CHICAGO - Religious, civil rights, and labor leaders and activists packed an historic African American church here to rally for immigration reform and jobs for all. The event was geared to unite African American and Latino communities for action on both issues.
The event, "Full Citizenship and Full Employment for Full Equality" was held Jan. 16 at the First Baptist Congregational Church, in commemoration of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King's birthday. The church, founded in 1851 by abolitionists, had hosted among others Rev. King, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
With the battle for immigration reform heating up in Congress, broad all people's unity will be needed to pass any legislation. There is especially concern over efforts to divide economically hard hit African Americans and Latinos by blaming immigrants for jobs lost by African Americans during this crisis.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (IL), the chief sponsor of immigration reform legislation in the House of Representatives blasted efforts by the ultra right to sow divisions on the jobs issue and called for unity.
"They're telling African Americans that (Latino immigrants are) taking your jobs," said Gutierrez. He noted that among the first co-sponsors were African American Reps. John Conyers, Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters. About three-quarters of the Congressional Black Caucus are backing the bill.
Others also sought to show the common interests between the two communities and the need to join forces as the only way to uplift everyone.
"Like so many in the African American community, immigrants often have no option but to work for an unsustainable wage," declared Auxiliary Bishop Rev. John R. Manz, of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.
Organizers of the event sited a new report by Dr. Raul Hinojas-Ojeda of the Center for American Progress and Immigrant Policy center that sees immigration reform as an economic benefit for the country. The study says comprehensive reform with a path to citizenship would result in $1.5 trillion in economic growth and raise the wage floor for the entire US economy.
The need for rebuilding the nation's economy while overcoming inequality was the underlying theme. Brady Hardin, of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, reminded the audience the 1963 march on Washington was officially named the "National March for Jobs and Freedom."
In paying tribute to Dr. King, the Rev Jesse Jackson of the National Rainbow PUSH Coalition recounted a meeting called by King that fell on his last birthday. King had called to Atlanta a broad multiracial cross section of religious, labor and community leaders. The gathering resulted in the "Coalition of Conscience" which led to the Poor People's March on Washington.
An underlining idea was there "couldn't be full employment on the Black side of town with rising unemployment on the Latino side of town or the white side of town. We needed jobs or income for every American," he remembered.
Jackson said a similar crisis situation exists today as did in 1968 marked by vast concentration in wealth, arrogance on Wall Street, spreading poverty and war sucking vital resources from distressed communities.
"Now is the time for jobs or income and comprehensive immigration reform and an end to the war. Let's march together for jobs, to reconstruct Haiti. Let's not allow ourselves to be torn apart with an insane, raggedy, immoral immigration plan," said Jackson.
There were several calls for a federal public works jobs program. Hardin recalled during the Great Depression the "federal government took the bull by the horns and created the Works Project Administration (WPA). This put people back to work and we need the same action in Washington now."
"The private markets are not hiring so its time for the government to help people and not just the banks and stock exchange," he said. Hardin also drew attention to HR 4268, entitled the "Put America to Work Act of 2009" introduced by Rep. Keith Ellison (MN). The bill calls for $40 billion in funding over 2 years to create jobs in distressed communities.
Gutierrez noted the growth of the Latino vote was a big factor in the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. He said expectations were high that Democrats would follow through on their promise for immigration reform. Gutierrez said the process would begin with or without Republicans but warned essentials of a just immigration reform wouldn't be compromised.
"We will not create a comprehensive immigration reform that will demobilize our people," he said. "We have to get it done because we can't have a Democratic administration that deported more people than George Bush."
Both Gutierrez and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (IL) noted reform in immigration law in the wake of the unspeakable tragedy in Haiti, now grants temporary protective status to Haitian workers. Haitian refugees are now allowed to obtain work permits and send money home.
"Dr. King said the arc of the universe bends toward justice. But we know it doesn't necessarily bend on its own. Sometimes it takes what we've been doing to make it bend toward justice," said Schakowsky. "We marched, we voted and now its time to change the law," she said.
Labor leaders and activists also spoke out forcefully for both jobs and immigration reform. Declaring this was the year to fix an unjust immigration system, Tom Balanoff, President of the Service Employees International Union Local 1 said, "People who work hard to feed their families shouldn't be punished. There's no justice, no equality, and no freedom unless there is justice, equality and freedom for all."
Raul Real and Major Nunn, two workers fired from Pete's Fresh Market trying to organize a union with the United Food and Commercial Workers described how the company crassly pitted Mexican American and African American workers to keep wages low and the union out.
"We can't allow workers to be divided. We need comprehensive immigration reform and a federal jobs program that our communities so desperately need," said Nunn. He later told the People's World comprehensive immigration reform would help in ending wage discrimination.
Several thousand dollars was raised at the rally for Haitian relief.
Photo: Rep. Gutierrez