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Nativo Lopez on Immigration Legislation and the Future of the Immigrant Rights Movement

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House Republican leaders announced last week they would take the unusual step and hold public hearings across the country on the Senate immigration bill that was passed last month. We speak with immigrant rights activist, Nativo Lopez. [includes rush transcript]

House Republican leaders last week announced they would take the unusual step and hold public hearings across the country on the Senate immigration bill that was passed last month. The Senate bill heightens enforcement measures and opens a route to citizenship for at least some undocumented immigrants.

But House leaders strongly oppose the bill and are instead pushing their version of an immigration bill that passed in December. That bill focuses strictly on enforcement and would turn undocumented immigrants, and anyone who helps them, into felons. It was the passage of the House bill that sparked the massive protests and economic boycott in support of immigrant rights that recently took place around the country.

The House and Senate now need to negotiate a compromise bill in order to vote on immigration reform. But the decision to hold public hearings over the summer makes it unlikely that this will happen any time soon.

Many immigrant advocates contend that the GOP decision to hold hearings is a way to spark anti-immigrant sentiment before the November elections. They also point out that neither bill adequately addresses the real concerns and needs of the immigrant population in this country.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Friday, I talked to Nativo Lopez here in our studio. He’s the National President of the Mexican-American Political Association. We talked about the May 1 protest, the significance of that, the boycott, and I began by asking him what happened with the immigration bill last week.

NATIVO LOPEZ: Certainly, it’s stalled, and as a result of the GOP’s adamant opposition to any type of legalization program — although the Senate version, as far as we’re concerned, is not much better than the House version. We call it the Corona/Corona-lite effect, Sensenbrenner and the Sensenbrenner-lite. The Senate version still has many, many enforcement measures similar to Sensenbrenner. In fact, our two senators of California, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, voted for building the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, sending the National Guard to that border, enhancing the authority of local police to act as agents of the immigration authorities, whittling away or eliminating due process rights for immigrants. So if it was the thinking of Democrats to compromise on the enforcement measures in order to obtain some form of legalization program and that would satisfy the immigrant community or the immigrant rights movement, etc., they’re absolutely wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s take a step back for a minute, when you talk about the Sensenbrenner bill, the House bill, explain exactly what it does.

NATIVO LOPEZ: The Sensenbrenner bill is essentially an enforcement-only legislation, militarizes the border with the border wall, with the National Guard, with enhancing the authority of the local police officers to act as agents of the immigration authorities. It penalizes, in a criminal manner, employers, the worker himself, herself, or anybody that would aid and assist an undocumented immigrant. Not much different, for example, from the 1851 Fugitive Slave Act in the United States that made it a felony offense against anyone that aided or abetted a fugitive slave. The Sensenbrenner bill would essentially do the same thing, would create a felony offense against an employer, against an immigrant worker or anybody that would assist an individual.

AMY GOODMAN: Wouldn’t it be, for example, against you?

NATIVO LOPEZ: It would be against Hermandad Mexicana, against MAPA, against the Church, against the Cardinal, against anyone that would assist an individual who does not have status.

AMY GOODMAN: What has it meant in Los Angeles to have the Cardinal behind you? He’s been a fierce outspoken opponent of the legislation.

NATIVO LOPEZ: He’s been a fierce opponent of that piece of legislation, but at the same time, he has been a proponent of a compromise measure similar to the Senate version, willing to accept a tradeoff of enforcement measures for some form of legalization, and he has indicated he’s not satisfied with the legalization program that’s offered up in the Senate version. Nevertheless, he still advocates for a compromise approach for negotiating in the conference committee, thinking that he or the church or the immigrant rights movement would be able to eke out something from that conference committee that could be acceptable to the immigrants rights community.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you glad that the bill, overall, has been tabled now?

NATIVO LOPEZ: Absolutely. Our position has been: no bill this year is better than a bad bill.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have confidence in the Democrats? You just said that your two senators have voted for the Senate version that also militarizes the border and supports the wall. If there were a Democratic Congress, let’s say, in the next elections — I mean, under Democrats, for example, under Gore and Clinton, you had NAFTA passed. They were behind the Telecommunications Act that passed that led to more media consolidation. Do you have any faith in either party?

NATIVO LOPEZ: Well, I want to remind you of something, Amy. Prior to the Easter recess, we spoke, and I had mentioned that we had tremendous fears the Democrats would try and cut a deal behind the backs of the immigrant movement that had risen up throughout the United States, and certainly that happened. We were happy, for example, when Senator Harry Reid did not allow the Hagel-Martinez immigration version — legislation version to come out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but then he was beat up politically by the National Catholic Conference of Bishops, the Cardinal, the Mayor of Los Angeles, the national leadership of SEIU, the National Council of La Raza, the National Immigration Forum.

