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Immigration and Racism
An Interview With Miriam Ching Louie and Cathi Tactaquin
Cathi Tactaquin is a founder and director of the Oakland-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, an alliance of grassroots, community, labor, and faith organizations. Miriam Ching Louie, of the Berkeley-based Women of Color Resource Center, is the author of Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take on the Global Factory, published by South End Press. The WCRC networks women of color organizers and scholar activists.
BARSAMIAN: Cathi, what's a good entry point in a discussion on immigration and racism?
CATHI TACTAQUIN: One entry point is the exploration of what motivates migration today. Migration continues to be a complex question. It's made even more complex in this era by the negative impacts of globalization, which are the key factors in motivating upwards of 130 million people who are in migration around the world today. Only a little over 1 million actually come to the U.S. But right-wing restrictionist forces would have us think that at least 25 percent of the world's migrants are beating down the doors to come to the U.S. The truth is that most people are migrating within the Global South. They are continuing to migrate for many of the same reasons as they have historically: poverty, unemployment, civil strife, and concern for the well-being of their families. Under globalization, many of those conditions have worsened. It's also under globalization that the ease of migration is taking place. Transportation which is used to move goods across oceans, rivers, and countries is also used in migration. That is also a contributing factor. And it's historic. Today we're facing a world in which people have been migrating for hundreds of years, and certainly to the U.S., where within this last century, people from Latin America and Asia who have strong family ties here have been coming. That continues to be a motivating factor for migration today.
MIRIAM CHING LOUIE: There is a great slogan I saw on a picket sign from the antiracist movement in England, We Are Here Because You Were There. It has to do with the fact that people in large part come from countries where, in the U.S.'s case, the U.S. has had a long history of military, economic, and political intervention. That's a place to start to understand the intersection between race and migration. I agree with what Cathi is saying. There are some very important new changes that are going on with globalization. Migration is really an old process, and there has been that long link between economies in different parts of the world. The race piece connects with both the U.S. relation to other countries and what happens to working people in the States.
The U.S. has a long history of colonization and occupation in the Philippines, where your family is from, Cathi. How has that affected immigration patterns?
CT: Filipinos have been coming to the U.S. for the last century. Since 1965, when immigration laws were relaxed to include more diverse migration from Latin America and Asia, immigration of Filipinos to the U.S. has accelerated. But it's part of a broader process of migration that is taking place from that country to the extent that today over 10 percent of the Philippine population migrates abroad to work. In that sense it's the highest proportionate rate in the world. The majority of those migrants are women, who often have to leave their families, their children, for years at a time. Some go on the basis of temporary visas. Some leave and become undocumented, not just in the U.S., but in the Middle East, Europe, and other parts of Asia. It's a pattern in which we see no relief. Many Filipinos continue to come to the U.S. where they have relatives. It's much more difficult when people are going to other parts of the world where there's not the language familiarity and that historic connection. But they're forced to go there to work and frankly, to countries where, as critical as we are of civil rights protections for immigrants in the U.S., those protections are much less. It's indicative of some of the tragic patterns of migration that we see today. Miriam explores this in her book. We're looking at a tremendous level of women migrating under difficult circumstances and having to work under even worse conditions and facing multiple levels of oppression.
MCL: There are many in the women's movement who have been noting this increasing women's migration over the last ten or fifteen years. In Sweatshop Warriors I focus on three groups and a couple of different communities, Chinese, Mexican and Korean women low-wage workers. Each case is interesting. First of all, there are the push-and-pull factors, this relationship between that particular country or region of the world and the U.S. There are also issues of when women become part of what Cathi's mentioning in the Philippines, the way that sending governments get economic resources and raise foreign exchange. There's a place for women to work in this country in low-wage jobs, at the bottom of different sweatshop industries. Then there are changes in terms of women's struggle within family strategies about coming. In Mexico, for example, historically it's been men who have migrated, but now the percentage of women is growing. Related to globalization, a number of the women that I interviewed had actually worked in sweatshop industries related to U.S.-based transnational corporations before they even migrated to the States or had been involved in internal migration streams within their own countries from rural to urban industrial areas. It's second-stage migration in a lot of ways when people come to the U.S. and fit into communities that are expanding here.
Talk more about that internal migration. Let's say from southern states of Mexico like Oaxaca or Chiapas up to maquilas on the border.
