MEETING TO PROTEST CRACKDOWN ON IMMIGRANTS DRAWS 350 IN DANBURY
by Lynda Thomas

THE MEETING WAS HELD SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 25TH AT WESTERN CONNECTICUT STATE UNIVERSITY, IN THE IVES CONCERT HALL.

The meeting was endorsed by the Western CT Central Labor Council, The Latin American Student Organization of Western Connecticut State University, and the Graduate Employees Student Organization of Yale University among others. Broad support for the meeting was sparked by the arrest of 11 day laborers on September 19, 2006 who jumped into an unmarked van expecting to go to work but who were instead taken directly to jail. They were split up and sent to several prisons, with six sent as far away as Texas. With the assistance of students at a legal clinic at the Yale Law School, nine of the 11 are out on bail, and a suit has been filed asking the courts to reveal the details of the case and the role of the Danbury Police Department.

In response the community rallied by forming the REMEMBER THE DANBURY 11: STOP THE ICE RAIDS COMMITTEE which had the initial support of leaders of the Danbury Area Coalition for the Rights of Immigrants; the Ecuadorian Civic Center of Danbury; the Hispanic United Church of Christ; the Dominican Civic Club of Danbury and the Danbury Coalition for Peace. thirty-five immigrant workers have been arrested by federal agents in Danbury in four months, including at least twelve in the past week. Immigrants and their supporters in Danbury have led the struggle in Connecticut, including the defeat of Mayor Boughton's proposal in 2005 to deputize state troopers to deport immigrants. Mayor Boughton encouraged the arrests and lends the resources of City Hall to terrorize the immigrant residents of Danbury.
 
The Danbury 11 joined the nearly 16,000 Latino workers currently being unjustly held in local and national prisons. They are part of a nationwide crackdown on the undocumented by the Department of Homeland Security which has  disappeared thousands of immigrant workers from workplaces and even their homes every week. ICE agents (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)  of Homeland Security  are forcibly taking parents away from their children, separating families and violating due process and civil liberties. 

Nationwide, thousands of workers and their relatives have been arrested in raids at six Swift meatpacking plants in Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, Georgia and Utah and remain imprisoned. The ICE have attacked union work sites and day laborer centers in an attempt to intimidate immigrants after the giant demonstrations last May and to bust unions and union and day labor organizing drives for decent wages and working conditions. They chose meatpacking plants that happen to be the 14% of the plants that are union shops. Raids, arrests, and deportations are occurring in towns which witnessed the massive mobilizations of millions for immigrant rights.

Supporters of immigrant rights in Connecticut called the meeting to regroup and think out how best to address this national crackdown.  Broad support was organized from forces from across the region to discuss an effective response to these ongoing attacks, and hear a panel of speakers representing the immigrant community around the country.

Outside the forum held at WCSU some 40 protesters from Citizens for Immigration Law and Enforcement, picketed the event. There were sizable numbers of police officers present inside and outside the building and there were no arrests or incidents. The counter demonstrators waved signs, shouted and encouraged motorists to honk in support of deportations but remained peaceful.

The administration of Western Connecticut State University had attempted to censor the forum on the immigration raids.  The Assistant Dean of Student Affairs attempted to claim the right to insert himself asforum moderator and invite an anti-immigrant speaker onto the panel for "balance."  He threatened to cancel the forum otherwise.

Since this would have altered the character of the forum and turned it from a meeting to oppose the raids to a debate between hostile adversaries, organizers were advised that their right to free speech was being violated and that no university has the right to decide which ideas are acceptable or to alter the makeup of the speakers on a panel. The campus sponsor of the event was the Latin American Student Organization. A campaign was mounted via the internet to ask President Schmotter to defend free speech and allow the meeting to proceed as planned.

Jean C. Hislop of the Stop the Raids Campaign in Danbury, CT informed supporters “Apparently, whether due to your phone calls, the support from leaders in Danbury, or some internal issue, things have been restored to their prior order. The forum will continue, as planned. No additional speakers. No new moderator. Western Connecticut State University President Schmotters welcomes all supporters of immigrant rights to the campus on Sunday at 4 p.m. in White Hall, 181White St., Danbury.” this represented a victory for free speech and the right to organize.

The "Stop the Raids" meeting was chaired by Jason McGahan.  McGahan, pointed out that Danbury is a testing ground for unfair tactics to scare and deport the illegal immigrants. McGahan said it was important to talk about the terror the raids have created in the immigrant community in Danbury, a large portion of which comes from Brazil and Ecuador. He was quoted by Alejandro Alvarez as saying "We need to stop the raids and this strategy, which devaluates the lives of immigrants," who only came to this country to work and support their families”.

He introduced the first speaker, Leonel Villavicencio, President of the Danbury Coalition for the Rights of Immigrants who informed the crowd of the struggles in Danbury against the mayor and about the nationwide crackdown by the ICE. He said that immigrants are not here to steal but to work and pointed out how Americans benefit from their labor. He opposed the Bush plan for "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" and the Guest Worker Program.

