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May Day March for Immigrants' Rights

by Brian Elerding Friday, May. 01, 2009 at 11:12 AM

There are several immigrants' rights marches and protests happening on May First. Ron Gochez, of the Southern California Immigration Coalition, talks about why people should come out and march.

Interview with Ron Gochez of the Southern California Immigration Coalition, the Unión del Barrio, and member of the Association of Raza Educators.

There are several marches and protests happening on May First. I sat down with Ron Gochez of the Southern California Immigration Coalition to talk with him about why people should come out and march.

Q: Tell me a little about yourself.

RON GOCHEZ: I’m a teacher in South LA. I’ve been organizing now for a decade or so. I’m not new, but not a seasoned veteran. Hoping that this may day will catapult us into a movement.

Q: What is this march about?

RG: It’s to send a very clear message to the administration. We have three clear demands. Number one is to stop the ICE raids, number two is full legalization for all workers in this country, and number three is that we’re absolutely opposed to any type of guest worker program (or “bracero program”, as it was called in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s). The reason why we’re marching is not just to put pressure on the congress, but on the president. We know that he has the executive power of stopping the raids immediately; he has the executive power of making changes so that we can do a full legalization for all people. So what we’re doing with this march is pressuring the president on something that he basically told us to do. When he took power he said he wanted the people to pressure him and to guide him. And he, himself, promised that within the first one hundred days he would act on immigration reform. We’re saying that on April 30th his hundred days are up, so we’re fully counting on him to take action. We want to hold him accountable to his words, so that’s why we’re out here taking the streets once again on May 1st, international workers’ day, to pressure him and to let the community know that we will not allow these raids to continue separating our families. The community has to know that there are people out there struggling for them, and that they also have to be part of this movement.

We know it will not be won in a one-day May first mega-march. We’re very clear on that. We don’t care if ten million people were to come out. We understand that’s not going to solve any problems. What we’re saying is that we have to build a mass-based movement. That’s why we’re using May first as nothing more than a step to get more people into the streets and to hopefully recruit them to organizing in their own community so that we can build a true movement and get these three demands across to the president.

Q: What are ICE raids?

RG: ICE is the Immigration Customs Enforcement agency. What they basically do is raid workplaces, homes, even schools. They go in like an occupying army, fully armed. They’re a federal agency. They go in and they basically have a premeditated plan of attack. There have been massive raids, like in Massachusetts, Colorado (where they’ve taken over 1,200 workers at once). And then there are smaller raids, where they take an entire family from apartment buildings.

Being a teacher, I’ve had students come into the classroom in tears because their mom or dad was just taken away from them. So these raids are really catastrophic because they keep twelve to thirteen million people in this country at this moment who are undocumented living in the shadows, and in a way that they must draw no attention to themselves. And they really have no rights. These people are in constant fear of immigration agents crashing down on them, kidnapping them from their families, separating mothers from children. These are ICE raids. And we’re saying that in any part of the world, that would be seen as a gross violation of human rights. And here, when President Obama has now [said], and we’re glad he’s said it—that he’s absolutely against torture—we’re saying that when you rip a child from the arms of his mother…that’s torture. And so we’re saying that these ICE raids must stop. They’re immoral, they’re illegal, and they’re a human rights violation. We say that this country has every right to so-called “protect itself”, but workers in this country, children in schools, workers in factories, gardeners, construction workers…they are no threat to this country. We’re saying that if they want to continue to do these raids, fine. Let’s do raids on the corporate bosses of AIG…let’s go after the folks who are, you know, really running this country into a hole. But these humble people, these workers, should not be raided on because they really have not committed any crimes. Historically we know that folks migrate here chasing their own resources. How can it be that things like NAFTA [The North American Free Trade Agreement] and CAFTA [The Central American Free Trade Agreement] exist and the resources of Latin America can cross borders freely, but if the workers from those countries want to cross the border they are not allowed to?

We’re saying these policies are hypocritical, so the ICE raids have to stop. Because the millions of people that are in this country now [are], in a very direct way, a consequence of US foreign policy in the rest of the world.

Q: Can you explain how NAFTA and CAFTA contribute to the influx of people from outside the United States?

