CHICAGO - Saying comprehensive immigration reform could wait no longer, 32 labor, religious, and community leaders and an elected official were arrested after blocking Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices May 25. The civil disobedience was part of a national week of action aimed getting stalled legislation moving in Congress.
The protesters, who carried sacks of money symbolizing the contributions of immigrants to the US economy, also condemned the anti-immigration law SB 1070 passed in Arizona and threats by ICE to step up immigration enforcement in Illinois.
"We can't fix this economy as long as 12 million workers are forced to live in the shadows, without any rights and subject to exploitation," said Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of Service Employees International Union. "All workers have the same rights and responsibilities and we can only get that through comprehensive immigration reform."
Medina blasted Republicans in the US Senate for holding up immigration reform and said they shouldn't expect any votes from the immigrant community in November, "not even for dog catcher."
Many of those being arrested expressed dismay over the policy of deportations of undocumented workers being carried out by the Obama Administration. If the current rate of deportations keeps up, over 400,000 people will be deported this year, more than under the Bush administration.
While the Obama administration maintains Homeland Security and ICE are targeting unscrupulous employers and those who have committed crimes, trade union leaders are saying otherwise.
Keith Kelleher is president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana, which represents workers in hospitals, nursing homes, home care agencies and childcare. He said many SEIU members were being caught up in the sweeps and background checks.
"There needs to be comprehensive immigration reform and we can't wait any longer. That's why I'm getting arrested. We need these deportations to stop. Everyday 1,100 families are broken up," said Kelleher. He and others termed the federal government's immigration strategy a failure.
"The families in my district who are being ripped apart by old and broken laws can't wait," said Chicago Alderman George Cardenas. "The workers can't wait. Our economy can't wait. You don't throw $1.5 trillion down the drain in a recession." Cardenas was referring to the amount of money immigrant workers will add to the US economy if reform passes.
"Legality. Rules. Passports and security on the border. Those are issues. But the real issue is people looking for a better life. God made the world for everybody. Not just for you and me and the United States," said Father Bill Brennan, a 90 year-old Jesuit priest from Milwaukee who was arrested.
"It's a travesty what happened in Arizona. They're trying to divide working people and blame the downturn in the economy on immigrants when it should be blamed on Wall Street and LaSalle Street," said Richard Berg, former president of Teamsters Local 743.
Carl Rosen, western regional president of the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers was arrested along with Armando Robles the president of UE Local 1110 and leader of the Republic Windows and Doors occupation in 2008. Rosen said current immigration policy of deportations was doing far more damage to the American economy than good.
"The people being arrested today are showing with their bodies the level of concern we have. No more business as usual at ICE. No more deportations," said Rosen.
Photo: Thirty-two people were arrested in Chicago on May 25 demanding immigration reform. John Bachtell/PW