nora. Her own parents warned her not to go — “She was a heavy woman, it’s dangerous anyways, and she wanted to bring her kids,” Morones recalled, “but she didn’t listen, She crossed with a smuggler and a group of people. They crossed in the Arizona desert, and she was heavy and kind of lagging a little bit, so the smuggler abandoned her and her kids, and kept on going. She died in the arms of her son Jesús.”

The Border Patrol eventually found Jesús and Nora and returned them to Lucrezia’s parents in Zacatecas, Mexico. But Lucrezia’s father, Césario, was determined to find Lucrezia’s body and bring it back home for a proper burial, and he ignored the warnings of the activists in Arizona that it would be impossible to find her remains in the desert. “He was persistent, and he went and looked for his daughter,” Morones recalled. “The day he found her, he was with a friend of mine, Rich Morosi, the Los Angeles Times correspondent here in San Diego. Rich and Césario are in the desert, and before they find Lucrezia they find three other bodies. So if Césario, who probably has as much training as most of us do about this type of thing which is zero, can find three other bodies that he wasn’t looking for — he was looking for his daughter in one specific area —how many other bodies are really out there?”

Stories like that led to the birth of the organization that became known as Border Angels. “We started putting water in the desert, and blankets and food in the mountains,” Morones recalled. “You dehydrate really fast in the desert in 125°, 130°. I’ve been out there when it’s 127°. But I know that when I’m out there I’ve got a cell phone and I’ve got water in the car, I’ve got water with me, I know where I am, I’m not scared or anything like that. These poor people are disoriented. They’re worried [about] animals, thieves on both sides of the border, all this type of stuff. So we decided to put water out there in the desert in the summer, and blankets and food in the mountains in the winter.”

Border Angels got its name when Morones was being interviewed by Don Francisco, one of Mexico’s most popular talk-radio hosts. In his introduction, Don Francisco called Morones “the border angel.” “I thought, ‘I don’t like the name ‘border angel’ for a person. I think that’s too pretentious,’” Morones recalled. “But I liked the name for the group. So we changed the name to Border Angels.”

Morones incorporated Border Angels as a 501 © (3) nonprofit organization, but unlike many such groups, it still has no paid staff. “We’re all volunteers,” he stressed. “That’s very important. We go out there on a regular basis, and we use the money donated to us to buy water, to buy supplies, to get out there and be able to do the work that we do. It’s really grown, especially in the late 1990’s and now with this immigration debate being as hot as it is.”

Confronting the Minutemen

The controversy over the border heated up even more in the last two years, when Right-wingers started organizing their own volunteer efforts — not to help undocumented immigrants survive the border crossing but, at least ostensibly, to help the Border Patrol catch them. These groups were called the Minutemen, and they made an immediate media splash when they started patrolling the border in Arizona, but according to Morones their bark has so far been considerably worse than their bite.

According to Morones, he’s actually encountered three different factions within the Minutemen movement. One was the original group, organized in Arizona by Jim Gilchrist (who later ran for Congress in Orange County on an anti-immigrant platform and got 20 percent of the vote in a special election) and Chris Simcox. One was a group formed in California by Barbara Coe and Ron Prince, who wrote Proposition 187, the anti-immigrant initiative passed by California voters in 1994 that Morones and other immigrant-rights activists have cited as a model for HR 4437 — even though federal courts threw most of it out as unconstitutional. Morones said the Coe-Prince group recruited a Latino, Andy Ramirez, to front for them. A third Minutemen group was organized by San Diegan Jim Chase, whom Morones called “a very violent person” and said had been thrown out of the Gilchrist-Simcox faction because he was too crazy even for them.

When the Minutemen announced that they were coming to San Diego in the spring and summer of 2005, Morones and other immigrant-rights activists responded by forming a coaliton called Gente Unida — “United People” — and figuring out creative ways to disrupt the Minutemen’s activities. When the Chase faction arrived in San Diego on July 16, Morones recalled, “this group of a handful of people decides to go out there and pay them a visit. While the Minutemen are pointing their guns on Mexico, all of a sudden these guys put some giant spotlights on them. They say, ‘¡Buenas noches!’ They really scare the Minutemen. The Minutemen say, ‘Who are you guys?’ They say, ‘We’re migrants. We saw your Web site. We came to welcome you. ¡Buenas noches!’ The Minutemen go, ‘Get out of here. This is very serious.

“So these guys say, ‘We brought some music. We want to be good hosts. We brought you some music. Are there any songs you’d like to hear?’ The Minutemen say, “Get your motherfucking asses out of here,’ and so forth. The person says, ‘We don’t have that song. How about another request?’ These guys are furious, and they’re armed. All our group has is music, and bullhorns and things like that. So these guys get in there, and they go back and forth for a while, and these people are filming. Our people are filming the Minutemen the whole time. So they get in their cars with guns and start chasing our people, and our people go back to the campsite. There’s nothing else that’s going to happen at the campsite because, you know, there’s 400 of us camping there.”

Morones and the other immigrant-rights activists were helped by two factors: the small size of the Minutemen contingents — Chase’s group told the media they would have 800 people out on the first day of their patrol in Campo, and they only had 40 — and the inability of the various Minutemen factions to work together. After Chase’s campaign petered out at the end of August, Morones recalled, “Andy Ramirez, Barbara Coe and Ron Prince are going to have their group show up, and they decide to do it on September 16, Mexican independence day. They’re going to do their press conference in a place called Smuggler’s Gulch, and we have ways of getting all this information. So they’re about to do it, and then I go and have a press conference there. When they go there, they realize that I’m there, and there’s no way they’re going to have a press conference with our people there.

“They move their press conference to a place called Virginia Street, which is right by the San Ysidro crossing. And just as they’re about to start their press conference, we bring in, through some of our other allies, a group of mariachis. Just as they’re about to start talking, we have the mariachis start playing music. So these guys are getting really upset. They’re going, ‘We can’t even have a press conference, because these guys won’t give us any peace.’ They try to do a training session in Mission Valley, and there some people did stuff that I don’t agree with personally, but they intimidated this group, and this group decided to shut down. They said, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t be Minutemen in California.’”

The third Minuteman group — the Jim Gilchrist-Chris Simcox faction — arrived in Jacumba on October 1 and got a similar response. The Minutemen organizers said they were going to draw 4,000 people — which didn’t worry Morones and his fellow Gente Unida members because they’d caught on that the Minutemen’s predictions of how many people they’d turn out would be 10 to 20 times greater than the reality — and when they finally did show up, Morones said, “90 percent of them were Jim Gilchrist campaign workers from Orange County. So we said, ‘They’re just here for the hoopla. They’re here to get attention from the media.’ They were waiting for us to have a big protest and all this kind of stuff.

“I was driving through and they were all excited and everything, like they were ready for a bunch of cars coming after them. But it was just me, a friend of mine that’s a pastor, and a couple of Border Angels in the car. We just drove through there and positioned a car right across the border in Jacumba, on the Mexican side. So while they were there with their American flags, this one car was there with its Mexican flag, playing blaring mariachi music and this kind of stuff the whole time. The migrants are never going to cross right there, because they see all the American flags. They see the car that our people have, and that whole time they were there not one person was detained. So these guys are just frustrated because they haven’t been able to do anything.”

When the Minutemen returned this April — “a new group that didn’t know who we were,” Morones said — he had an even more creative response to them. “I happen to have a radio show, so I said, ‘Oh, I’m here to interview you guys.’ This was like 1 in the morning. These guys were telling me all this information. I go, ‘Yeah, how are you guys doing? You guys see any al-Qaeda out there?’ And they’re really into this. They’re going, ‘Oh, yeah, we did. We saw some people out there we think may have been al-Qaeda.’ I go, ‘How are you going to stop them? How many people do you have?’” It was only when Morones turned his car around to leave, and they saw all the bumper stickers on its back — one for John Kerry for President, one denouncing CNN Moneyline host Lou Dobbs (a hero to the anti-immigrant movement) as a racist, and one reading, “Peace takes courage, too” — that they caught on that Morones wasn’t your typical media person.

Despite the comic-opera aspects of the confrontations between Minutemen and immigrant advocates in the desert, Morones insisted that they are genuinely dangerous. “These Minuteman groups are a serious threat,” he said. “While we were there this past year, four people were shot on the border, and we suspect the Minutemen were involved in a couple of those shootings. This is still being investigated, and it’s going to the United Nations next month. We have been talking to some people, we’ve been getting some background information, and we suspect the Minutemen were involved for various reasons. So these are very serious groups.”