MCL: The interesting thing with the maquila project that started in the mid-1960s was that one of its purposes was supposedly to deal with unemployment problems in Mexico with the end of the bracero program of agricultural workers. What happened is, those male agricultural workers were not tapped in the maquila industry. It was principally women and teenage girls, that were tapped. It's a big transformation. Only more recently have men started to work in industry in auto parts, manufacturing and like that, but women still form the vast majority of immigrants to the maquila. A number of the women that I interviewed had worked in border towns on the Mexico side and in some cases been commuters to work across the border in Texas or in California and said, I'm going to move with my family and they just made that move.
CT: Some of the broad impact of NAFTA stimulates that kind of migration throughout Mexico. NAFTA has allowed corn imports from the U.S. to flood the Mexican market and has undermined Mexican corn growers. Rural areas have been devastated. Farmers are forced to farm other kinds of crops. It's displaced traditional families and units who were working in the corn farm industry. That has also freed up workers from rural areas that might go to Mexico City, not find employment there, to head north to the maquiladoras. Again, instead of NAFTA stimulating the economy in a way that provides employment, it's done the opposite. In this case it's stimulated migration.
MCL: Some people who organize workers on the border are talking about the “maquiladorization” of Mexico and Central America. It's not only the border. I went on a study tour with U.S. labor activists to Tehuacán in the Mexican state of Pueblo. They built a huge jeans production center there. People, many of them indigenous, are moving to that area and working under repressive and frightening conditions. They're producing for the top name brands in the U.S., like Guess and Levis. That process is spreading throughout Mexico and Central America.
Charlie Kernaghan of the New York-based National Labor Committee has done a lot of work exposing sweatshop conditions particularly in Central America. Often he hears factory owners say, These people are poor. We're providing them with jobs and the opportunity to make a living and support their families.
MCL: That's really charitable. To have people working 14 and 16 hours a day, having young girls take uppers so they can stay up all night, beating people at work, that's really despicable. But that's the common argument that the corporations make, that they're providing jobs. What kind of jobs are they providing? What happens to the workers in those jobs? During the study tour, I met many women workers who were producing huge amounts of work and being treated essentially like animals. You can't be sick. You can't be late. There's a lot of racism towards indigenous people within this process. I've done some support work for a number of Texas workers who had worked for Levis. In 1990, Levis closed down and ran away to Costa Rica. They paid the workers there in a day what the Mexican American women had been making in half an hour. The corporations benefit quite a bit from this whole situation.
The New York Times' multiple Pulitzer Prize winner, Thomas Friedman, says those who oppose globalization are a “Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates.”
CT: That's a whole rationale for globalization, that it's going to provide economic stimulus, employment for poor people and increase their standard of living. But corporations are going to countries where labor standards don't exist, where children are working and where women are seriously abused in the workplace. They're also bringing a level of inequality to the economy where workers in those factories can't afford to buy what they produce. They also can't afford to buy the new goods that are flooding their countries that are also part of the globalization package. It's not just that corporations are going to these countries and creating jobs. Throughout Latin America, the dollar-peso ratio has become so exacerbated that you might be working at a factory and you can't afford to buy basic necessities.
MCL: Corporations are fickle as well. When we participated as the Women of Color Resource Center in the U.N. Conference for Women in Beijing, it was heartrending to hear the stories of women from Hong Kong and South Korea who had been garment workers and shoe workers. There's a point in this country in which a lot of jobs ran away and workers were devastated. This process continues to unfold. They went to places like South Korea or Hong Kong. When workers in South Korea began to organize for their rights, the corporations ran away to Indonesia and Vietnam. Their charity is very short-term.
I did some speaking back East in March. The part of New York I was in has been deindustrialized. Having been born and raised in California, you get a different sense of European ethnics on the East Coast. I was talking to a guy who was a descendant of Irish and Italian. I'm third generation Chinese and Korean. It struck me that this guy's family has been in the States as long as mine has, but I still don't quite fit in because of the racism. My dad was born in San Francisco Chinatown. I remember him talking about getting into scuffles all the time with the Italians because Italians and Chinese came at the same time. So there's that proximity in San Francisco and in New York City in Little Italy and Chinatown. It's interesting what's happened to different sets of immigrants who get mainstreamed as white race people versus other groups that come from Asia or Latin America. That process has not been the same. The 2000 census was intriguing. California is now 32 percent Latino and 12 percent Asian. There was an article in the Times about the changes in California where someone talked about the state reverting to its original DNA, meaning California as part of Mexico. It begins to make you think, What would the state look like if there had not been the anti-Asian exclusion acts and the mass deportations of Mexicans? It's an interesting possibility, and I'm sure that's why there's been all this hysteria and anti-immigrant backlash that's been building up all these years. There's a very different standard and treatment of people who come from certain parts of the world.
