The immediate provocation that has led to a growing civil rights moment is the INS demand that tens of thousands of immigrants from predominately Muslim countries register and be interrogated and finger-printed. On Dec 16, a registration deadline, several hundred immigrants, mainly from Iran, were detained after registering, accused of the most insignificant visa infractions. "My father, they just took him in," one young man told reporters. "They've been treating him like an animal. They put him in a room with, like, 50 other people and no bed or anything."
The large Iranian community in Los Angeles quickly mobilized a demonstration of three thousand people expressing outrage at the detentions. Banners asked: "What next, concentration camps?". After the protest, nearly all of the new detainees were released, a major victory.
The registrations are an escalation of the government repression aimed against the immigrant community. While the initial detentions after Sept.11, 2001 affected 1,200 people, and the second wave of detentions, begun in February of 2002, was aimed at 6,000 men, these new registrations affect hundreds of thousands. All males over 16 from the designated countries who are not permanent residents (green card holders) must register, and those with visa infractions are subject to detention. Those who do not register are subject to arrest on felony charges.
The registrations and detentions have spread fear within the immigrant community. Twenty thousand Pakistani immigrants have fled to Canada, with some border crossings reporting lines eight hours long. While the other immigrant groupss, like the much larger Latino poulation, have not yet responded
The result of the escalation is a growing wave of protest. At a Dec 31 meeting in New York City over 40 activists from two dozen organizations called for protests at INS centers on Jan.10, the last day for registrations for tens of thousands of immigrants from several Mid-Eastern countries. The demands of the protests were: End the Registrations! Free All the Detainees! End the Repressive Laws (Patriot Act, Homeland Security Act, 1996 Antiterrorism Act)! Workers Democracy Network had, at the beginning of December, sent out a call a National Day of Action against the War at Home around these same demands and WDN activists had successfully advocated these demands at the Dec.31 planning meeting.
On Jan. 10 protests took place in New York City, Albany, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, San Francisco and Los Angeles, among other cities, although not all the demonstrations had the same demands as the New York one.
Now National Days of Action are being planned for the next registration deadlines; Feb.21 and March 28, with many groups using the same three demands. (Some groups, such as the Blue Triangle Network, will be holding events on Feb. 20 while March 29 will also be a Day of Action to allow for Saturday protests.) A growing list of organizations are calling for local and regional rallies, teach-ins and other protests.
Linked to anti-war movement
The new movement in defense of civil rights is building on the momentum of the anti-war movement. The massive global anti-war movement has slowed, although not stopped, the drive to war in Iraq. As of this writing, there is not yet a war, even though the Bush administration openly planned to start the war in December to take advantage of the coolest weather in Iraq. This is entirely due to the huge growth of antiwar mobilization, which has made governments around the world fear what would happen to their support at home if they joined the US in an unprovoked attack. Now some of the same protestors are starting to fight against the war at home--the assault on civil rights.
Anti-war activists are starting to realize that if the assaults on civil rights continue, the government can begin to pick off organizers, first within the immigrant community, then more generally, tying up the movement in defensive campaigns and spreading fear. If the government can imprison anyone without charge or trial, then no one has any rights. None of us can protest any injustice without fear of arbitrary detention.
The repression has already had a major impact on the anti-war movement. While last April, anti- war protests brought tens of thousands of immigrants to Washington DC, the immigrant presence was far less in October, and almost absent in the massive protest on Jan. 18. Many activists attribute the decline to fear generated by the registrations and several well-publicized detentions of leading immigrant anti-war organizers. One example is Amer Jubran, a Palestinian-American speaker at the April anti-war rally who was detained in November, even though he is a permanent resident.
Potential for uniting workers
Trade unionists are also beginning to mobilize. New "homeland security laws" are being used to strip workers of their right to organize, as has happened for tens of thousands of government workers. Undocumented immigrants are already terrorized and afraid to organize for their rights on the job. Now with the new registrations, which are aimed at LEGAL immigrants, another huge swath of American workers will be too afraid to fight--if these attacks on civil rights are allowed to stand. Some union groups, such as the Washington State AFL-CIO has demanded that all the detainees be freed.
"We need to get our members involved in these National Days of Action," says Derrick Thomas, National Vice President of the American Federation of Government Employees. "Our unions are facing de-legalization and we need to form alliances with others to protect all our rights."
While the other immigrant groups, like the much larger Latino population, have not yet joined the protest movement in a major way, the issue affects them as well. "The new laws are affecting people from Muslim countries today, but tomorrow they will be applied to other immigrants," points out Alaa Bayoumi, an Arab-American journalist active in the civil rights struggle.
By bringing together antiwar students and activists, immigrants and trade unionists, the National Days of Action have the potential to pull together parts of the working class that have not often worked together. If coalitions and networks that form around defense of civil rights, like the new network formed at the Writing for Our Rights Conference(see story p,.1) can grow, they can begin to expand the battle, and to take back rights that have been denied to workers. For example, they can revive the battle for a general amnesty for all immigrants past and future. They can start fighting to free workers from the crippling restrictions of the Taft-Hartley Act, which denies workers their First Amendment rights to strike effectively and organize.
For more information, for local contact points and local actions, to inform us of actions and to endorse the National Days of Action, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.