Morones suggested that the real danger of the Minutemen might not be their activities, but the possibility that their example is encouraging Border Patrol agents to become more trigger-happy themselves. He started thinking this way when, on December 30, 2005, Guillermo Martinez Rodriguez was shot in the back by a Border Patrol agent while trying to cross near San Ysidro with his brother Agustín.

“Guillermo and Agustín had they had jumped over the first fence and they were just about to jump over the second wall,” Morones said. “Guillermo was up on the wall, and he sees that a Border Patrol guy has spotted him. So he’s busted. He’s not going to make it. So he decides to go back. That’s what they usually do. He turns around, and so does his brother Agustín. His brother Agustín jumps over to the Tijuana side, and his brother Guillermo is about to do that, and Agustín hears a gunshot. He turns around, and he sees that Guillermo is shot in the back. Shot in the back as he was returning to Mexico.”

The March for Migrants

The combination of the passage of Sensenbrenner’s anti-immigrant bill, the death of Guillermo Martinez Rodriguez and the continuing threat of the Minutemen led Morones to organize his nationwide “March for Migrants” early this year. “I decide that I want to go to Washington and I want to go across the country, tell the people across the country the story of Guillermo Martinez Rodriguez, the man that was killed by the Border Patrol,” Morones said. “I want to go across the country and tell people about the 4,000 deaths, something that we see here every day, three people dying per day. And I want to go across the country and demand justice, and ask the people to rise up and to say, ‘Hey, we’ve had it. We’ve had it. We demand change. We’ve got to voice our frustrations,’ something that hadn’t happened up to then.”

Morones began the March for Migrants with a ceremony in San Ysidro in which he planted a cross on the site where Guillermo Martinez Rodriguez was killed. Ultimately, his goal was to plant 4,000 crosses for each of the undocumented immigrants the U.S. concedes have died trying to cross the border in the last 12 years. “All of a sudden we have 20 cars come with us and say, ‘We’re going to go with you,’ And we do this march for migrants across this country. The very first day, we do [the ceremony in San Ysidro] at 12 noon, and that afternoon we go to Calexico, where we do a rally, because we want to wake up the community. We do a rally with the Braceros in Calexico and Mexicali, the people that worked here [from 1942 to 1964] and they still haven’t been paid all the monies due to them. They came to do the work when there weren’t enough men around during the Second World War. So these people are old now.”

That same day Morones and his group did a ceremony in Holtville, a small city in the Imperial Valley, whose cemetery contains a dirt patch in the back where 400 unidentified migrants are buried. “On that day we plant 400 crosses there and bring flowers,” Morones said. “Some of the people in Holtville were discovering this for the first time. We always wanted to have the local people working on this, and we’re trying to get people inspired in that area. And we have been somewhat successful. But that was the first day, and then that night we go up to spend the night in Ontario, and this place where we spent the night in Ontario, where we talked about this movement, is the place where the march in L.A. was born. We talked about it that night, about how we needed to get out there and start doing all these things. The people that actually led the march in L.A. were the people we met with that night.”

Throughout the trek, Morones aimed his publicity mostly at the Spanish-language media, and was thereby able to turn out large numbers for his event while remaining under the radar screen of the English press. With the help of the UC Riverside chapter of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), a nationwide federation of Latino student groups, Morones and his group were able to throw together an on-campus rally and lay another 100 crosses as a memorial to dead migrants. That night, on the second day of the trek, they did a rally at the Placita Olvera, historic center of the Latino community in Los Angeles, that was led by Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers with the late César Chávez.

“The next night we spend in Ventura, where we meet with the leaders of Hermandad Nacional, the group that really planned the rallies in Los Angeles and so forth,” Morones recalled. “We spend the night there. They had an office, just like this. We had sleeping bags. We didn’t have any money, so we slept there. The next day we get waken up by people saying ‘George Washington’ and ‘Abraham Lincoln.’ I go, ‘What’s going on?’ There were citizenship classes going on there the next morning. We were in the back, and all those people were there learning about the history of the United States. So that’s where we spent the night, and then we have a rally when we leave. And all these people are out there with American flags as we leave from Ventura to go to Fresno.”

Morones and his group did a rally with farmworkers in Fresno, spent the night there and had breakfast with the farmworkers before heading to San Francisco. “We march down Mission Boulevard with activists in San Francisco similar to Activist San Diego,” Morones said. “It was the activists in San Francisco who came down and supported us the Minuteman invasion this past summer. So we do that in San Francisco. First we go to the basilica on Sunday, and then we go and do this march down Mission Boulevard in San Francisco.”

The next day he was in Sacramento, meeting with state senator Gil Cedillo — who has been pushing for years for legislation to allow undocumented immigrants to have California driver’s licenses — and sponsoring a rally on the steps of the state capitol targeting Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who vetoed Cedillo’s driver’s-license bill and publicly endorsed the Minutemen, “We were out there telling Arnold, ‘¡Hasta la vista!,’” Morones said. “We’re not telling Arnold ‘¡Hasta la vista!’ because we’re going; we’re telling him ‘¡Hasta la vista!’ because he’s going.”

The March for Migrants continued across country, always looking for opportunities to network with local immigrant-rights activist and do actions with attractive news hooks. In Dallas, the group staged a rally in front of the Texas School Book Depository, tying in the assassination of John F. Kennedy with the Senate bill his brother Ted is co-sponsoring with John McCain, generally considered the most pro-immigrant bill before the U.S. Congress. In Atlanta, they did their action in front of the world headquarters of CNN to highlight their opposition to Lou Dobbs, whose Moneyline program contains a regular feature called “Broken Borders” that Morones and other immigrant-rights activists regard as racist. Though Dobbs actually works out of New York, they made their point. Morones said that CNN employees came out and told them, “Thank God someone’s finally doing something about this guy.”

Though the March had a pre-planned itinerary that was available on the Web at, sometimes there were unscheduled stops as well. At one point Morones received a call from a radio host in Fort Wayne, Indiana saying that the host wanted to do a rally when he got there. Morones wasn’t planning to go to Fort Wayne, but when he looked on a map he noticed that it’s close to South Bend, Indiana, home of the University of Notre Dame — a virtual pilgrimage site for a man who got his entire education in Roman Catholic schools. “It would have been a dream come true for me to go to school there,” Morones recalled.

“So we go to South Bend, Indiana,” Morones said. “We get there at 8 o’clock at night on Sunday, and I go to church on Sundays — at least on Sundays — and what happens is I tell the group, I go, ‘I want to go to church.’ They go, ‘Eight o’clock at night? Nobody has mass at 8 o’clock at night.’ I go, ‘Notre Dame will.’ They go, ‘That’s crazy.’ So we get there, and I go, ‘What time’s your last mass?’ I see a student and he goes, ‘6 o’clock. But I got this flyer,’ and he shows me the flyer and it says, ‘Special mass tonight, 9 o’clock.’ I’m wearing this T-shirt, and I go there, and the priest says, ‘Oh, I’ve seen you guys on the news. I want to talk to you after mass. I want to give you guys a place to stay tonight.’ Stuff like that happened the whole way.”

When the March for Migrants finally arrived in Washington, D.C., the activists spent several days there and met with Senators Ted Kennedy and Hillary Rodham Clinton. “We tried to reason with the Republicans, but they said that they don’t speak human rights,” Morones grimly joked. They also did a public demonstration in front of the Capitol with MEChA students from Georgetown University. “We had all these groups from Washington, D.C. that wanted to help us, MALDEF [Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund] and all these groups. People from Virginia came. A couple came all the way from New Orleans. They heard about it. They were too late [for the action in their city], so they wanted to join us there. It was 20°, and it was freezing. We were out there planting crosses and making this big protest out there. On Sunday we head across, and then we start coming back through the North. We went through Wisconsin, we went through Minnesota, we went through Illinois. We come back through Colorado, through New Mexico. This thing has just gotten really big.”

Though Morones doesn’t take credit for organizing the big immigrant-rights marches throughout the country in March and April, he believes that his cross-country trek with the March for Migrants helped plant the seeds which local organizers grew and harvested. “A woman just called me today,” Morones told Activist San Diego. “She goes, ‘Enrique, I’ll never forget your speech in Dallas.’ When I spoke in Dallas, I said, ‘We’re just a trickle, but believe me, there’s going to be a tsunami coming. The people are going to take to the streets and march. I remember when we did that same speech in Houston, and in Dallas and in Phoenix and in Chicago. In Chicago the people were so fired up they said, ‘Not only are we going to march, we’re going to march on March 10.’ So they were the first ones to actually announce a date. And remember what happened on March 10: 300,000 people came out and marched.”

