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Meet the Organizers Behind the Next “Day Without an Immigrant” Strike

The organizers of the May 1 action aim to transcend the legislation-focused actions of the past by calling explicitly for true, comprehensive reform.

Demonstrators march in Washington, DC on February 13, 2017, as part of A Day Without Immigrants. (Photo: Lorie Schaull / Flickr )

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When 26-year-old Catalina Adorno hit the road on March 28, she knew it would be at least six weeks before she’d sleep again in her own bed. Since that day, Adorno, a Mexican-born New Jersey resident with a strong voice and bright laugh, has criss-crossed from Pennsylvania to Maine as part of a regional support team for Movimento Cosecha, a national immigrant rights coalition. Her stops have included major cities and small towns, as she and her three teammates work to mobilize Cosecha’s vast network of “local circles” ahead of a massive day of coordinated action slated for May 1.

On April 3, Adorno’s team stopped off in Washington, D.C. to hear Cosecha spokesperson Maria Fernanda Cabello make the formal call for a May 1 nationwide strike. The planned action, billed as “A Day Without an Immigrant,” is set to be the largest immigrant rights action for at least a decade, with hundreds of thousands already pledging to stay home from work for a day in protest of systemic discrimination towards the immigrant and undocumented communities. At the press conference, Cabello pointed to the massive labor and capital power represented by the immigrant community, including 11 million undocumented residents. The May 1 protest, asserted Cabello, would be the next step in a strategy of harnessing this power to “change the conversation on immigration in the United States.”

It’s a lofty goal for an organization that formed less than two years ago, but Cosecha has a strong track record already. Drawing inspiration from farmworkers and their leaders — Dolores Huerta, Larry Itliong and Cesar Chavez — as well as “the thousands of African-Americans who stood up to the racist Jim Crow system,” Cosecha is an energetic movement that has grown quickly. Its ranks include a national team and hundreds of part-time volunteers across the country, which enabled Cosecha to play major role in several waves of direct action, including scores of campus walkouts and multiple protests outside Trump Towers.

Denise Solis also took the stage at the April 3 press conference to represent SEIU United Service Workers West, one of the labor unions joining in the strike. She applauded Cabello’s remarks and added that the overt racism of the Trump administration has made this action more urgent than ever. “The policies of the Trump administration are motivated by cruelty [and] villainize black and brown people,” she said. “We are shutting it down on May 1 to stand up to these policies and show that most Americans don’t support cruelty and racism.”

Listening to the words of Cabello, Solis and others, Adorno reflected on her own life as an undocumented, Mexican-born resident of the United States. “Growing up undocumented, I felt I had a secret that made me less than other people. I lived in constant fear,” she said. It wasn’t until she met organizers at her New Jersey college that she began to think of her status in a new way. “I began to see that documents did not define me as a human being, that all this fear is the result of a system that criminalizes our people.” The election of Trump, she said, has only amplified long-standing anxieties. “He’s so vocal about targeting us, our fear is very real.”

Yet as Adorno criss-crosses the country as part of Cosecha’s support team for local activists, she has discovered a network of grassroots organizers who are channeling their own fears into action. When we spoke on the phone, she had just finished an hours-long training session with a “local circle” of workers and immigrants who are preparing to strike on May 1. The Phoenixville group is one of about 80 such Cosecha-aligned circles across the country, and it is with these groups that the real gravity of the movement rests. United by the goals of winning “permanent protection, dignity and respect” for the immigrant community, each circle is able to tailor its strategy to its own local concerns, said Adorno, while the 27-member national team plays the role of coordinator.

Adorno, who works full-time and for free, will be on the road until at least mid-May, both facilitating trainings and helping communities deal with any post-strike fallout. In each town, Cosecha’s mobile teams rely on the hospitality of local organizers, crashing on couches and enjoying home-cooked meals, coffee and late-night conversation. It’s a grueling but inspiring job, Adorno said, who added that her “support role” often involves as much learning as instructing. “We do a lot of listening to people’s needs and to their plans,” she explained. “One of the principles of our movement is that everything we need is already in the community — and seeing this on the ground is mind-blowing.”