The next speaker was Eddie Acosta, a labor organizer and researcher for 14 years who had worked in the public service, health care and day laborer centers. He represented the AFL-CIO Immigrant Workers Program which attempts to unify day laborers on behalf of the AFL-CIO. He pointed out that it is the employers who benefit from these raids and not the workers in this country.  Acosta said that they were meant to instill fear and intimidate immigrants from organizing.  He said that the AFL-CIO had opposed local initiatives across the country to have union hiring halls and day labor centers check all workers for papers. He called for the legalization of all undocumented workers and also opposed Bush’s guest worker legislation.

Teresa Pereira, a local Brazilian immigrant was just released after being held by immigration authorities. She  was arrested at home and handcuffed and taken to a Hartford jail. Part of the ICE strategy is to remove those arrested from their community and legal and community support and incarcerate them without telling their families where they are. She was arrested because she was unaware of a glitch in her citizen appeal process. Pereira said. "ICE was after me, and I did not even know."

The meeting organizers had arranged for Anabel Pimentel and Rosa Lopez, two women from Hyrum, Utah, and victims of raids in the Swift Meatpacking Plant to travel to Connecticut and address the meeting. They told the group about the federal raids in December, when 147 people were surrounded and arrested while at work at the plant. They described how families were split and children left without the care of their parents and in the care of relatives and friends. Alejandro Alvarez, a reporter for Registro in a Special to the New Haven Register quoted Pimentel, "I was brokenhearted to see so many of our people crying and leaving their kids behind”. Alvarez wrote Lopez said the workers were charged with identity theft for using citizens' Social Security numbers. But she said they were bought from people who willingly sold them. She also pointed out that those who sold them will benefit from immigrant labor by increased SS benefits. Funds were raised for their travel from Utah by the meeting.

John Garcia,  a Lawyer for the Immigrants of Hazelton, Pa. from the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund explained how his organization represents teachers, day laborers, Africans, Mexicans, Irish and many other immigrants and defends their civil liberties and their right to an education. He spoke about the attempt on the part of local governments to take immigration under their control and target Latinos like in Danbury and in Hazleton and other towns across the country. He said that local officials met in San Bernardino and developed plans to pass local ordinances to target illegal immigrants in over 70 cities nationwide. Plans included attempts to prevent businesses from doing business with undocumented workers and landlords from renting to them. He said that on March 12 the case they filed against Hazleton for attempting to target and discriminate against Latinos will come up and encouraged people to support the case.

The last speaker, who probably should have been the first, laid out a concrete plan that is being implemented by the Day Laborers Center in Mount Kisco, NY. Carola Otero Bracco, Executive Director, unfortunately addressed a crowd that had dwindled by the time she spoke. Her remarks explained how the community there had responded to the attacks and had beaten them back in Mount Kisco by organizing Neighbors Linked through a local community center which provides adult education, help starting businesses, support for victims of domestic violence and housing for immigrants. They also have created a mobil medical unit for the community.

She said their strategy is to Integrate, Educate, Empower and Employ immigrants. The most exciting part of her presentation was explaining that the center has 100’s of volunteers and not just immigrants but supporters from the community. She pointed out that day labor is regulated by supply and demand and that 6,000 day jobs a year go through the center. They hold 10 English classes so that the workers will not be abused, with 300 learners attending. She said that all this is done without government funding and that all areas should consider their solution since the community support has been successful in beating back the attacks.

Two women from LASO chaired the discussion period which was lengthy and educational. Many immigrants from many different countries spoke in their own defense and many Danbury residents spoke in their defense as well. Stan Heller noted that it is the runaway shops and plant closings that have taken jobs from Americans and not immigrant labor. One woman said that she thought slavery had been abolished in the USA but that the undocumented are caught in a system of hidden slavery. Some  pointed out that the union movement including the UFCW had not done enough and that the Democrats had done nothing to stop or even denounce the raids. Rapid response networks were proposed to alert people to new raids taking place. A speaker from Ecuador said that workers come from Latin America because capitalism has corrupted their countries and driven them to the U.S. in order to survive. It was evident at the meeting and in the discussion that women are fully represented in the leadership of this movement and play a key role in building it.

The tone of the meeting was sober and serious and most acknowledged that the struggle will be long and difficult. But at the same time it was optimistic about the long term possibility of the immigrant movement to serve as a catalyst for struggles of all workers and to set an example by standing up for their rights. It is a hopeful sign that undocumented workers are refusing to be kept in a second-class status exploited by employers who are attempting to extract greater profits from their labor and that many in the community and labor movements are coming to their defense. The meeting ended with announcements of future campaigns planned for the spring to beat back the government offensive, to end the raids and deportations and to legalize the undocumented.