Morones spoke to Activist San Diego in the warm glow of the successful march the previous day, which had drawn 100,000 people into the streets — reportedly the largest political demonstration in San Diego history. Once again, the march was promoted largely through the Spanish-language media, which promoted the march and urged people to come wearing white shirts and carrying American flags. The organizers of the April 10 demonstration made a strategic decision not to try to block anybody from carrying a Mexican flag — to Morones, that’s just an expression of pride in his heritage, similar to an Irish-American carrying an Irish flag in a St. Patrick’s Day parade — but to encourage people to carry U.S. flags, either instead of or in addition to the flag of Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua or whatever their homeland is.

According to Morones, as long as there are vast differences in wealth between countries, you will have immigration and much of it will be undocumented. “There’s no place in the world where you have the disparity of incomes [between two countries that border each other] like the U.S. and Mexico,” he explained. “Mexico is a pretty rich country, but it’s nothing compared to the United States in terms of economic might” Much of the discussion during the question-and-answer period of the meeting centered around what, if any, responsibility the U.S. has to help Mexico develop its own economy. One attendee said the U.S. should follow the example of the European Union, whose richer members funded infrastructure improvements in the poorer countries to help them grow economically — and Morones, not surprisingly, agreed.

Morones is under no illusion that the battle over immigrant rights will be over any time soon — or will be easy to win. “There’s a lot of work ahead, and the opposition is getting really, really mad,” he said. “But more importantly, people in Washington, D.C. are saying, ‘We’re migrants, too.’ We are a nation of migrants. Our community has spoken. We have economic power. We have votes. We are registering people to vote. What happened in California with Proposition 187 was that the little gains that the Republican Party had made back then totally went anyway. The greatest leader for the Latino movement that California has ever had is Pete Wilson. He unified us against him! Well, now we have another great leader for the Latino community, and his name is James Sensenbrenner, because HR 4437 is 187 on a national basis.”
Immigration Blues

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Usually the speeches that follow a major protest march are pretty boring. Not on April 9, when 100,000 people took to the streets in San Diego to demand a humane immigration policy. Many of the speakers at this event were themselves immigrants and/or the children of immigrants, and the tales they told were inspiring narratives of hard work, sacrifice, perseverance and ultimate success. They were the kinds of stories that in any other context, conservatives would be hailing as the true fulfillment of the American dream and proof positive that the capitalist system works for anyone willing to dedicate themselves sufficiently to making it work for them.

Not in this case, however. To hear the Right talk about the kinds of people who spoke on April 9 — repeatedly demonized as “illegal” because they crossed into the U.S. from Mexico, the Philippines, Nigeria or wherever without permission slips from the U.S. government — undocumented immigrants, especially ones who are also people of color, threaten the very existence of the U.S. as a nation. Never mind that just about everyone reading this is the descendant of an immigrant — aside from descendants of the few indigenous so-called “Indians” who survived the successive genocides of Spanish and Anglo-American rulers — or that much of the U.S.’s economic success and cultural richness has come from several generations of immigrants.

Immigration is a fact of life. As immigrant rights activist Enrique Morones noted in his April 10 talk at Activist San Diego, as long as you have vast disparities in wealth and income between countries, you will have people seeking to move from the poorer countries to the richer ones — and nowhere in the world do two countries more dramatically different in their economic levels bump up against each other as the U.S. and Mexico. The Right-wing fruitcakes who think the flow of people across the border can be stanched by more of the same methods that haven’t worked before — more personnel for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), nèe the Border Patrol; more double and triple fences across la linea, with roads the width of football fields between them so ICE vehicles can turn around in the middle of giving chase; more lights, high-tech anti-personnel sensors and people with guns (official agents and private “Minutemen” vigilantes) on a border that’s already more militarized than any in the world between two countries that aren’t at war with each other — need a hard dose of reality.

But the immigration crisis is more than just a tale of rich and poor people in rich and poor countries. It’s also the product of an increasingly aggressive strategy of economic exploitation on the part of the giant corporations that really run the world’s economy and their relentless pursuit of the cheapest workers possible. Karl Marx wrote that the capitalists would always try to drive down the wages of their workers to subsistence levels because the less their workers made, the more “surplus value” — profit — the capitalists could extract from them. That hasn’t always happened, but the only times it hasn’t has been when governments have imposed regulations to keep it from happening: antitrust rules to keep corporations from growing and dominating entire industries, laws protecting the rights of workers to organize and form unions, minimum-wage laws and regulations on working hours, health and safety rules to keep workers from being injured on the job, and laws to protect the physical environment from destruction by untrammeled industrial and economic growth. And these reforms have happened only when there was a strong anti-capitalist movement — populism, socialism, communism, anarchism — that had enough popular support that capitalists began to fear they would lose the system altogether if they didn’t offer the workers some concessions.

In the absence of any anti-capitalist movement with the kind of power needed to scare them into accepting reforms, today’s capitalists are running roughshod over the world. Not only are they playing race against race and country against country to divide working people and grab the lowest-paid workforce they can, they are using their control of the modern mass media to convince many working people that deregulation and lassiez-faire economic policies are actually good for them. Through so-called “free trade” agreements that give them the right to take nation-states to court and demand the elimination of any law that stands in the way of actual or potential profits, the capitalists have undermined the ability of any government to regulate them at all — and in a wired world in which money literally moves at the speed of light, the capitalist ruling class can overnight impoverish almost any country that dares to try to stand in their way.

The key to the immigration problem is that, while capital — money — can move at the speed of light, labor — people — are pretty much stuck where they are. It’s not easy to raise the money to travel, especially if the reason you want to move in the first place is because you’re broke and you think you could do better someplace else. As more and more countries institute restrictions on entry, it becomes harder for would-be immigrants to gain a foothold in their destination country — and even if they enter successfully, they live in constant fear of being apprehended and sent back from whence they came. The capitalist rulers and the politicians they control have shown their hypocrisy time and time again by raising more and more restrictions on the ability of labor to move while greasing the already speedy tracks on which money can move, often devastating entire countries’ economies as it does so.

Americans are used to there being “two sides” to every issue, but for immigration there are at least three. There’s the ardent Right-wing populism of the antis, who claim to be protecting the jobs of (white) working people while really pursuing a racist agenda. There’s the well-meaning naïveté of much of the Left, which calls (rightly) for humane treatment of immigrants but ignores their utility to the capitalist class as a way to drive down the price of all labor. And there’s the position of the Bush administration and many U.S. Senators of both major parties, which welcomes immigrants but only as “guest workers” — given legal status but essentially indentured to their employers and still faced with the threat of deportation if they dare to demand higher wages or try to join (or start) unions and bargain collectively.

The hysteria over immigration has been a Godsend for the demagogues of talk radio, who until recently had reason to fear their credibility — and their ratings — would start falling with President Bush’s poll numbers. Immigration has given the Right-wing talk-show hosts an issue with which they can attack Bush from the Right, thereby honing their credentials as looking out for “the folks” (as Bill O’Reilly rather patronizingly calls his listeners) — while Bush, the dream president of the radical Right on so many other issues (his worldwide crusade against Islam under the guise of a “war on terrorism,” his blanket disregard of civil liberties and human rights at home and abroad, and his religiously-driven opposition to abortion, Queer rights, stem-cell research, euthanasia and environmental protection), is very much his father’s son on this one, a classic Main Street Republican more interested in exploiting immigrants as a cheap workforce for his big-business buddies than in scoring racist points by attacking them.

Immigration is a problem with no easy solution. Trying to slam the border shut isn’t going to work; though the people who dug it apparently wanted to move drugs rather than people, the elaborate tunnel recently discovered under the U.S.-Mexico border cruelly mocks the hopes of those who think a high-tech fence is going to solve anything. Opening it isn’t going to help either; it will just increase the flood of low-priced workers and drive down wages for unskilled and less-skilled labor generally — which will hurt mostly the African-American and Latino citizens competing with undocumented workers for the worst, dirtiest and least-paying jobs. A guest-worker program will be the worst of both worlds: it will have much the same anti-labor effect as an open border while legitimizing the super-exploitation of low-paid workers by their bosses. Anyone who seriously thinks a guest-worker program is part of a humane solution to the immigration problem needs to listen to the horror stories of the surviving braceros, Mexicans who were legally imported into the U.S. to do farm labor between 1942 and 1964. Not only were they paid trash wages and worked to death (sometimes literally), they were so systematically short-changed on the pay they were supposed to get that some of them are still owed money to this day.