In fact, Cosecha’s national organizers often arrive to play catch-up with local activists. “When people talk about the immigrant community, they don’t always give them the credit they deserve,” Adorno said. “People know what they want and they are ready to let the country know.” So far, Cosecha-aligned groups have organized campus walk outs, formed alliances with local business owners, coordinated banner drops, and, on February 16, launched a spontaneous worker strike that made national news. “That was a moment where self-organizing got ahead of the national team,” she recalled with amusement. “People were ready to strike sooner than we thought!”

Drawing on a History of Resistance

Many of these recent actions have come in response to Trump’s aggressive targeting of the immigrant community, but it would be a mistake to view these events solely as a reaction to the new administration. The immigrant community has been threatened by deportation and criminalization for years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations. The choice of May 1 as a strike date is also a call-back to the movement’s history and the first “Day Without an Immigrant,” which took place on May 1, 2006. This first strike came at a similar time of national foment and anti-immigrant legislation. The particular trigger in 2006 was the so-called “Sensenbrenner bill” proposed in the US Senate, which would mandate harsh crackdowns on the undocumented community and criminalize employers and private citizens deemed to be providing “aid” to “illegal immigrants.” Incensed, immigrants and allies demonstrated in over 140 cities, with a half-million marching in Los Angeles and 100,000 in Chicago.

Paul Engler, an Los Angeles-based organizer and founder of Center for the Working Poor, was deeply involved in the 2006 actions. Eleven years later, his voice still rises, rapid and giddy, as he recalls the wave of direct action that swept the country that spring. By 2006, Engler already had a long history of labor organizing, but says he was stunned by the spontaneous response to Sensenbrenner. “I can’t even describe what it was like to see people mobilize on that scale for immigrant rights,” he said, “to see hundreds of thousands of people on the streets … It was incredible. Before that, the largest group we’d been able to mobilize was about 12,000.”

What made the difference, Engler contends, was the overreach of the Sensenbrenner bill. After months of deportations and raids, the bill’s draconian measures served as a “trigger event,” pushing an already-agitated community from terror to determination. “There was a change in the air,” Engler recalled. “It was the beginning of a permanent shift.” Soon, a galvanized front, led by Latino organizers, began mobilizing through community networks, Spanish-language press, radio DJs and unions. Like Adorno today, Engler said he had trouble at times keeping up with the burst of self-organizing. “For a while, the people outpaced the mainstream labor unions,” he explained.

While Sensenbrenner and Donald Trump’s proposals are merely extensions of long-standing discrimination, Engler argues both have served to catalyze mass action. “Trump threw away the dog whistle and catered to the racist wing of the Republican party,” he said, “and Sensenbrenner basically criminalized anyone who wasn’t actively reporting undocumented people.” In such cases, the extreme circumstances push people to act — even those who traditionally avoid political controversy. Among those mobilized by Sensenbrenner was the Archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Mahoney, who called the bill “blameful [and] vicious.” On Ash Wednesday in 2006 he pledged to order a campaign of civil disobedience in his 288-parish archdiocese if the Sensenbrenner bill became law. “He essentially made every single priest [in Los Angeles] into an activist,” said Engler. “It was unbelievable.”

Yet, more than charismatic leadership or sophisticated organizing, it was the individual decisions to resist that ignited the 2006 movement. According to Engler, it was the willingness of organizers to “sacrifice and disrupt” by calling for strikes and campus walk-outs that sets 2006 apart from other moments of political setback. “People were actually putting themselves on the line,” he said, “risking their jobs, their safety.” In these direct actions, the immigrant community forced the American public to grapple with the real implications of anti-immigrant rhetoric, causing many to reconsider. Engler points to Alabama’s anti-immigration legislation, HB 56, which caused a mass exodus of immigrants after it passed in 2011. “People realized that entire business sectors would collapse without immigrants,” he said, “and a lot of Republicans flipped their opinion on the bill. This proves that even racists can shift if you show them the economic impact.” It’s also evidence that strikes like the upcoming May 1 action can work.