CT: Historical context and recognition of earlier immigrants of European heritage who assimilated and became integrated as one white community in the U.S. is at the heart of some of the tensions and anxieties about the apparent lack of integration and apparent difficulty of assimilation of the current wave of immigrants, those that have come in the last 30 to 40 years, principally from Asia, Latin America, Africa. 85 percent of the immigrants today would be considered people of color. It's part of the schizophrenia in the U.S. culture about immigration. There's this acknowledgment that we have a strong tradition of immigration, yet there is a current that lies dormant most of the time which is a distrust still of immigrants and flares up occasionally and can be stimulated by opportunistic politicians. There is anxiety about this current wave of immigrants. There is some denial of the racial factor. No one wants to be called a racist, but the racial anxieties underlie the questions. Why can't these people learn English like we did? Why can't they assimilate? Why are they having a difficult time? Is this how our future is going to look in the U.S., where we have this dichotomy, this schism? A lot of it is an inability to reconcile the racial factor historically in immigration and how it has changed.
One of the organizers of this meeting reports that after posting announcements on various listservs she received some hate-filled, vitriolic responses about the need to close U.S. borders and end population growth. What about the endurance of white supremacy?
MCL: I don't know exactly where to start. It's hard to be in everybody's country and everybody's business and be the world policeman and not expect the chickens to come home to roost. They want to have cheap labor. They want to have goods from all over the world, but not have to deal with the people and the consequences of all of that. Part of the Bay Area situation is that the demographics have changed so much. It's trying to figure out what that looks like in different parts of the country where people still think that white is what this country is about. It really doesn't seem to be like that to me any more. It's what they've tried to keep this country to be about, but that's not reality. This just goes so far back in U.S. history, back to stealing people's land, to slavery, to contract labor. It goes into sweatshop industries. It's so much a part of the fiber and history of this country.
CT: It's also a lot of work that we have to do in speaking as part of a progressive movement to raise a different kind of consciousness among people. Reliance on that tradition is reliance on nationalism, nativism, an America that when you say “American” it means a white person and everyone else is some hyphenated American. It's work to raise a different kind of class consciousness, where people begin to acknowledge and recognize that what they have in common with a person of color is much more than they have with someone in a dominant or ruling class. There's still a resistance to that. It's part of American culture to appear that you have a different standard of living, that you're better and superior. What begins to challenge that is the demographic change. But the U.S. is still overwhelmingly white. That is beginning to change in different parts of the country. We're getting calls from immigrants in the South and the Midwest looking for help. They're facing racism in the South. There's a new racism that, interestingly, is affecting large populations of Guatemalans, Mexican and African immigrants who now live in Georgia and Mississippi. They're coming into contact with the old racism of the South. It's also challenging the African American community, looking at these new immigrant populations coming in. It's putting people through a lot of changes. Progressives who are organizing are recognizing that if we're going to make changes in the South, we have to take into consideration that demographic change. A challenge to white supremacy also means organizing not just the African American community but in these new immigrant communities and building a new base of an antiracist movement.
MCL: That's a lot of what's confronted people of color in organizing work. At one point maybe there was the illusion that if there were more people of color there would be a better climate for antiracism, but that's not necessarily been the case. There's a rise in tensions. Some groups have been doing interesting work around these issues. I've interviewed workers with the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates in Los Angeles. They've taken responsibility for organizing principally Korean waitresses, Latino men, back-of-the-house restaurant workers in the Koreatown area. David, what you said earlier about ethnic solidarity that gets to be stifling, that's something the people are fighting around in this group. There have been attacks on workers organizing, saying, Who's a good Korean? Why are you hooking up with these Latinos? If you're a good Korean you don't do that. You don't bring out problems in the community. This is a shame and an embarrassment. In fact, the owners are exploiting the workers of the different races. So it's important to take up some of those cross-racial issues within the community and talk about some of the economic injustice perpetrated by people of color groups as well.
What are some tools for combating racism?
