David Cahn / Community to Community Development

The largest demonstrations, rallies and marches that the United States has ever witnessed occurred May 1, 2006 when millions of immigrants and allies took to the streets against the proposed racist ant-immigrant legislation (HR 4437).

Farms, factories, meatpacking plants, schools and stores shut down as those marched showed the United States what “A Day without an Immigrant” would look like. In Bellingham over 1,000 immigrants and their supporters came out and rallied in a march that was historic in its own right. Bluntly put, I had never seen so many Latinos in Bellingham at one time. Though we like to think of ourselves as a liberal and welcoming town, most immigrants in Whatcom County – unless they are working in service jobs – stay well clear of our city limits.

On the April 5, 2006 march, MEChA, an organization that confronts social issues facing Mexican American, Chicano, and Latino communities, organized a walkout and march to Rick Larsen’s office downtown to deliver a community letter of anger to him for voting for HR 4437. Over 800 Western students, high school students and their families joined the march and the rally in front of Larsen’s office. It was a powerful experience to foreshadow the events of May 1. It is an undeniable fact that the collective action of immigrant workers, families and their allies had a major impact in the halls of Congress. While thankfully no Immigration Reform legislation was agreed upon last spring, more debate will be coming in the coming months, and I am not the only one who is worried.

Everyone interested in social justice, or who still have vague hopes for some real democracy in this society, should pay attention to these developments. We can’t afford not to as the federal government is doing a great job of paying attention to these historic actions. In the past year they have responded to this basic example of democratic participation with an unprecedented wave of raids, arrests and deportations of workplaces and homes across the United States.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the Department of Homeland Security, is deliberately targeting immigrant communities and breaking apart thousands of families with militaristic and violent raids.

A raid conducted August 30, 2006 by 40 ICE agents with bulletproof vests and automatic weapons of a laundry service right here in Bellingham shocked many community members. 38 mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, daughters, and neighbors were deported. Many more have been picked up and detained in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, a for-profit prison run by Geo Corp – a company with numerous reports of human rights abuses. While some don’t want undocumented immigrants working in the United States, it is apparently fine for them to work for $1 dollar a day in these private facilities, increasing the profit margin of Geo Corp’s stockholders. Our ignorance and silence to this repression and exploitation basically serves as an approval of this treatment.

We do not call drunk drivers “illegal drivers,” or students who get caught doing drugs on the Ridge “illegal students.” The term “illegal immigrant” makes just as little sense. It serves more to criminalize immigrants who are caught between a broken immigration system and the same free trade policies that are wrecking our local economies. Might we begin to see some humanity in those we call “illegal aliens,” we might be able to learn how much more we have in common with them than we are lead to believe. In spite of this recent wave of repression, immigrant communities across the nation are organizing to march again this May 1, including a march in Bellingham. I hope to see Western students standing in solidarity with immigrant communities not only on that day, but well into the coming years.