Laying the Groundwork

Since 2006, Engler has helped train hundreds of local organizers in movement-building through Momentum, a “movement incubator” training program he co-founded with Carlos Saavedra and several others. Saavedra, who grew up undocumented after his family immigrated to Boston from Peru, has been a long-time leader in the fight for immigrant rights. As a young man, Saavedra was lead advocate for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, with United We Dream, and later founded the Ayni Institute, an organization dedicated to training organizers in low-income communities. At Momentum, Engler, Saavedra, and others aim to “give progressive organizers the tools and frameworks to build massive, decentralized social movements.”

Cosecha is comprised of many graduates of Momentum, and its not hard to hear the echoes of Engler’s analysis Adorno describes the logic behind the 2017 strike. “For too long, our community has trusted the system, and we’ve been played by political parties,” she said. “This country depends on the labor and consumption power of immigrants, and we’re going to demonstrate our power by withholding these things.”

At the same time, however, the decision to strike carries grave risks for workers. “People are desperate to strike, but there’s also fear — fear of being fired and not being able to support your family,” Adorno said. “But people feel so devalued, so dehumanized, they know this is what they have to do to fight back.” Many communities are collecting emergency funds and preparing legal teams to help families who may lose a source of income to the strike. “Some people lost their jobs during the February strike,” Cabello told me in a separate phone conversation. “We’re doing our best to keep that from happening this time.”

Yet, despite this caution, labor unions are taking a bolder stance than they did in 2006, when they limited their support to protecting individual members who joined the strike. “This time, there are unions actually endorsing the strike, which is huge,” Engler explained. Cabello says unions make a “natural partner” for the action, but many of them would not have joined without direct pressure from their members. In the case of one branch of the Service Employees International Union in California, members arrived at a meeting bearing signs announcing, “We’re ready to strike on May 1.” Others needed less convincing. “This is why [they] joined unions in the first place — they want to strike and make a difference,” Cabello said.

So far, Cosecha’s partners include the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the SEIU United Service Workers West, and UNITE HERE Tech Cafeteria Workers, which together represent at least 400,000 members ready to join the May 1 strike. Also joining the strike are local business owners and members of the tech industry.

The immigrant and labor communities, of course, have not been idle since 2006. Across the country, activists have continued to protest discriminatory laws through campus walk-outs, civil disobedience, social media campaigns and smaller-scale strikes. One important step came when Barack Obama announced the DACA program in 2012 — after years of deliberate struggle and advocacy led by young, undocumented “Dreamers.” This legislation allowed for undocumented individuals who entered the country as minors to apply for two-year deferrals on deportation and permission to work. Yet, immigrants and allies have been repeatedly let down by mainstream politics, and even the success of DACA is partial. “The ‘Dreamer’ narrative only highlighted part of our community and sacrificed the rest,” Adorno said. “At the time, we were desperate for a win, but our community deserves much better.”

With that in mind, the organizers of the May 1 action aim to transcend the legislation-focused actions of the past by calling explicitly for true, comprehensive reform. “What’s different is that people are looking beyond individual legislation and beyond a single political party,” Cabello said. Rather than simply resisting deportation and criminalization, the immigrant community is asking for “permanent protection, dignity and respect.” May 1 will only be the beginning. After the strike, teams like Adorno’s will spend several weeks checking in with local circles, assessing outcomes and discussing next steps. “We want to build up to a full week of strikes and actions,” she said. This next step may come as soon as the end of 2017, according to Cabello, but it will depend on the needs and initiatives of those on the ground. “We will continue to follow the wisdom of the people.”

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