Ultimately, there is only one solution to immigration: to equalize the standard of living throughout the world so every human being can make a decent living in his or her own country and have access to the basic needs: food, clothing, shelter and health. Alas, the world today seems to be moving in exactly the opposite direction, towards greater gaps between rich and poor between as well as within nations. Until then, all we can do is to guarantee the rights of the estimated 12 million undocumented persons already within our borders — many of whom have been model workers and have raised children, whether born here or in their home countries, who are totally American and would be totally lost if they tried to establish themselves anew in the lands their parents came from — and fight for strict enforcement of minimum-wage laws and real protection of all workers’ right to organize so there will be little or no incentive for capitalists to flout our immigration laws by hiring undocumented workers and paying them sub-minimum wages or none at all.
Church Commemorates 20th Anniversary of Chernobyl

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“I was in Ukraine six months before Chernobyl, and I returned there in September 2005,” anti-nuclear activist Rochelle Becker told a meeting of the Peace and Democracy Action Group at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest on April 26, the 20th anniversary of the worst nuclear power disaster in history. “Six months before Chernobyl, no one in the Soviet Union worried about nuclear power. I met the head of the nuclear engineering department in Leningrad [now St. Petersburg] and he said people who worked in the nuclear industry made the most money and lived in the best houses. They’d heard of the Three Mile Island accident but were convinced nothing like that would ever happen in the Soviet Union because they didn’t have the profit motive.”

The 1986 nuclear reactor meltdown at Chernobyl is frequently referred to as an “accident,” but it really wasn’t, Becker said. It was actually an experiment conducted by the nuclear plant workers to see how much they could lower the power input into their controls and still run the facility. To make the experiment work, they had to disable the normal safety systems that would have stopped a meltdown — and the reactor duly crashed. What’s more, when the incident occurred the Soviet authorities didn’t bother to tell anybody. The release of radiation from the Chernobyl site wasn’t discovered until some of it drifted to Sweden and that country’s monitors began picking up unusually high radiation levels in the Swedish atmosphere. Instead, the authorities in Kiev, Ukraine’s largest city, went ahead with their big May Day parade five days later — and a light drizzle delivered radioactive fallout to parade marchers and spectators alike.

The church’s commemoration of Chernobyl featured two speakers: Becker to deliver the critique of nuclear power and Angelina Galiteva, head of the World Council for Renewable Energy (WCRE) and former official at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, to deliver the positive message that already existing renewable technologies can totally eliminate our need for fossil fuels and nuclear energy alike. What’s needed, Galiteva said, is the proper mix of government subsidies and economic incentives to make renewables cost-effective and encourage their use.

“I grew up in Tanzania, and I grew up on renewable energy,” Galiteva said. “We want not only a worldwide target of 100 percent renewable energy,” she added, not only because of the limited supply of both fossil and nuclear fuels and the heavy pollution associated with them but also because elimination of nuclear power worldwide would also make it easier to abolish nuclear weapons. If the world gave up the so-called “peaceful atom,” she explained, there wouldn’t be controversies like the current one involving Iran, which claims to be developing nuclear energy but which is being accused by the U.S. and other countries of seeking atomic weapons.

Galiteva pointed out that, as a signatory to the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has a perfect right under international law to build nuclear energy plants and enrich uranium to create fuel for them. She also said that the U.S. has allowed India and Pakistan, neither of them IAEA signatories, to develop nuclear weapons without threatening them with war or sanctions. “What makes us think Iran or North Korea is after a bomb?,” she said. “The real danger is the nuclear technology itself. If a terrorist flew a plane into the San Onofre reactors, the containment wouldn’t hold it and the entire San Diego region would become uninhabitable.”

According to Galiteva, there are two models worldwide for financing the transition from finite to renewable energy — and, typically, the U.S. has chosen the wrong one while at least some of the European Union countries have picked correctly. The model she likes — on which her group worked with the government of Germany to implement there — simply allows individuals and businesses to generate their own energy from renewable sources, pump what they don’t use back into the power grid, and receive money back from their utility for every unused kilowatt-hour they pump back into the overall grid.

The model Galiteva opposes is called the “portfolio standard,” in which renewable technologies would have to compete in today’s energy marketplace not only with each other but also with the already highly subsidized, established industries of fossil fuels and nuclear power. She doesn’t like this model both because it would cost a lot more to implement — it would require a marketing and regulating infrastructure that would cost billions of dollars and take years to set up — and because it would put renewables at a permanent disadvantage as long as the accounting didn’t factor in the “environmental externalities” of fossil and nuclear fuels — economist-speak for the cost of cleaning up the pollution, radiation and global warming that result from the use of nonrenewables.

“Why do we even play around with portfolio standards? I think it’s a conspiracy not to do renewables while making it look like they’re being developed,” Galiteva charged. She argued that today’s energy companies and the government bureaucracies that supposedly “regulate” them, but actually serve their agenda, don’t want people to know how practical renewables are because renewables are what people really want.

“If you ask people what energy sources they want in their backyards, they say solar first, wind second, natural gas third and coal fourth,” Galiteva said. “Nuclear power is always last. Yet we have a campaign to bring back nuclear power. Nuclear power cannot be safe. Even if we could trust ourselves to run a nuclear reactor properly, we can’t necessarily trust China, or Iran, or Afghanistan if they decide they want to go nuclear. Besides, nuclear power plants take years to build, while you can build a state-of-the-art solar-power system in a Third World village in a few days and give them electricity in weeks instead of decades.”

Galileva drew a parallel to the decision of some Third World countries to go straight from no phone service at all to cell-phone networks, bypassing the stage of a large network of land-based phone lines. She suggested that such countries should also bypass the stage of large-scale energy production with fossil or nuclear fuels and go straight from no electricity in their rural areas to electricity through photovoltaic solar panels. Galileva also pointed out that, through the successful incentive program her group worked out and got the government of Germany to implement, Germany is becoming the world’s leader in solar power technology even though their country gets only about one-fourth the sun the U.S. does.

Becker, who previously appeared at the church in March 2004 to try to enlist support for her effort to deny the Southern California Edison (SCE) utility a license to replace the steam generators at San Onofre, discussed what that repair will mean not only in terms of cost — an estimated $680 million, paid for out of SCE customers’ electric bills — but also radiation danger. To make the repair, the utility will have to cut a 28-foot hole in the reactor’s concrete containment vessel — the dome-like shell familiar to drivers on Interstate 5 — then hoist the old, brittle, crippled and probably radioactive steam generator out of there and put a new one in. She also pointed out that $680 million is more than the original cost estimate for building the entire San Onofre plant — though, as is typical with the nuclear power industry, costs ballooned to $5.3 billion to construct San Onofre and $5.7 billion for the similar Diablo Canyon plant near San Luis Obispo.

According to Becker, the real reason the California utilities are working so hard to keep their old nukes in operation is because in 1978 the California legislature had the good sense to pass a bill forbidding any more construction of new nuclear power plants until somebody came up with a permanent solution for disposing of the radioactive waste from the reactors. What her group, the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, is pushing for now is to close the loophole the legislature left in that bill which allows old nukes to continue operating even without a waste solution.
Queer Democrats Endorse Wilson for School Board
Maintain Acceptable Ratings for Hunter’s Three Opponents

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

During an often contentious meeting April 27 that lasted nearly three hours, the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club endorsed Jim Wilson for the District B seat on the San Diego Unified School District board of trustees even though he breezed in at the last minute and participated only in the candidates’ closing statements. The club thus reversed its position from four years ago, when it endorsed Katherine Nakamura despite concerns from some members that she was too close to the district’s controversial superintendent, Alan Bersin — who was later fired by the board, only to be hired by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as his education adviser.

Though Bersin is gone, the wounds from his controversial tenure in the district were still a major topic during the candidates’ discussion and the club members’ own debate. “I believe the school board needs help,” Wilson said when he finally did arrive. “We need to upgrade the staff and have a board that works together.” Wilson called for a stronger program to take on bullying students and more training for principals on how to handle situations where students are being harassed for any reason, including that they are or are suspected of being Queer.

