Cincinnati Immigrants Demand Reform Now at Mass Meeting

A qualitative leap in organizing, a large African presence

Hundreds of immigrants from the Cincinnati area, most of them African and Latino, filled the Hartwell Community Center on the afternoon of January 16 to demand immigration reform now. Spanish speakers from Mexico, Guatemala and Peru rubbed elbows with West Africans speaking Wolof and French, as they all mingled with priests, nuns, labor union staffers, and sympathetic citizens. Some of the immigrants waved small American flags being passed out by the rally organizers. Periodically the multi-cultural crowd erupted in shouts of “Si se puede,” the 1960s slogan of the United Farm Workers union, “Yes, we can.” The mass meeting of more than 500 and perhaps as many as 1,000 people represented a qualitative leap in immigrant organizing in the Cincinnati area in the last few years.

Organized by more than a dozen local faith and labor organizations, most important of them the Catholic Church and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the local meeting was one of hundreds of similar rallies called throughout the country by the Reform Immigration for America organization. (reformimmigrationforamerica.org/). The group is seeking to pass legislation this year that would legalize millions of undocumented immigrants, create a guest worker program with avenues for residency and citizenship, and provide opportunities for higher education for undocumented immigrants. The legislation would also strengthen U.S. borders and establish more effective measures to keep undocumented immigrants from finding employment.

Catholic Church and Unions Promise Support

At the rally the Catholic Church and the labor unions promised immigrants their support. Father William Jansen, head of the Cincinnati Roman Catholic Archdiocese’s Hispanic Ministry and its Su Casa center delivered “message of solidarity” from Archbishop Dennis Schnurr. Esther López, national director for civil rights and community action of the UFCW and the principal speaker, called for “reform now.” She argued that immigrants needed reform now to unite families, to protect workers’ rights, and to improve the economy. Alluding to a couple of dozen anti-immigrant demonstrators outside she said, “We will not yield ground to bigotry, hatred or racism. We are fighting for unity, hope and opportunity.”

The San Carlos Borromeo Church in Carthage, as well as the Cristo Rey Center in Erlanger Kentucky in the Archdiocese of Northern Kentucky, had mobilized their Hispanic immigrant congregations. Trabajadores Unidos, immigrant workers from the Cincinnati Inter-Faith Workers Center, were present as well. Most visible among the organizers were the UFCW staff member in their yellow t-shirts handing out programs and passing around cards to get contact information from those in attendance.

A New African Immigrant Presence

Perhaps the most novel element in this rally was the large presence of African immigrants. The International Center, which assists immigrants from many nations in the Cincinnati area, played a role in mobilizing the African immigrants who attended the rally. Others though had come with other organizations from around the state. Until now, these immigrants have not been in the forefront of the immigration movement, but today at least Africans seemed the most energetic and optimistic group present.

During the spring and summer of 2006, around the nation and here in Cincinnati as well, Latinos were at the forefront of the movement. While nationally some demonstrations in Chicago and Los Angeles grew to as large as a million people, here in Cincinnati over 1,000 demonstrated downtown, while several thousand rallied in Columbus. Mexicans and other Latinos dominated those rallies. Surprisingly, however, this meeting appeared to have almost as many African immigrants as Latin Americans. The African immigrants came mostly West Africans from places like Senegal and Mauritania, and many of them French speakers, though they also spoke various other local languages, and many of the Muslim.

Most of them men, many wearing traditional African dress, the African immigrants applauded the speeches in English and Spanish, while speaking to each other in their native languages or French. One man I spoke with was an immigrant from Mauritania who had come with friends from Sidney, Ohio, about an hour and a half from Cincinnati. He and his friends expressed their hope that immigration reform would become a reality.

Legislative Agenda

Congressman Luis V. Gutiérrez, D-Ill, introduced model immigation reform legislation in the House on December 15, 2009. Representative Zoe Lofgren, D-CA, will introduce the “comprehensive immigration reform” legislation into the house this year, while Senator Charles Schumer, D-NY, will introduce it in the Senate. Under the Gutiérrez bill, qualifying immigrants would pay a $500 fee and file an application to receive residency papers.

Organizers of the Cincinnati rally hope to move Senator George Voinovich, R-OH, Senator Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Representative Steve Driehaus, D-OH. Most of those at this rally, however, being new immigrants, some without documents and some residents but not citizens, since they are not voters, may have little impact on local legislators. Passing immigration reform legislation will depend on moving American citizens by convincing them that legalizing undocumented immigrants will be good for them and their families, for the economy, and for the future of the country.

Sponsors of the immigration rally at the Hartwell Center were: Su Casa, UFCW Local 75, Cincinnati Catholic Hispanic Community, Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s Catholic Social Action Office, N.O.A.H. Northwest Ohio Alliance for Hope, Ohio Faith and Democracy Collaborative, International Center of Greater Cincinnati, United for Justice, Ohio Organizing Collaborative, The Amos Project, LULAC Ohio, Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, Local 1 SEIU, Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative.

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