RG: Sure. We see that after the 1910 Mexican revolution of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, more than a million Mexicans left Mexico out of fear for their lives because of the war, which was a tragedy. In 1994 with NAFTA, [and] in the ten-year span that followed, we see that more than two million Mexicans left Mexico. Even [the war] did not cause the mass migration that NAFTA caused after 1994. So when we see that the Mexican constitution was forced to change so that foreigners could buy land in Mexico, we saw the dramatic effects that it had on the people…mainly the farmers and campesinos. You have literally millions of people who have been displaced within Mexico; mostly the indigenous people of Mexico who for generations and generations…have been farmers, have been people who work the land. Of course when a rich person from the U.S. or elsewhere buys up their land, they’re kicked out of their ancestral homelands. What are these people to do? They’re people who obviously don’t have a city life. They’re people who don’t have “higher education” and they’re forced to migrate from their land. So where do they end up? Fresno, California; San Bernardino; all over the place as farm workers here. So we see that NAFTA had a devastating effect on the people of Mexico. Sure, the great corporations of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico benefited economically, without a doubt. However, the people of those countries have suffered. So this is not only about the Mexican worker who had to migrate, it’s also about the American worker who lost his or her standard of living. It’s about the workers of Canada: their standard of living goes down. But we see that, without a doubt, the most devastating effects of NAFTA—and now we’re seeing of CAFTA in Central America—are on the working class people. And that’s why we have millions of people who were forced to leave their countries of origin to come here to this country to do the most difficult jobs and the least paying jobs. Obviously these people never wanted to leave their families and their countries. They were forced to by economic policies that were definitely driven from Washington, D.C. ‘

Q: How does it work that people in Mexico can be kicked off their land for it to be sold to others?

RG: One of the major victories of the Revolution of 1910, especially under the orders of General Zapata, was the he said that the land belongs to those that work it. That automatically meant that the masses of Mexico would have land. Because that’s what they did: they worked the land. And part of the constitution that came out of the Mexican revolution of the early twentieth century was that it pushed for Mexican citizens to be the only ones to be able to purchase Mexican property. What ended up happening was that, of course, with much of this property where the people live; either they’ve lived there since forever or they were given land claims even by the Spanish crown. So of course the Mexican government did not find it convenient to recognize a lot of those land deeds, so they kind of—here they call it eminent domain—they just take a lot of the land. Of course, campesinos who have no real way of defending themselves legally against the Mexican government saw no choice but to leave. The people who bought their ancestral homeland forced them to leave. And one of the provisions of NAFTA says that any type of blockage in economic trade, or any kind of problems that might result in one country can result in another country suing that nation because they did not respect their deal. So you see the Mexican military kicking out thousands, if not millions, of Mexican peasants from their lands. And this will lead later on in 1994 to the Zapatista uprising, which is an obvious indicator that the people of Mexico, much more than a decade before 1994, knew what would happen because of NAFTA. So you see the Indian peasant uprising of 1994 in the southern state of Chiapas. That’s why you see so many indigenous people from Mexico and Central America in the United States. And you have whole entire communities of indigenous people that have been truncated at the US/Mexico border…living in Tijuana. They’re migrant communities that just happen to be stuck there. For those that are lucky enough to cross the border and not die at the border, they live here and are now under attack from ICE.

Q: Why is a guest worker program bad?

RG: A guest worker program, or “buddy program” as I think Bush called it, is basically nothing new. This is what they called a “Bracero” program, which was implemented after the great depression. Basically it’s a system of disposable labor. Because of the economy and because of folks going off to war back in the days before World War Two, this country needed workers. So they went to Mexico to recruit workers, and the idea was to bring them over here and make them work like slaves in the fields here in California and all over the nation. And then, when they didn’t need them anymore, the idea was to just throw them back to their country (in those times it was Mexico). There’s a problem there. These people aren’t like napkins. You can’t just use them, and when they’re dirty and you don’t need them anymore just throw them away. These people were human beings. A lot of people lived here for a few years under this program and, you know, they bought small homes, they had children here, they got married…so a huge problem resulted because they didn’t want to go back, and the government didn’t want them here. They were exploited severely, and were not paid for years of work.

Q: I guess the question then is: should we just let everybody who wants to come and work to be able to come and become a citizen?

RG: We say that as long as the United States can keep taking the resources of Latin America, they should have an open border. The day that the United States government stops intervening in the economies of Latin America, that will be the day that the United States will be in the moral position to be able to lock down its borders.

We know for absolute fact that the majority of people who migrate to the United States migrate because they’re forced out of their countries because of economic crisis. And we know that these crises have been caused by US economic policy and intervention in these countries. Obviously Mexico with NAFTA; the different wars in Central America in the 1980’s…the list goes on and on. So we really don’t feel the U.S. is in any moral position to play gatekeeper when they, in fact, are the reason why so many folks had to leave. People say not to blame the U.S. for all the problems, and I don’t think it’s about doing that, but when you have documented cases from 1954 Guatemala to 1973 Chile to X, Y and Z cases in Latin America of governments being taken out by the CIA, obviously people haven’t had a choice. So they’ve migrated here. As long as those trucks full of Mexican products and those boats full of the fruits of Central America and all these resources can cross that border because of NAFTA and CAFTA, then the workers of these countries should have every right to do so also.

The march will happen May First at Olympic and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles at 1pm. The organizers ask that attendees wear red or black shirts (but they will be handing out shirts to the first 20,000 marchers). The march will end at the federal building to show support for immigrants in the detention center inside, and will be followed up by a program of speakers and music. For more information, call (323) 602-3480 or go to

This is not an exact transcript. Interview questions and answers have been edited for length, readability and topicality. The full interview, complete with my stuttering questions, can be obtained by emailing me at

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