The three candidates who did show up for the club’s forum were Nakamura, Marty Marcus and Mike McSweeney. McSweeney, whose name was printed on the club’s endorsement ballot by mistake — he’s a Republican and the club is allowed to endorse only Democrats — put a lot of club members off by what they regarded as a flippant attitude to their questions. Wilson explained his failure to show up until the very end of the forum as due to confusion over when in the club’s long agenda the school board race would be called; he said he’d been told to be there by 7:45 and that’s when he appeared.

“I’m an attorney and a mom with 12- and seven-year-old children,” Nakamura said. “Last time I had the endorsement of this club in a very contentious time, and it guided me and gave me strength for the last four years. I’ve become known for student safety. I’ve talked on TV about kids bringing pellet guns to school. There are kids who are mad at others because they’re LGBT [Queer] or ‘funny’ or have odd voices. It’s important that we stand up for those kids. I’ve done anti-bullying programs.” Nakamura also joked that she’d been in the annual pride parades “so often I tend to forget it.”

“I was a ‘Mr. Mom’ before it was fashionable,” said Marcus. “I taught in the district before, during and after Alan Bersin and his ‘blueprint’” — referring to the controversial “Blueprint for Student Success” Bersin instituted during his time as superintendent, which concentrated on reading and math to the exclusion of almost everything else. Marcus called for a move away from the ideas behind the blueprint and towards a broader educational program that will help graduates find jobs when they get out of high school. He also said he would come down especially hard on so-called “social promotions,” in which eighth graders are allowed to enter high school even though they haven’t mastered their skills and in some cases can’t even read well enough to do high-school work.

Nakamura and Wilson, considered the two highest-profile Democratic candidates, both offered impressive lists of endorsers. Nakamura had the backing of State Senators DeDe Alpert and Christine Kehoe and San Diego City Councilmembers Toni Atkins and Ben Hueso. But Wilson had important organizational endorsements, including the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee, the San Diego County Young Democrats and the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council. Marcus’s only prominent endorser was former school board member Frances O’Neill Zimmerman, who was especially known for her fierce resistance to Bersin and his agenda. In the end, Wilson easily won the club’s endorsement, with 51 votes to 20 for Nakamura, one for Marcus and four for no endorsement.

The club also debated a potentially even more contentious issue regarding the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican incumbent Duncan Hunter in the 52nd Congressional District. At its February 23 meeting, the club had heard from three candidates in the Democratic Primary — John Rinaldi, Derek Casady and Karen Otter — all of whom scored 100 percent on the club’s issues questionnaire. The club voted not to make an endorsement, and instead to rate all three candidates “acceptable” — a designation the club uses either to support a non-Democrat, make a lesser-of-two-evils choice or, as here, when more than one candidate appears to qualify for club support.

The club’s decision not to endorse Rinaldi was first criticized by the Gay & Lesbian Times, which published an editorial that noted that Rinaldi is openly Gay and that a Queer club, other things being equal, ought to endorse a Queer candidate over even the most Queer-friendly heterosexuals. Then a club member asked that the decision be reconsidered after he heard a comment from a party caucus member to the effect that an openly Gay candidate was not electable in Hunter’s conservative district and “the whole ticket would go down in flames” if Rinaldi were nominated.

Club president Stephen Whitburn invited Rinaldi, Casady and Otter back for what turned into another candidates’ forum. Casady admitted that one of the people making anti-Queer comments about Rinaldi was his son-in-law, but after he found out about them he took his son-in-law’s name off his list of endorsers and removed the anti-Queer comments his son-in-law had posted on his Web site. Otter suggested that if the club withdrew the acceptable ratings for Casady and herself to endorse Rinaldi, “you could be harming the reputation of your club” by appearing to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Rinaldi said the attacks on his sexuality had changed the race and, while he’d expected them from Hunter and his Republican supporters, he hadn’t thought he’d be Queer-bashed by Democratic activists.

Eventually the club voted, 46 to 21, to let the acceptable ratings for all three candidates stand. Former club president Jeri Dilno decided to vote that way after she asked Casady and Otter how they had responded to the anti-Queer attacks on Rinaldi, and was satisfied with their responses that they hadn’t had anything to do with the attacks and had criticized them as soon as they heard about them. Most of the members who supported reconsidering the ratings and endorsing Rinaldi did so for reasons similar to those in the Gay & Lesbian Times editorial: that Rinaldi was openly Gay and a Queer club should be pushing the election of openly Queer candidates when they are serious and stand a good chance of winning.

The club also endorsed Steve Padilla, the openly Gay mayor of Chula Vista, for re-election and backed Pat Moriarty, a supporter of Padilla’s ambitious redevelopment agenda, for a seat on the Chula Vista City Council. In a whirlwind consideration of the statewide elective offices, the club split on the two big ones, rating Phil Angelides and Steve Westly acceptable for governor and John Garamendi and Jackie Speier acceptable for lieutenant governor, but made endorsements for the Democratic nominations in the other offices: Deborah Bowen for secretary of state, Rocky Delgadillo for attorney general, John Chiang for controller, Cruz Bustamante for insurance commissioner and Judy Chiu for the state board of equalization.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Up to 100,000 Attend Mass Immigration March
Rally Long on “Dignity, Respect and Hope,” Short on Specifics

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

A massive crowd estimated at up to 100,000 people thronged the streets of San Diego Sunday afternoon, April 9, to demand “dignity, respect and hope” for America’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. The march and rally which followed it came after two weeks’ worth of protests nationwide following passage of H.R. 4437, the Sensenbrenner anti-immigration bill, in the House of Representatives. This bill would make undocumented immigration into the U.S. a felony, punishable by up to a year in federal prison followed by deportation. It would also call for fencing over 700 miles of the 1,900-mile U.S.-Mexico border, which has already been called the most thoroughly militarized border anywhere in the world between two countries technically at peace with each other.

But while the marchers were quite specific about what they didn’t want — among the signs were ones comparing H.R. 4437 to Adolf Hitler’s anti-Jewish laws and calling it a poor example of the “democracy” the U.S. wants to bring to Iraq — there weren’t many specifics as to what they did want. The very title of the action — the “March for Dignity, Respect and Hope” — fell short of an outright demand for amnesty for undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., prompting some immigration-rights activists to call their own action the day before. One rally speaker, Jim Hard of the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU), called the milder bill recommended by the Senate Judiciary Committee “a step in the right direction,” but the crowd was markedly unenthusiastic about it. Speakers urged marchers to keep monitoring the legislative process in Washington and making phone calls to their Senators and Congressmembers, but without offering much guidance on which proposals they should support or oppose.

Not that many of the marchers seemed to need much guidance. They were well aware that the massive demonstrations throughout the U.S. on this issue had already made some House Republicans, including Sensenbrenner himself, pull back from some of the nastier provisions of H.R. 4437. (He recently proposed making undocumented immigration a misdemeanor instead of a felony; it is now a civil offense, punishable by deportation but not jail time or fine.) Congressmember Susan Davis, who spoke to the crowd in English but punctuated her speech with a few bits of badly pronounced Spanish, said that Congress had begun to look at “sensible, compassionate immigration legislation” and thanked the marchers for “joining with people all over our state and country to demand something realistic and humane.”

Though the program at the rally included immigrants from such diverse countries as the Philippines and Nigeria, it wasn’t hard to tell just which country concerned most of the people who marched. Many of the marchers carried Mexican flags — a practice that’s become a flashpoint for controversy, with some pro-immigration activists arguing that it’s bad P.R. for people demanding respect from the U.S. to fly the flag of another country — and most of the rally speeches were either bilingual or in Spanish only. A few of the speeches were interpreted, but most of the speakers picked for the program were able to deliver their talks in both languages.

The Mexican influence on the program was apparent in other ways as well. The MC, Francisco Herrera from Calexico, also brought a guitar and supplied the musical entertainment himself. Many of the songs were traditional singalongs and anthems of the Chicano struggle which many members of the audience of Mexican or Central American descent recognized. Overall, the mood during all three phases of the event — the warmup before the march, the march itself and the rally — was far more festive than in the anti-Iraq war demonstrations or most other San Diego actions planned by majority-white groups. As the first marchers arrived at the rally they were greeted by the sound of a live band improvising a musical accompaniment to a tape of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech — essentially turning King, posthumously, into a rapper.

Marchers assembled at 1 p.m. at Sixth and Laurel in Balboa Park. The police presence was surprisingly light — considerably smaller than it’s been at anti-war and anti-biotechnology protests that actually drew far fewer people — though during the rally organizers announced that police had originally expected so small a turnout they tried to confine the march to the sidewalks. Instead they ended up closing off so many streets that the San Diego buses were re-routed and marchers were instructed not to use the sidewalks. The one obstacle police weren’t able to have stopped or changed for the route was the San Diego Trolley, which held up the march as it passed; organizers stopped the front part of the march so the rest of it, lagging behind the trolley, wouldn’t fall hopelessly behind.

