Immigrants win victory in Waukegan, Illinois

CHICAGO – The small industrial city of Waukegan, Ill., an hour north of Chicago on Lake Michigan, was the site of a modest victory by Mexican immigrant workers and their allies Aug. 19.

As in cities throughout the Midwest, the Mexican immigrant population of Waukegan has grown precipitously through the past decade. When you add the 2000 Census count of 39,396 Latinos to the 16,890 African-Americans, Waukegan turns out to be a majority-minority city.

As elsewhere, the immigrant population includes people with and without immigration papers. But the Latino/Mexican population lacks political power.

Last year, the Chicago City Council approved an ordinance that requires police and other authorities to recognize photo identification cards issued by the Mexican consulate in Chicago as a valid form of ID.

This led huge numbers of Mexican immigrants to line up outside the consulate to get the cards. To expedite things, the consulate started sending personnel to outlying areas to do the processing.

Thus it was that Father Raul Martinez, parish priest of Waukegan’s Holy Family Roman Catholic Church, offered his church as an outreach site for these cards, called in Spanish the “Matricula Consular.” Although meant to save people a trip to Chicago, the hope was that Waukegan would also recognize the cards.

This clashed with the narrow-minded politics of Waukegan’s city leadership. Under former “independent” mayor, Robert Sabonjian, there were accusations of anti-Black discrimination.

In 1997, Waukegan had to fork over $200,000 in damages to Latino residents to settle a lawsuit charging deliberate discrimination. City leaders were caught, at that time, saying that the Latinos were “taking over” Waukegan, and restricted the number of people, even family members, who could live in a given house.

So it was no surprise that two members of the city council flamboyantly declared themselves to be against the “matricula” project, saying the program favored lawbreakers who should be rounded up rather than helped. One went so far as to demand that Father Martinez provide the names of the people who had come to get the cards so that they could be arrested, but the charismatic priest persuaded him to change his mind.

But the other one, Larry Tenpas, continued to agitate against the immigrants and it appeared that the city council was going to vote against recognizing the Matricula Consular, by a 4-2 margin.

Martinez called for protests and nearly a thousand people gathered in Washington Park on Waukegan’s south side to rally and march on City Hall. Marchers were mostly from Waukegan’s Mexican community, but there were also small contingents from Chicago, including state Rep. Cynthia Soto.

To chants of “El pueblo callado jamas sera escuchado” (“People who remain silent will never be listened to”) and “Queremos amnistia pa’ tu tia y la mia” (“We want amnesty for your auntie and mine”), and above all, César Chávez’s immortal rallying cry, “Si se puede” (“Yes, it can be done!”), the marchers filled the sleepy and almost deserted streets of the downtown district.

Speakers pointed out that the Mexican immigrants in Waukegan are helping the city and country. Emma Lozano, from Chicago’s Sin Fronteras organization, which sent a support contingent to the march, said, “The immigrants are doing the hard work that nobody else is available to do and they keep the economy afloat. All we are asking is that they be treated with justice.” One of the chants put it more humorously: “Un dia sin el Hispano, se muere el Americano” (“One day without the Hispanic, the American would die”).

Meanwhile, the Mexican consul met with Waukegan Mayor Richard Hyde, who had also opposed recognizing the Matricula, and at the end of their meeting, Hyde announced that he had thought the Matricula implied legalization but would now order the police to recognize it.

Hyde said he doubted the need for a council resolution. However, Martinez and others want action by the city council “Let them debate it and have a straight vote on it so that everything will be clear,” Martinez said.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org