CT: We can't win greater protections and rights for immigrants alone. We need to build alliances. I don't believe in diversity trainings. I don't believe in having a conversation about race. I believe in working and engaging on issues that confront and challenge those issues and which build common ground. We're working with the labor movement now. We think organizing workers across the board is very important in advancing the rights of immigrants regardless of their status, whether they're documented or undocumented. That's the platform that helps to bring about fair wages and good working conditions for all, where wedges can't be driven between American and foreign workers. It's at the workplace where we're finding workers of different races working together. It's a natural site for that kind of alliance-building. We're also challenging other movements to work in immigrant communities and to address those issues. For example, the environmental movement. Years ago we thought the environmental movement should be a natural ally because internationally they're dealing with a lot of the same conditions that are of concern to all of us. Environmental degradation globally is a factor in displacing populations and moving people into migration streams.
Lo and behold, in the U.S. environmental movement, a lot of environmentalists weren't quite ready to take up environmental justice work in communities of color. The immigration question became a lightning rod because population control advocates targeted the environmental movement to argue that increased immigration was leading to increased population in the U.S. and that is the main source of environmental degradation. They're wrong, but some environmentalists bought into it. I think there's a change taking place in the environmental movement, a resistance to that kind of thinking, an acknowledgment that a lot of that is racially motivated, that it misdirects what we all need to do to make our environment safe and healthy for everyone. It's still an important intersectional point for us to do work. Immigrants are extremely vulnerable to environmental problems. If they're undocumented, even more so. They're not going to report lead paint poisoning. They're going to be in a much more difficult place to fight location of toxic waste incinerators. And this is already happening. They need to be part and parcel of that movement. In building those intersections we challenge questions of race. We challenge some of the vestiges, and that helps to create positive change.
MCL: There are a couple of examples where people have made some good progress on struggling against racism. One particular group will start to fight for their rights and that opens up the door for others. For example, there's the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence in New York. They have an Asian Women Workers' Project. They started out organizing domestic workers who were South Asian and Filipina. Once the word got out, they have been inundated with calls for help from immigrant women from the Caribbean. Some interesting ties are getting off the ground similarly among sweatshop workers in the garment industry. There's a case around Donna Karan of New York, DKNY. A Chinese worker who was in one of their contracted shops was fired because she received a call at work that her daughter was sick in school. The daughter told the school authorities, Don't call Mom's job because the boss is really mean. They called because the girl was sick, and the mother got fired for that. It brought out all these violations of the rights of the workers in that factory. There was a continuous struggle around her case. By her speaking out, a number of the other Chinese and Latino workers have come forward and filed a joint lawsuit last year. More interestingly, immigrants from Eastern Europe have come out to try to get support for some of the issues that they have been facing around their labor cases. When people get in trouble and start to stand up for their rights, they see who their friends are.
Finally, the people of color groups are generally poor and unrecognized. All power to Making Contact, which is out there covering our stories. But generally our stories are flying way below the radar screen. It's important that we come together and bolster each other in our work and share our limited resources. On occasion, the people of color groups, as we build these ties, also have to fight for accountability from white-run organizations that are part of the growing anticorporate movement. There have been frictions and struggles around that. A lot of times the people of color groups are completely overworked. You're supposed to be doing work around anticorporate, antiglobalization struggle. But then you're doing things within your own community. Middle-class white activists get off being able to focus on a particular area but not have to worry about white grassroots people in the community. I often wonder, Who's organizing white working-class people? Among people of color, you'd better be doing something about what's happening to grassroots people in the community, or what's your credibility to be talking if you aren't taking responsibility for what's going on in the community
Talk about getting on the media radar screen. How do you tell the story that you want told, not the story about the oversexed immigrant women who have too many children and flood the welfare rolls and the men who steal jobs from real Americans?
CT: We try to use every organizing opportunity and every campaign as a media activity. It's two things. One is getting our story and the immigrants' story on the radar. There are many of them. We've done a lot of work, especially over the last few years, to get that kind of visibility into not just our own community-based media but into the broader national media. We're doing media trainings. We're bringing people in who can help, not change our message, but help us to articulate our message in a way that it can resonate more widely. That's very important. Utilizing friends in the media who understand what we are trying to do and are also sensitive to how we need to communicate it from the diverse communities that we represent. It's also challenging what comes out in the media. We end up doing a lot of that, unfortunately. Sometimes it's not the best way to get our message out. It's hard to constantly battle the right within the media. A few days ago we got an email from someone in the Midwest. There's a series of ads running in the newspapers which shows some Mexican immigrant workers and flashes the White House phone number and alerts people to call and report suspected undocumented Mexican workers. Apparently the newspapers were getting calls that people didn't like these ads. They found out that this is part of yet another new campaign from a group called the Coalition for America's Future Workers. It's run by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, FAIR, the main anti-immigrant national lobby. They have a lot of resources. They have a sophisticated website. It's already a response to the growing movement that we have now that's been growing in the last year towards legalization of undocumented immigrants and also a movement, which we don't entirely support, towards creating new temporary worker programs. Bush and Fox have been talking about a new bracero-like guest worker program. Congress approved more visas for highly skilled, technical workers from other countries.
