A message to Wisconsin’s immigrant-bashers

February 22, 2016

Michael Billeaux and Liam Manjon report on a huge show of solidarity in Madison against draconian proposals put forward by Scott Walker and the Republicans.

IN A scene reminiscent of the 2011 Wisconsin uprising, more than 15,000 people turned out for a "Día sin Latinos" (Day without Latinos) rally and march on February 18, packing the huge square around the Capitol building in downtown Madison.

The demonstrators came to oppose two racist, anti-immigrant and anti-worker bills put forward by the Republican-dominated Wisconsin legislature. After about an hour of speeches on the eastern steps of the Capitol, demonstrators flooded inside the statehouse. As during the Capitol occupation, the rotunda was filled with deafening chanting of "Wisconsin no es Arizona" (Wisconsin is not Arizona), "Si se puede" (Yes we can), "El pueblo, unido, jamás sera vencido" (The people, united, will never be defeated), "Chinga la ley" (Fuck the law), "No one is illegal" and other slogans.

One demonstrator, Eusebio, expressed a common sentiment among immigrants who have been demonized by racist politicians: "We don't come to do anything bad to this community. We just come to help and I would like to be a part of this society."

More than 15,000 immigrant rights supporters packed the streets around the Wisconsin Capitol building
More than 15,000 immigrant rights supporters packed the streets around the Wisconsin Capitol building (Leslie Amsterdam)

The demonstration, organized by the Milwaukee-based Voces de la Frontera, a grassroots immigrant advocate group active for many years in Wisconsin, including supporting a strike at Palermo's Pizza, was the largest demonstration in the city since 2011.

THE TWO bills fit squarely within the same anti-immigrant agenda represented by the federal anti-immigrant bill sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner in 2006 that sparked the enormous mobilizations of immigrants and Latinos that year; Arizona's infamous SB 1070, a criminalization of immigrants passed in 2011; the proposals of political leaders of both parties, from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton, to strengthen border security along the U.S.-Mexico border; and the record-breaking deportations that have taken place under the Obama administration.

All of this has ratcheted up the climate of fear for undocumented people and given the state more control over their movement.

The first Wisconsin bill, AB 450, is modeled on Arizona's SB 1070--the so-called "show me your papers" law that was declared unconstitutional in 2012. AB 450 would require police and public employees to investigate the immigration status of anyone they interact with, and detain undocumented people for deportation--making every city cop an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.

The second bill, SB 533, aims to block Wisconsin counties from issuing local identification cards for those unable to obtain state IDs, including undocumented immigrants. Such ID cards were introduced in Milwaukee last year and make it possible for people to have access to many basic services, such as getting a prescription filled or getting food from a pantry.

Laws like these serve to whip up irrational fears and a racist frenzy against Latinos. They make immigrant workers live in fear of deportation--and therefore afraid to demand better treatment.

In a victory that is sorely needed in this state, the Wisconsin Senate announced following the mass demonstration that AB 450 will likely not be taken up. In other words, "El Dia sin Latinos" demonstrated the power of immigrant workers in Wisconsin, who are an integral part of the agricultural working class in the state.

According to Voces de la Frontera citing Univision, Wisconsin's dairy industry--widely known as one of the state's central economic engines--operated only at half capacity on February 18, as thousands of immigrant workers attended the rally or stayed home. Restaurants in cities like Madison and Milwaukee, where immigrant workers are part of the foundation of the food service industry, likewise closed down for the day.

THE RALLY itself was a vibrant display of solidarity. In addition to the busloads of immigrant workers and their supporters that came in from across the state, students at Madison East High School walked out of classes to attend the rally and students from the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Madison also took part in the demonstration.

The labor movement came out in force, with the South Central Federation of Labor--the AFL-CIO affiliate for South Central Wisconsin, representing over 30,000 workers--endorsing El Dia sin Latinos. The teachers' union for Madison and Milwaukee, members of Madison Teachers Inc. and the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, took part, as did members of the Teaching Assistants' Association, the union for graduate employees at UW-Madison.

Ricky Rangel, a Mexican-American Chicago native and UW-Madison student, described the importance of the rally: "I didn't actually expect so many people to show up...I thought it would mostly be university and high school students, but many workers and older generations did show up, and I believe this is what caused a huge impact. It wasn't only younger people standing up for their rights but everyone played a huge part."

Asked why he attended, Rangel said he initially hadn't planned to, but then had second thoughts. "All my friends said that they were going to support la Raza, and that's when I thought to myself that I should contribute my own grain of rice into the pile," he said. "It might not be much, but I was another voice standing in opposition to the bill."

He concluded, "En la unión está la fuerza!" (There is power in the union.)

Unfortunately, SB533 (the law on ID cards) has already passed both houses of the Wisconsin legislature and awaits the approval of Gov. Scott Walker, who has continued with the business of attacking working people in Wisconsin since coming home from his all-but-forgotten failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

While the Senate has announced that AB 450 is not a "priority," we should be on guard in case the Republicans try to introduce it before the end of the current legislative session.

Nevertheless, Walker has not made any commitments in any direction with regard to the legislation, and El Dia sin Latinos showed that it's possible for the workers to keep the pressure on if they organize. As an immediate next step, Voces de la Frontera is asking that everyone sign a petition opposing the bills.

In the longer term, the strengthening of organizations like Voces de la Frontera and greater commitment from the labor movement to support undocumented workers will be key for opposing the racist anti-immigrant agenda in Wisconsin.

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