It's been almost 15 years since the last general amnesty for illegal aliens, and support for a new one is growing.
Like a lot of people who come to the U.S., Alma figured she had a better shot at providing for her infant daughter here than back in Mexico. She also figured she was home free once she crossed the border, found her way to Chicago, and began renting a room from an aunt in West Town. That was two fingers ago.
Alma, 21, lost the tips of her fingers on a punch press at a factory she'd been assigned to work at by a day-labor agency. Dan Giloth, an organizer of day laborers for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, says day-labor agencies put workers at risk daily. "Oftentimes employers will specifically request 'Spanish-only' workers because they're putting them in work conditions where they're likely to have their rights to a safe workplace violated in some way. The thinking is that people without documents are less likely to raise a protest about sweatshop conditions."
The overall effect, he says, is lower wages and bad working conditions across the board. "As long as you've got a group of people who are vulnerable, it's going to lower the standards for everybody."
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is one of more than a dozen community groups organizing a march and rally this Saturday to call for a new general amnesty, which would allow millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.--as many as 290,000 in Illinois, most of them in the Chicago area--to gain legal status. The march and rally will start at 10 AM, when an estimated 5,000 people will gather at Daley Plaza before proceeding to the Federal Plaza. Buses will arrive from community organizations and churches all over the city and suburbs.
Giloth says amnesty would remove the threat of deportation, which he calls "the hammer employers use to put people in these conditions." That would also make it easier for workers to organize or seek individual recourse for abuses. March organizers say many undocumented workers have lived in the U.S. and paid taxes for years, and some own homes, hold steady jobs, and have family members who are citizens, but are still subject to abuses by police, landlords, the courts, and employers because of their immigration status.
The last general amnesty, or "legalization," as the Immigration and Natural-ization Service terms it, was in 1986, when Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (the legislation also created sanctions prohi-biting employers from knowingly hiring undocumented immi-grants). There's been a buzz about a new am-nesty for several years, but recently some heavy hitters have signed on in support, including the AFL-CIO, the United States Catholic Conference, and the National Confer-ence of Catholic Bishops.
Alma--who worked as a secretary in Mexico, has a certificate as an accountant's assistant, and studied three semesters of psychology--says an amnesty would allow her to look for a job that makes use of her skills: "I think I can do more than work in a factory," she says. She'll be in the crowd Saturday at what organizers say could turn out to be the largest rally in recent Chicago history.
Not everyone planning to attend the rally needs papers. Deloris Mena recently lost her job of 17 years for missing two days of work--the first unexcused absences she'd ever had. She says most workers in the chicken-packing plant where she worked in the Fulton Market district are now contracted from day-labor agencies. Mena, who's lived in the U.S. for 22 years and got her papers under the last amnesty, was making $7.95 per hour before she was fired. Baltazar Enriquez, a recent graduate of Farragut High School, says he'll be at the march because he has family members and friends who have graduated from high school but can't continue their studies due to their immigration status. Enriquez claims a recent valedictorian at Farragut had to turn down a scholarship because she didn't have a valid social security number.
Denise Dixon, an Englewood resident and president of the Chicago chapter of the community organization ACORN, has been trying to convince her neighbors to turn out for the march. It hasn't been easy. "In the black community we have been told that immigrants take our jobs, they're bad people, they're getting services that we can't get, and mostly the black community buys into that."
But Dixon thinks a general amnesty would help her neighborhood too.
"A lot of these big companies use day-labor companies, and most of the day-labor companies use undocumented immigrants, so folks like me can't even get those jobs." Dixon says she's heard of dishwashers making as little as $2.50 per hour. She says, "A general amnesty would give us a level playing field."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Barreras.