A National Need: Omar Lopez’s Campaign for Congress

Posted September 14, 2008

Every night, CNN’s Lou Dobbs harangues the American public with overblown concerns regarding illegal immigration, linking the alleged “crisis” of undocumented immigration to all things terrible: falling labor standards, disease, and even terrorism. Lou Dobbs is only one of many of anti-immigration voices, which are heard all the way from the “reputable” news outlets, such as CNN, to rabidly white supremacist internet rags. Against all this nonsense – and real abuse – against immigrant workers, millions of voices surfaced in 2006 during the May 1st / National Day Without Immigrants day, which called for amnesty and decriminalization for the millions of immigrants who work the lowest paid, least respected, but perhaps most important jobs in this country.

Omar Lopez and Rosa Clemente

Social activists and millions of immigrants and allies in Chicago were at the tip of the immigrant rights movement that exploded in 2006. One of the most important activists was Omar Lopez, a Mexican immigrant. Since the 1960s Lopez has been involved in Chicago’s radical and social movements – shoulder to shoulder with other oppressed groups, including, but not limited to, the Puerto Rican Young Lords Party.

Today, Omar Lopez has decided to work hard to provide political substance to the social outcry that he helped mobilize in 2006 by running for a Congressional seat under the Green Party. He hopes to mobilize the same organizations and individuals that made the 2006 marches a success, namely, community based soccer clubs and “clubes de oriundos,” transnational political organizations headed by Mexican expatriates that, until now, had been untapped sources of social and political power in the city.

Chicago’s Importance to the Immigrant Rights Movement

The candidacy of Omar Lopez for Congress under the Green Party is important not only for Illinois, but for the national immigrant rights movement. Omar Lopez’s home base, Chicago, is the U.S.’ third largest city, with 2.8 million people and a foreign born population estimated at 21% by the 2000 U.S. Census. Working class, community-based activists that led the 2006 marches in the city also have a long and proud history in Chicago. Chicago was one of the main focus of activity during the Pullman railroad strike, which paralyzed large sections of the U.S. economy in the 19th century and led to the incarceration of early Socialist leader Eugene Debs. Chicago was also the place where the settlement house movement developed to protect the rights of earlier immigrant working class communities. And of course, Chicago was the place of the infamous Haymarket massacre which spurred the official, international working class day around the world –May Day.

Today, the importance of Chicago in the working class immigrant rights movement continues to shine. The city’s activists even outpaced the immigration stronghold of Los Angeles, spearheading the national 2006 marches with a mass demonstration on March 10, 2006, almost two months before the May 1 marches. Officially estimated by the City of Chicago at 300,000 marchers, activists estimated that their presence must have been at least at 500,000 on March 10. The March 2006 demonstration was followed by another mass demonstration on May 1, 2006 – which was part of the now historic “Great American Boycott/Day Without an Immigrant”– which, although estimated at only 250,000 marchers by the City of Chicago, activists estimated participation at over one million demonstrators in downtown Chicago alone. Omar Lopez has been widely recognized as one of the most fundamental leaders of these marches and mobilizations.

The Political Importance of Independent Politics for the Immigrant Rights Movement

As in other parts of the country, especially in the immigration battlegrounds of California and the U.S. Southwest, the immigrant rights marches of 2006 were triggered after the passage of HR 4437, the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, commonly known as the “Sensenbrenner Bill,” which tried to make it a felony to be undocumented in the United States and would have applied criminal sanctions to anyone who helped undocumented aliens to enter and/or remain in the United States. In Chicago, the movement against HR 4437 began shortly after the bill was presented in Congress when Mexican grass roots and other immigrant groups got together. Absent from these initial discussions were official government representatives, particularly members of Congress who represented districts with a high proportion of immigrants, including the incumbent that Omar Lopez is trying to unseat, Luis Gutierrez.

Omar Lopez and other grassroots organizers were pivotal for the immigrant rights movement to flourish in Chicago. As stated previously, in Chicago “clubes de oriundos” and thousands of Chicago soccer clubs mobilized their members at the rallies. More traditional political organizations, including the Democratic Party, appeared later, and almost opportunistically in the political process against HR 4437 under the coalition “Somos América” organized by Illinois Representative Luis Gutierrez. “Somos America” did play an important role on the May 1, 2006 demonstrations, which activists estimated to have mobilized millions around the nation. However, prominent grassroots activists, including Omar Lopez, criticized “Somos América” for attempting to co-opt the movement and steal the thunder from the grassroots activists. In fact, in Los Angeles, “Somos América” did not support the May 1st rally. Rather, Somos América called for an afternoon demonstration on May 1st, after working hours, with the electoral slogan “Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote.” Nevertheless, the boycott was a success in Los Angeles, where private businesses were clearly disrupted and central industries, such as trucking, were effectively shut down.

The Current Challenges

Since the 2006, demonstrations have subsided, but activists continue to organize campaigns in favor of immigrant rights. They have centered on organizing against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and at reuniting families separated by deportations, perhaps the most crucial issues facing immigrant communities today. They also actively organized against the guest worker program sponsored by prominent Democrats such as Luis Gutierrez, which do not address the fundamental concerns for the grass root activists: decriminalization and amnesty for immigrants.

Omar Lopez hopes not only to be elected to Congress and replace Luis Gutierrez but to defend the true interests of immigrants and their fledgling movement. He is also hopeful that his campaign will infuse the movement with a more defined political organization and agenda, something that he claims is possible under the structure and ideals of the Green Party, a leftist, independent political organization. Without doubt, Omar Lopez is also “browning” the Green Party, making its ticket more relevant to Latino and immigrant voters, especially those dissatisfied with the almost cynical and certainly half-baked responses of established politicians to the claims of the immigrant rights movement.

For more information on Omar Lopez campaign go to http://www.omarlopez2008.org/

Jesse Díaz and Javier Rodríguez’s 2007 article, “Undocumented in America” (in New Left Review #47), provides a good overview of the new immigrants rights movement.