Though some of the organizers wore orange T-shirts proclaiming themselves part of “March Security,” the real security people were a group of mostly male volunteers wearing black or brown shirts with a stylized graphic of an Aztec warrior and the word “PALABRA.” They were responsible for transmitting the often contradictory and rapidly changing directions from the police to the marchers, and also for securing the stage area at the rally and asking media people to check in at the organizers’ media desk before being permitted access to the stage area to photograph the speakers.

The march attracted so many people and took so long to travel the route — down Sixth Avenue to Broadway, down to Pacific Highway and over to the San Diego County Administrative Building, where the rally took place — that marchers were still coming in half an hour after the rally started. For some reason, organizers held their rally at the front of the County building, rather than the back where most demonstrations on the site have taken place. This meant a highly scrunched crowd spilling out onto Cedar Street — and a long time during which police had to keep Pacific Highway closed because people were standing on the street listening to the program.

The rally speakers ranged from elected officials — Congressmembers Davis and Bob Filner and Oceanside City Councilmember Ester Sanchez — to quite a few ministers and others from communities of faith. Union organizers were also present on the platform, and there were personal testimonials from immigrants who talked about the sacrifices their parents had made for them.

“I am an immigrant,” said Sister Mary Moreno Richardson. “My father came from Mexico. He came to the United States as an accountant who could not speak English, leaving behind my mother, who was pregnant with me, and brother. After a year waiting in Tijuana we joined him in San Francisco. He worked two jobs, went to school at night, and eventually built up his own business. After five years we became legal residents. My older brother served in the Navy in Viet Nam. My younger brother is a deputy chief in the fire department in Sunnyvale. This is our country, and the ideal of people providing for their families is best exemplified by the sacrifices made by immigrants.”

“If you look at a map, you see this is Las Americas,” said Councilmember Sanchez. “Somos todos Americanos. My family is from Zacatecas. My mother came first to Tijuana and then to the U.S. My mother worked in a rubber factory for 20 years. She used to come home black, her whole body covered in rubber dust, but with just one year of education she worked and helped put me through law school. Now I am a lawyer and a City Councilmember in Oceanside.”

Sanchez hammered home the point many of the speakers were making: that the stories of America’s current immigrants, documented and undocumented, are exactly the kind of ideal pursuing-the-American-dream stories most conservatives celebrate when they happen to anybody else. “We all know America is a nation of immigrants,” she said. “We believe in hard work and welcome immigrants from all over the world. We believe in one United States, and that people who come to our country to work and be part of the American dream should be welcomed. We cannot allow people in Congress to divide this nation. We must fight, stand up and say now is the time for action.”

“I’m a Nigerian citizen and a resident alien in the U.S. in the process of getting my citizenship,” said Akinfosile. “I have to support and speak out for other ethnic groups not represented here. My father stowed away on a ship from Lagos [the Nigerian capital] to England. This country is made up of immigrants. … My faith directs me to be here. We are to care for the widow and the alien in our midst. We are supposed to love our neighbors. If someone gets sick in Tijuana or loses a child, it affects us too. We’re no different.”

Akinfosile said the opponents of so-called “illegal” immigration “are trying to incorporate fear into this discussion. Undocumented immigrants are not the problem. The system is the problem. Let’s stop pointing the finger at the wrong people. Our strength lies in our unity. Stay together and hang in there. Do this for your own kids. The U.S. belongs to all of us. We believe in God, we have faith and are trying to do better by our own families. What’s ‘illegal’ about that?”

Congressmember Filner — who recalled taking part in marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and César Chávez in the 1960’s and said “this march is as beautiful as any of these” — took up the same theme as Akinfosile: that undocumented immigrants are being used as scapegoats for the failures of the federal government and the current administration and Congress. “We have a war in Iraq that costs $1 billion every three days, and they needed a scapegoat, so they blamed our problems on immigrants,” he said. “Forty million immigrants lack access to health care, and they blame it on immigrants. They can’t educate all our kids and they blame that on immigrants.”

Some of the most intense moments of the program were entirely unscripted. At one point a mother took the stage because she had lost her three-year-old daughter — and broke down in tears as she tried to describe what the child looked like and asked anyone who had seen her to bring her forward. (Eventually the girl was found.) The scheduled program was long, and the official schedule promised an after-program that would have stretched the proceedings even further, but most of the people who’d done the march were gone by the time the final announced speakers took the stage.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Lesbian Mom Kicks Off 500-Mile “Walk for Togetherness”

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Jennifer Schumaker isn’t the first person to think of a long walk as a way to achieve social change. A woman who called herself “Peace Pilgrim” walked across the U.S. several times in the 1950’s and 1960’s to highlight her opposition to the Cold War and the U.S.-Soviet arms race. More recently, Doris “Granny D.” Haddock did a cross-country walk in 1999-2000 — at nearly 90 years of age — to protest the high cost of running for office and call for campaign finance reform. U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) publicly acknowledged her and invited her to the Senate gallery during the vote on the reform bill he and Russ Feingold (D-WI) co-authored. And John Francis spoke in February at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest about his commitment for over a decade not to speak and not to use any sort of motorized transport — he walked, rode bikes and, when he needed to cross water, sailed — to assume personal responsibility for avoiding the use of fossil fuels.

According to Schumaker, she’d never heard of any of these people when she first hit on the idea of walking up the west coast of California from San Diego to San Francisco on what she calls the “Walk for Togetherness.” While Peace Pilgrim, Granny D. and John Francis were criss-crossing the country and the world on foot, Schumaker was growing up, marrying, having four children and settling down into a suburban existence from which she was wrenched when, at the age of 34, she fell in love with a woman and realized she was a Lesbian. As she explains below, having been married to a man for 15 years made her all too conscious of the costs — social and psychological, as well as financial — Gay and Lesbian couples have to bear because they don’t have access to civil marriage. Her principal demands on the Walk for Togetherness are for marriage equality and equal treatment for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender youth.

Schumaker will start her walk Saturday, August 8, 9 a.m., in Balboa Park at 6th and El Prado south. She’ll finish it in San Francisco Saturday, June 3, 2 p.m. in Golden Gate Park, at a big conclusion ceremony at which Assemblymember Mark Leno — openly Gay sponsor of last year’s marriage equality bill in the California legislature, which passed both houses but was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger — will speak. Her list of endorsers include the international Love Exiles group, the Family Pride Coalition, Marriage Equality USA, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the two publications she’s written for (Lavender Lens and Update), San Diego’s Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Community Center and various other local Queer, mixed and straight organizations.

One of the goals for her walk is to popularize its symbol — a “rainbow ribbon” modeled after the red AIDS ribbon, originally designed by the late New York artist Keith Haring (though his version also contained a scissors; the ribbon represented government red tape that was allegedly blocking AIDS research and the scissors represented AIDS activism). She’d like to see the rainbow ribbon adopted as a symbol straight people can wear to show their support for Queer rights. Schumaker is selling rainbow-ribbon pins for $10 to help support the Walk; to donate, or for more information, please visit

Zenger’s: Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself, your background, and what made you decide to do the Walk for Togetherness?

Jennifer Schumaker: I figured out I was Lesbian about five years ago, and I did the logical thing, which was move to Escondido. I’ll admit that’s one of my standard jokes, but I followed my first love to Escondido. And I found myself a mom in this ultra-suburban gated neighborhood, hanging out with a lot of soccer moms. I had four little kids at the time, one who’d just gotten out of diapers. I don’t think he was even out of diapers, actually. He was not quite three. And then I had a four-year-old and a six-year-old and an eight-year-old, so my life was primarily mom, and then trying to figure out, “Wow, I’m this thing that I’ve heard about all my life, mostly heard bad things about, and it’s me.”

I went to a Jesuit university, and my politics had always been to stand up for my Gay and Lesbian friends. I had tons of Gay and Lesbian friends, which makes it funny that I never figured myself out. I actually sang in a Gay chorus in Omaha, Nebraska for six years. I started there right after I got married and had my first child about two years after that. I spent time with all those Gay folks, never figured it out, moved to California, weaned my last baby, figured myself out and, once I ended up ensconced in Escondido, I could not be the extrovert that I am and not be out everywhere that I was.