I’m naming names, because these are people that went to Harry Reid and basically beat him up politically and demanded that he allow the Hagel-Martinez bill to see the light of day, and they were confident that some type of a compromise could occur, that a better version could come out of the Senate facing the Sensenbrenner House version. And, in fact, what we have today is a worst version of the original Hagel-Martinez in the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was a major, major strategic mistake committed by these individuals.

AMY GOODMAN: And the key points of Hagel-Martinez?

NATIVO LOPEZ: Well, before that, the point is that prior to the Easter recess, we won. We had defeated the Sensenbrenner bill. We changed the discourse nationally in the debate about immigration reform. The Hagel-Martinez bill essentially mirrors the Sensenbrenner version, slightly less onerous. For example, instead of a felony offense, it would be a misdemeanor offense against an individual but nevertheless still criminalize an employer and the immigrant worker. Now, the effect of that is that an immigrant individual who has that misdemeanor defense against him or her would never be able to legalize his status in the United States forever.

AMY GOODMAN: But you’re talking about Mayor Villaraigosa.

NATIVO LOPEZ: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: The first Latino mayor of Los Angeles.

NATIVO LOPEZ: Political ambitions.

AMY GOODMAN: Who has spoken out at the protests.

NATIVO LOPEZ: Right. Well, the first one, let’s say that. You know, and on May 1st, there were essentially two major mobilizations. And the second one, where the mayor attended and spoke was a mobilization that did support a Senate version to face the House version. It was a major strategic mistake. It was essentially a bid on the part of the Democrats to offer up something to the Latinos that they thought would be acceptable, but it has roundly been repudiated by grassroots-base organizations, the immigrant community families throughout the country. And that will be evident in the next two months when the GOP takes their show on the road.

We, in turn, will have an immigrants tribunal outside of those hearings to bring forth children, mothers, relatives who have lost family members crossing the border. Well over 4,000 now have lost their lives to the trek across the border that absolutely can be attributed to the policy implemented by Clinton, the Clinton administration and Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Gatekeeper program that was the first wall construction along the border and the further militarization of the border that has led to the loss of over 4,000 lives.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Nativo Lopez, National President of the Mexican-American Political Association. What are you going to do in response to this road show?

NATIVO LOPEZ: Well, we also are going have our own tribunal, but the immigrant community will have its tribunal, where children, mothers will come forward and give testimony to the indignities and the injustices that they’ve been subjected and the kind of immigration reform that truly is humane, comprehensive and allows immigrants to basically play, out of the shadows, the role that they do play in building America, the economic contributions that they make, and have that testimony be brought forward to the American people outside of the halls where the GOP would conduct their hearings in California, Arizona and Texas.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to National Guard being brought to the border?

NATIVO LOPEZ: Further militarization of the border is going to lead to more deaths. It’s going to lead to eventual violence along the border. It’s a great indicator that the enforcement measure approach is a short term, stop gap approach that will only lead to further violence along the border and not resolve the tremendous immigration dynamic and labor needs that we still have in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: The Republicans in Congress are trying to delay reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. What is the significance of this?

NATIVO LOPEZ: Again, it’s an incredible hypocrisy. The same day that House member Hastert talked about taking the GOP show on the road, opposed and defeated the increase of the minimum wage and delayed the reauthorization of the Civil Rights Act. It shows the incredible hypocrisy, on the one hand, that these individuals talk about supporting native-born workers, solidifying the national workforce before we allow immigrants to come into the United States, but then doing not only little, but opposing any measure that would strengthen working people in the United States by increasing the minimum wage and by allowing them to participate legally and unimpededly in the political process by reauthorizing the Civil Rights Act.

One of the sticking points, for example, in the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, is the obligation of the federal government to assure that non-English speaking individuals can participate in an unimpeded manner in the political process by having ballots in languages other than English. Only 5% in a given jurisdiction, for example, that don’t speak English, that jurisdiction should provide voting material in the language of that 5%. And this is sticking in the craw of these individuals in the House, the Republicans that absolutely are opposed to any measure that would recognize a language other than English for voting purposes.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of voting, can you comment on the Mexican elections? You’re head of MAPA, the Mexican-American Political Association. They’re coming up on July 2.

NATIVO LOPEZ: Well, I think we’re going to have a different type of president after July 2 In Mexico. I predict that Manuel Lopez Obrador will be the new president of Mexico, but I don’t predict that that’s going to lead to any great radical change in the economic, political direction of Mexico. Mr. Lopez Obrador is more of a center left, Social Democrat of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt type, although he’s being painted as a socialist or a Hugo Chavez clone.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks to Dick Morris, right? Dick Morris, who was President Clinton’s PR man, has gone down to intervene in the elections, and they’re showing images of Lopez Obrador next to Hugo Chavez.