FAIR is fine-tuning its messages as well. They regularly send out articles to a battery of journalists who utilize their material. We inform our own constituency on how to respond to that type of misinformation. It is incredible what can pass for fact.
I received a call from a Congressional aide who said, There's a Congressperson on the floor right now who said there are a quarter of a million pregnant undocumented Mexican women in Los Angeles. Is that true? I said, It can only be true if he personally was responsible. He was reporting it in Congress in order to push legislation. We have to constantly challenge misinformation.
MCL: There are so many different angles to deal with the media. Some of the community groups integrate media work into their ongoing work. I worked as the media person for the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates campaign. We had the Garment Workers Justice Campaign against Jessica McClintock in the Bay Area. I learned a lot through that process. I did that part-time, but it was really a full-time job to keep track of the media and put out the word about the stories of the women and intervene with events. When things broke out around the Thai slave workers in El Monte in Southern California, we had to figure out what our relationship was to that story and what support we could do in our area for sister organizations in LA. So there's much work that needs to be done just to integrate media. I'm speaking more from the perspective of somebody who's worked in community organizations. We found out our friends that would cover us is pretty much the alternative media. They knew the importance of the story and would continue to cover it. With the broader mainstream media we had to figure out how to shape the story and also get out our message. It's gotten to the point where the media recognize there are problems with sweatshops, but they want to shape the story so that it's just these poor women victims, feel sorry for them, and chop the women off when it comes to what their feelings and points of view are about how things can be changed.
I'll give you an example of that from 60 Minutes. They approached us about the Jessica McClintock campaign. It was on and off, on and off. Finally there was a filming to do the program. 60 Minutes reaches 30 million viewers. Women struggled to make the decision if they were going to go on camera with their stories. To go on camera means that you can be blacklisted in the industry. So not only did you lose that job, in this case the sweatshop closed down, bankrupt, workers were stiffed out of their back wages and the manufacturers said they had no responsibility for this, so the campaign was about manufacturer retailer accountability. They went through this very difficult process where they decided, We want to tell our story. We want to get this out. People are telling us 60 Minutes is a very important institution in the U.S. and it's going to get our story out. What happened is, people get on camera. As soon as they start to talk, Morley Safer's voice comes over and says, These women don't speak English. What happened is, blah, blah, blah. The women are watching it when it airs and say, OK, they showed our face now, but they didn't let us talk. The so-called objective reporting in that story divides equal blame among the manufacturer, the workers and the greedy consumers that want these cheap clothes. People told us afterwards, Any coverage is good coverage. Don't feel completely ripped off.
Folks who are active in the media from the inside know that racially, the effects of affirmative action have made some kind of change. I could see that in the coverage around the census. There have been journalists who have been waiting to file stories that reflect the changes that are going on in various communities all over the country. On the media end, if you're in a community group, or if you're in a mainstream media institution or an alternative media institution, there are battles and struggles to be had at a lot of different levels. The more people give support to each other and cooperate, the better it will be in terms of the coverage that comes out.
CT: I think there is a lot more awareness about the importance of the media. We're organizing some media strategies for the World Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia that will be held in South Africa at the end of August. It's a great opportunity to try to get the spotlight on the conditions of migrant workers around the world. Typically, at these conferences, one-third of the people are from NGOs, one-third are government delegations, and one-third are media people from all over the world. Some are stringers from a hometown newspaper. They're looking for stories. We're trying to train people to be prepared and to set things up so that the stringer from that hometown newspaper knows that so-and-so from that immigrant rights organization is there. We'll get some coverage. We're working with some of the other migrant rights groups in other countries to create some media opportunities so that we can ensure that there is positive and good coverage. We have to take advantage of events to get the best coverage possible.
For more information: Mriam Ching Louie, Women of Color Resource Center, 2288 Fulton St. #103, Berkeley CA 94704; 510-848-9272; www.coloredgirls.org; Cathi Tactaquin , National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, 310 8th St. #307, Oakland CA 94607 ; 510-465-1984 ; www.nnirr.org.