I didn’t know if suburbia was ready for it, but I couldn’t live in the closet. My girlfriend wasn’t the type to run around holding hands in Escondido, and I was. So I just started letting it come up in conversation with the other soccer moms, at the pool, at the Little League, wherever. And I kept getting these really positive responses.

After a little while I started writing some little things for Lavender Lens magazine, because Bixi Craig, the editor, had me help her with editorial things. I wrote some things for her about living in suburbia. Then one day, as I was driving out by the Wild Animal Park, where we live, the title for my column just came to me: “Letters from Lesbeyond.” That’s what I think I’m writing about, sending back to Hillcrest what it’s like out here, like I’m this big pioneer. I even looked up “pioneer” in the dictionary one day. It means someone who goes into new territory or brings a new idea to a new area. I can say that being backstage at your kid’s junior theatre production and helping with the other moms and having a button on that says, “I’m much Gayer than I look,” probably fits the pioneer definition.

About a year before I figured myself out, I was in the airport waiting for my girlfriend of the time, waiting for her flight, and I let a man get in line in front of me because he had been in line, but he kind of had to chase his two daughters or granddaughters or whatever t hey were. He happened to look Asian, and it hit me: in America, when different people of different colors have started to mix together in cities and suburbs, we’ve known it, because you can see it on our faces. If Black people move to suburbia, we would know it. If I just let a person who’s Asian-American in line in front of me, it’s got nothing to do with the fact that he’s Asian-American, but we see at least one thing about us is different, which is on our faces. We could have a whole lot of other things in common.

I thought, he doesn’t know a Lesbian just had an interaction with him. No one ever knows they’re having an interaction with a Gay or Lesbian person unless we bring it up, or we fit some stereotype. That moment really struck me. I thought, “Wow, I would just love to tell that person, ‘Guess what? A Lesbian just did a nice thing for you today.’” I started realizing, O.K., we’re here, but we’re invisible. And invisible is not O.K. with me. I really thought I could help people just be more comfortable with it.

So I would do things like that. I would buy my groceries and I would say, “Remember, a Lesbian spent money here today.” I would get my car towed, and I would say, “Hey, guys, remember you helped out a Lesbian today.” I would leave a plane, and I would look at the crew and say, “Hey, remember, 10 percent of your passengers are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender.” It was never easy. Sometimes my face would get a little red. Sometimes I had to ask myself if I could really do this when I feel like it could be helpful. But if it isn’t easy for an extremely hyper, extroverted person like me, how are other people doing? So I just kept -doing it.

If I’m able to say, “Oh, yeah, my girlfriend” — and I say it enough that they figure out that I’m talking about my significant other, then they would start asking questions, and they would be more comfortable. I hate the words “we” and “they,” but let’s say I’m talking to people who aren’t Gay or Lesbian or Bi or Trans. I kept seeing that this seems to be a relief to people, that it’s just out there and open. I guess I could get upset that it’s always on me. I feel like it’s always on the Gay people, that we have to make it better. Well, that’s always how it is with any minority, with any group that’s trying to get their full rights and citizenship.

After a while of doing that, just kind of being out all the time, having these positive responses, I would write about it for Update. Sometimes I would semi-stage things. I went to the store one day — and I wrote a column about it — when Hallmark had the little Blushing Bears campaign. I marched into Hallmark in North County and asked them if they had same-sex bears that blushed when you put them together. Of course they don’t, and of course I knew they didn’t, but the whole point was to say, “Hey, we’re here, and we want to be included in everything, so 10 percent of the bears should be Gay.” As I wrote in my column at the time — which was about two years ago, right after Gavin Newsom gave all those marriage licenses in San Francisco — I just went to the store and said, “So we can get married in San Francisco, but we can’t buy the appropriate bears for Valentine’s Day,” just to make the point.

I always do it when I’m in a good mood. I’m always cheerful. I always have a smile on my face. This is really arrogant of me, but I consider myself sort of an ambassador from the Gay/Lesbian world. I don’t ever want to be angry or be in someone’s face, even though I know we have every right to be angry sometimes.

After a while I also noticed that I had great privilege compared to some of my brothers and sisters, other people in the LGBT world, because I was a mom, and even though I live on the fringes of suburbia — I’m actually a low-income single mother —my girlfriend’s house is in the affluent area, and I spend my time and my kids go to school in the affluent area. They still go there. Because of my politics in the past, I’m already aware of privilege, whether it be based on color or financial background or education, or your sexual orientation. After a while of realizing that I got these positive responses, and I think some of it had to do with the privileges I already have of being accepted as a soccer mom, I realized that I really don’t want to rest on that privilege.

That’s really the crux of this walk. I’m very aware that I have a lot of privilege in this society, and if I can share that with people who maybe wouldn’t get received the same way I have, hopefully I can open some dialogue that will include people who do feel more invisible than I do, people who don’t necessarily have the confidence or the privilege to speak up and say, “Hey, we’re here, we’re Queer, deal with us, be our neighbors, be happy,” whatever.

Zenger’s: How did you hit on the idea of doing a long walk?

Schumaker: Look at this society. We’re full of newspapers, wonderful magazines like yours, newspapers, Internet, TV, good causes. There’s a cause around every corner. There’s a hundred different groups working for LGBT rights, all of which I respect and which really made it possible for me to be doing what I’m doing. But there’s so much noise in America. How do you get people to focus on one simple message? How do you get them to see how important it is, and how much you care about it?

Maybe this is just my Jesuit-Catholic background — though I’m now a Unitarian-Universalist — but I believe it’s through doing some kind of sacrifice. Not a martyrdom. I’m not going to do a hunger strike, although I thought about it once. But doing something sustained, something positive, something visible, simple, that people will see when they pop on the evening news that night. Maybe they’ll get on the blog: “Oh, that woman is still out there walking to tell people, guess what, we’re all interconnected.” Maybe you can wear this ribbon.

So I just thought if I do something hard — if one person does one thing that’s really hard for quite some time — I think it would focus people’s attention enough that maybe a simple message would get through, which is that we are all interconnected, so let’s stop talking about “us and them,” and “we and they,” and acknowledge that we are all interconnected; that Gay, Lesbian, Bi and Trans people are in everyone’s families, in everyone’s ethnicity, in everyone’s economic background, etc., etc.

I’ve been planning it for 11 months, and right after I told people I think is when that gentleman who wanted to raise awareness about obesity started walking. I looked at him, and I thought, “O.K., that’s a great idea.” But I don’t want to be a flash in the news in a few cities. I want other people to pick this up. I’m really hoping to start a movement, not just get a little bit of media attention for something. In fact, if my name fades from it and it becomes its own thing, that’s what will really make me happy. Like, for example, who came up with the AIDS ribbon? You might know, as a news person. But no one I know knows who came up with the red ribbon for AIDS.

I don’t care if no one ever knows who came up with the togetherness ribbon, but I want it to become something that people pick up, and our straight allies start to have a symbol that they can show their support in, because what do they have? How does a straight person who’s well-meaning bring up their Gay/Lesbian friend’s family? How do they bring it up, when half the time Gay/Lesbian and Bi/Trans people can’t bring it up? We don’t know how to bring it up. We can look at Ellen on TV. We can have a whole room of people looking at Ellen on TV, and still no one will say the word “Lesbian.”

That’s why I figured I’d do this walk. Of course I’ve been inspired by the people who have done difficult things, who have given of themselves and their time. Absolutely. I’ve also been inspired because, as a mother, I don’t ever want to see a Matthew Shepard again. As we all know, he made the news, but there are Matthew Shepards every day. There are people being lost every day, and they’re on the other end of the continuum.

I’m on the [end where] I can be so out, out, out, even though I still have to be careful sometimes. What about the kids? What about the young people? What about people who can’t even tell their own families because they feel there’s no place in this world for them? I’m doing this definitely for them. I do have a seven-year-old who says he’s Gay, and who’s been saying it ever since he was five, and I really want for him to be able to go to his first dance with the right person, you know? So it’s like, come on, people, we’ve got to hurry this up. Change is coming, but not fast enough, so what can I do to help it?

Then there’s the Right wing, inflaming the people who are against us having rights and marriage. Marriage rights are just huge for me. There are people inflaming the hostilities towards us, because they’re a very organized, very loud, very rich minority. I don’t want to inflame, but I do want to show the actual support we have in the non-LGBT world. It’s huge. And I want it to be visible. So I’m willing to walk 500 miles to ask those folks to wear this ribbon, display this ribbon, and give money to all these organizations that are already existing, to help their children, you know? Because the children in suburbia are just as Gay as the children everywhere else, right? I mean, you can’t move to Hillcrest when you’re 12.

