Building the Movement for Immigrant Rights
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
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 www.borderangels.com, 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.”