NATIVO LOPEZ: Right, right. That’s sad, essentially because we have an individual that will strengthen, actually, national capital — the national Mexican capital and national industries vis-à-vis U.S. capital and transnational capital that seeks to gobble up the economy of Mexico and use it to the interest of not the Mexican people. So he’s really a person that will attempt to strengthen the Mexican economy, Mexican capital, protect industries, again strengthen the state, look for a better redistribution of wealth in Mexico. Smart in that sense, because he knows if there’s not, there is going to be a revolution in Mexico.

And actually that flies in the face of what the Republicans want to do here, in militarizing the border, building the wall, so they don’t allow half a million immigrants coming through the southern border into the United States. What are those people going do? They want to eat, and so essentially the GOP is setting up a situation, a dynamic, that will only lead to further social disorder or civil strife and possible social revolution in Mexico or other southern countries.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Nativo Lopez, putting it in this broader context, what is the answer?

NATIVO LOPEZ: Well, the answer is to recognize that individuals are coming to the United States out of economic necessity. There’s a huge demand for their labor. They should be offered legal status as a result of the contributions that they seek to make and that we want them to make because of the demand for their labor. And that’s a fair tradeoff. You know, these GOP guys are always talking about — and even Democrats talking about fair trade. Well, we say, for the immigrant community, the fair trade is, if I’m going to come up here and make labor contributions and produce value and wealth for the great United States, a fair trade is legal status.

AMY GOODMAN: Blanket amnesty.

NATIVO LOPEZ: Well, we don’t call it amnesty. We call it essentially a fair trade, legalization for those individuals that are willing to create wealth, value for the United States. They should be accorded legal status and their families, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Guest worker programs?

NATIVO LOPEZ: We’re absolutely opposed to guest worker programs. They seek to perpetuate a servitude. There’s no reason in the world why a person should be a contract laborer in the United States. That program actually exists in the United States, something like 40 to 60 individuals working under a current program that would be expanded under the Senate version of the immigration bill, and we think that truly does undermine native labor.

Those workers should be accorded legal status, and it’s shameful that there are some unions, like the international — the SEIU, the United Farm Workers, UNITE HERE, those particular unions, for example, support a guest worker program. They’re living under some illusion that they will be able to obtain contracts to represent these workers and receive dues moneys from those members to fill the coffers of those unions. We think that that’s a strategic mistake on the part of those unions to do that, and we do support the position of the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers and many other unions that are absolutely opposed to any form of contract temporary labor.

Those workers are going to be here. They should be accorded legal status, paid a fair wage. We should increase the federal minimum wage and the state minimum wage throughout the United States, so that immigrant workers are not put in a position to compete against native workers of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, this idea of the larger context of trade agreements in the world, how does that weigh in on immigration reform?

NATIVO LOPEZ: Our current immigration situation is globalization coming home to roost. We can’t get away from it. We can build the China wall, the Berlin Wall along the border. We are not going resolve the immigration situation by enforcement measures, because it’s now a globalized situation. It’s happening throughout the world. This dynamic that we’re facing today is happening in Europe; it’s happening in other countries, other sections of the world.

So we need to recognize that workers are human beings. They’re creating value. They’re creating important value for our country and they should be accorded legal status. If we regularize the border in such a way that those workers that are coming are accorded status, they’re in our database. We’ll know who they are. They’ll be given identification papers. They’ll be given working papers. It’s a question of national security. Wouldn’t one think that by knowing everybody that’s coming across and documenting them at the border that we would be safer than not knowing who’s coming across the border?

AMY GOODMAN: So how would it work? Would anyone be able to come over the border? Would it be an open border?

NATIVO LOPEZ: Essentially, we have a situation where the border is open today. Close to a million workers are coming into the United States from different sections. In any case, we have a more militarized border today than ever in the history of the United States. Nevertheless, from Mexico alone, something like half a million workers are coming through, and that’s because of the interrelatedness of our economy. So if those workers are coming anyway, let them sign up at port of entry, and then we’ll absolutely know who they are.

But the other thing is that when you create a wall and you capture people in the confines of the United States, where they now fear returning to their country of origin because it’s so difficult to return, they essentially stay here. The initial desire of most workers are to be here on a temporary basis, so if we allow them to be here in such a manner, they’ll return to their country of origin to be with their family, to solidify their economy at home, instead of bringing the family into the United States for fear that their repeated returns and attempts to return to the United States will be impeded or even result in a loss of life.

AMY GOODMAN: Are more major immigration protests planned?

NATIVO LOPEZ: Absolutely. Labor Day this year, September 4, will be a historic difference than what it’s been in the past, similar to what we observed on May Day of this year. We will be joining with labor unions throughout the United States to organize major mega-marches, demanding fairness and the rights for immigrants, but as one with the labor movement in the United States, because the movement of the immigrants in the United States can only be solidified to the measure that labor generally is solidified.

AMY GOODMAN: Nativo Lopez, President of the Mexican-American Political Association based in Los Angeles, joined us in our Firehouse studio on Friday.

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