Zenger’s: I noticed on your mission statement that the top two issues you put there were marriage equality and encouraging Gay/straight alliances in schools. Why are those your top two?

Schumaker: I think a lot of people did not think we would see marriage equality in our lifetimes. Before this became an issue, a really prominent issue, because of Gavin Newsom and because of the folks who are working so hard for it, I didn’t even understand the federal rights. I was married to a man once; I didn’t understand the rights that gave me, because we never needed family leave, we never were really sick, and we didn’t have Social Security issues. I didn’t realize how many benefits came with that.

When people say, “Oh, you just want marriage so you can have more money,” I say no, that’s not it. It’s about the rights and the duties given to an American citizen. We’re fulfilling our duties and we’re not getting our rights: totally un-American. So, because I think that’s the huge issue of our time, I’m definitely on it and, if there’s any impact from Togetherness, I definitely want to impact marriage equality.

Zenger’s: If I could interject here, I’ve heard the argument made that the word “marriage” seems to be the really provocative thing, the thing that turns that so-called “movable middle” against us, gets them to vote for the so-called “defense of marriage initiatives,” and if we just sought the rights of marriage but called it something else —

Schumaker: Here’s my thing. First of all, do you know how many lines of code you’d have to change in the American legal system to change “marriage” into “civil — ” — whatever they want to call it? And you’d have to do that for the straight people, too. We can’t have something separate. We have to call everything what it really is. We need to stop fighting around the word “marriage” and start making straight people understand that what they have is a civil contract, and what they do at church is something different. Every single one of them just has a civil contract. That’s the thing that gives them the rights, not the priest or the rabbi or wherever they go to have their marriage ceremony, if they do it in a church.

I will never agree with anyone who says we should drop the word “marriage.” Yes, it does set off some people who might be more movable, but what we need to do is educate those people. I’ve been doing phone banking at the Center. I’ve had conversations with people, a senior citizen for example. She said, “Well, I just don’t — you know, I just don’t see it. I think marriage is between a man and a woman.” I said, “Do you know that if I’m with my partner for 30 years, that when my partner dies I do not get Social Security benefits?” She said, “Oh, no, that’s not right. That’s not right, Oh, no, then I’m for it.” And we were done.

But no one had ever told her that before, so we need to keep having these conversations. And I’m hoping that by walking this far, it will spur more conversations. Some of those are going to be about marriage, because it’s so hot in the news. The conversations about youth who need support are actually more difficult, because then you have those underexposed folks who say, “Oh, no, you’re recruiting.” No, I’m here for someone who is needing someone. Even Gay people, when I say, “My son says he’s Gay,” they freak out. I say, “You don’t freak out if someone assumes they’re straight when they’re seven.” Nobody says a word.

So why do they have a problem with him saying he’s Gay when he’s seven? It doesn’t mean he wants to have sex. It means he identifies; he sees that there’s this other thing in the world, and he feels a lot closer to my Gay male friends because he feels like there’s something similar. Why does he drag me to the diamond counter every time we go to the mall?

There are a couple of kids who seem to be Gay or Lesbian over at my kids’ school. They’re junior-high kids, and they know I’m a Lesbian. There I am, at their school every day. And whether they can say anything about it; whether they tease their peers about it or not, at least they know that I’m there, which is more than I ever had.

Zenger’s: I’ve heard that the phrase “it’s so Gay” has become a big piece of kids’ slang now, usually to describe something they don’t like.

Schumaker: Oh, it’s huge. It’s all over the place. It’s just a generic put-down. I’ll say to kids, “How come you use ‘Gay’ as a put-down? Do you know that hurts Gay people, like me?” I said that to some kids at a candy store at the mall, and they were like, “Oh, we’re sorry.” But They looked right at me when they said, “Oh, we’re sorry,” and I don’t know what they said after that. But the point is that I put it out there, over and over.

There are other kids who, instead of calling someone a “fag,” they say “gaf,” because they’re getting in trouble in school for saying “fag,” so they’re reversing it and they’re using the word “gaf.” That’s a new one. That one really is mean, and the kids are doing it to get around teachers who are finally becoming aware that they need to redirect calling someone a “fag.” So now they’re calling people “gaf,” and the teachers supposedly don’t know what it means. I don’t know how widespread that one is, though. You understand I’m getting it through the amazingly reliable sources of my own children, but they’re observant. They pick those things up.

I work at a foster home, at a foster facility. It’s a residential and school facility. Those kids are saying “It’s so Gay” all the time, all the time. All the kids in my house, they know I’m a Lesbian. Some of them are wearing the pin for my walk, and they’re very supportive and know exactly what it’s for. There are other Gay staff that are out at that campus. So, you know, because of all these seeds that we’re planting, I think that that phrase will be gone in the next generation. I really do.

Zenger’s: What are your children going to be doing during the Walk?

Schumaker: We just added this to the FAQ page, because that is a frequently asked question: “Where are your four kids?” Most of the way they will be at the Y at their school, which is the onsite day-care some of their friends go to, and then their father will pick them up every day. He lives in Escondido, also. So he’s agreed to have them every single day, and then let some of my friends bring them up. I don’t know if he’ll ever bring them up on a weekend. It depends, but —

Zenger’s: How are your relations with him?

Schumaker: I can’t say too much about that. He’s there for them, so that’s what matters.

Zenger’s: How did your children react to your coming-out?

Schumaker: Let’s see, my eight-year-old was standing in the kitchen one day, and I told him, “Mommy’s in love with a woman, and Papa and I are getting a divorce.” I probably didn’t tell him I was in love with somebody; I said we were getting a divorce, Mommy’s figured out she’s Lesbian.

First of all, they already knew what it was, because that was the kind of family we had. All their baby-sitters their whole lives had been Gay or Lesbian. So there wasn’t any sitting down and explaining, “Well, some men love men, some women love women.” They already knew it because of Roger and Warren and all of our friends. I just said, “What do you think of this?,” and my eight-year-old — he was eight at the time, he’s 12 now — said, “Whatever, it’s perfectly natural. Can I have a snack?” It didn’t even rate stopping and thinking it over, because they’d already been taught. They’d already known all our Gay friends, so they’d always been very cool about it.

When my daughter was seven, she looked at me and said, “Mommy, I don’t think I’m a Lesbian.” I said, “Yeah, really, I don’t think you are, either, but you know, you never know.” And then one day my five-year-old — when he was six — said, “Mommy, will you still love me even if I’m straight?” “Of course, honey, of course I will.” So everything in our house is all up front. It’s all out on the table.

It did get hard for them after Gavin Newsom started the whole marriage thing, because suddenly Gay people were in the news every night. The rainbow flag was in the news every night, and I had a little flag on my car, and no one in Escondido knew what the hell that was — until all of a sudden some seventh-graders figured it out, and they started teasing my fifth-grader. The school put a stop to the teasing, but they couldn’t put a stop to the ostracism.

So my older two have been ostracized at school, and that’s too bad, because I’m very, very out with all the parents, but they don’t talk to their kids about it! It’s like, oh, wow, one of your other soccer moms is a Lesbian, you’re cool with that, but you couldn’t possibly discuss with your children what it might mean, and that some of their friends might in fact grow up to be Gay or Lesbian. They don’t make that jump. Why? Because people are afraid of it. So that’s why I’m doing the walk. I’m hoping it will demystify it.

My family comes from strong physical stock. I can walk like this because we’re strong people, and we have education. We have intellectual abilities, and that is the stuff that I’m so grateful for. But I can’t tell my own father that because he won’t speak to me. He wrote me out of the will. He went down to the lawyer and wrote up some nasty paragraph in there about me. I never read it. My sister saw it; she won’t tell me what it says.

But I am cut out of the legacy of my family — financially, anyway — and my father acts as if I am dead. Which I can’t believe because he really does have a dead son, so how in the world he can act like one of his remaining two children is dead, I will never understand. As a parent, I cannot understand that. But he’s a product of his culture, and he cannot get past it. He cannot get past the embarrassment of the neighbors finding out. Whatever he’s worried about, he can’t get past it.

So I look at that, and I just go, “You know what? That stuff is not being passed to my children.” Right there, I have done something so transformative. And if I can do that for my four children, I really think that I can help other people transform those horrible messages that just flood over us, and find the really beautiful things that trickle through. If I can do that for other people, and give them the space and the time to collect themselves, then I’ll be that strength if I can.