Here to Stay: Immigrant Workers Demand Justice, Respect on May Day

Thousands of people marched in the streets of Washington, DC to celebrate May Day, the holiday often known as International Workers’ Day, with defiant calls for a living wage, benefits, and safe working conditions. In light of President Trump’s assault on immigrants and refugees, the rallies and marches also became protests against refugee bans, deportations and raids on immigrant communities.

Crowds filled Dupont Circle, Malcolm X Park, Freedom Plaza, and Courthouse in Arlington, then converged into marches to the White House. American flags mingled with Mexican flags and bright red socialist flags. Many of the large number of Hispanic participants were immigrants from Mexico and Central American countries, and, in spite of risks, even undocumented immigrants were present and vocal.

While some might expect recent Trump initiatives, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and efforts to build a wall on the border of Mexico, to intimidate those born in another country, there was an unmistakable tone of defiance in every speech, chant and sign. “No papers, no fear!” they cried. Some signs advertised the hashtag #heretostay.

Madai Ledezma, an undocumented immigrant and activist who lives in New Carrollton, took the microphone to urge people to cast out fear. “I came here because of opportunities denied to me in Mexico. What would happen to my 8-year-old daughter if we had to go back to Mexico?” she asked. “Now, more than ever, we have to be united. Let’s not be afraid, because we left our fear behind when we crossed that border.”

There were fewer calls for unity than strong assertions that they already were “un pueblo unido” (“a people united”). Demands for social and economic justice were uncompromising. The question, “Cuándo?” (“When do we want it?”) was repeatedly answered with the refrain, “Ahora!” (“Now!”)

Lindolfo Cardallo, who came to the United States from El Salvador 20 years ago, attended “because workers deserve respect and dignity in the workplace,” he said.

“Today is very important , because we are those workers who are on the front line making profit for the rich,” he said. “The United States is basically a factory, and the owners of the factory are taking it over because their manager, the past president, didn’t do a good job.”

“The workers have to fight back, because Trump sees us as workers that don’t deserve decent wages and benefits and the respect that we need in our communities. He needs to think twice about what he is doing, because at the end of the day, we’re going to take it back,” he continued.

Workers are worse off now than two generations ago when you compare the buying power of wages adjusted for inflation, and benefits are hard to come by. The privileges afforded to the “One Percent” exacerbate hard feelings. A giant Trump puppet, for example, carried a sign which read, “Housekeepers pay more income taxes than Donald Trump,” referring to the income tax write-off many suspect he has enjoyed for 20 years. Although many accuse undocumented immigrants of being a burden on society, speakers pointed out that even undocumented workers pay taxes, and moreover, businesses are inclined to take advantage of their vulnerable status.

While May Day is an important holiday in many countries around the world, many people who took part in the marches were on strike or took personal leave, since May 1 is not recognized as an official holiday in the U.S.

“People around the world are fighting back against corporate America,” said Keith Wrightson, who said he was there to support labor any way he could. “All around the country people are walking off the job in support of workers rights, collective bargaining, safety, healthcare… endless issues.”

Democratic National Committee Chairman and former Labor Secretary Tom Perez spoke at the White House rally half in Spanish, half in English. “You are very, very important,” he said repeatedly, and he promised to fight for economic and social justice and comprehensive immigration reform. His remarks were in marked contrast with those of GOP chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who in an interview last week implied that the Republican party will eventually provide funding for Trump’s border wall, otherwise the GOP base “will walk away” in 2018.

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