May Day is an official holiday in 66 countries, unofficially celebrated in all corners of the world, however rarely is it recognized in the United States—the country where it began. More than thirteen decades ago in 1886, at a time when the Statue of Liberty was erected in the New York Harbor, women suffragists watched from afar on a chartered boat, and even before Ellis Island became a gateway for over 12 million immigrants, American workers went on a nationwide strike to successfully win the eight-hour workday in the U.S.
On May 1 of that year, more than 200,000 workers across the U.S. walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in history. A day of worker solidarity and protest, it subsequently was declared “International Workers’ Day” by the International Socialist Conference following the protests in Chicago’s Haymarket Square that resulted from clashes between police and civilians.
Fast forward to 2017, International Workers’ Day protests are expected to draw larger crowds in the U.S. this time with the hopes of highlighting the contributions of immigrant workers when immigrant rights and laws are under attack by anti-immigration groups and by some elements within the administration of President Donald J. Trump.
On the campaign trail, Trump appealed to anti-immigration hardliners with plans to build a wall and deport millions with a level of unvarnished disrespect that alarmed communities and politicians from both sides of the aisle. Although Trump has displayed a softer side for “Dreamers”—undocumented immigrants that came before the age of 16, have been here continuously for five years, and are currently under 35 years old—since taking office, a recent New York Times article shows differences between his rhetoric and the administration’s implementation practices.
According to the NY Times story, a number of anti-immigration hardliners have been appointed to high level positions such as Jon Feere, a former legal policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies who now works for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Julie Kirchner, former executive director of Federation for American Immigration Reform who is a current adviser to the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, and Senior White House adviser, Stephen Miller, known for his anti-immigration work as a former staffer of now Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Likely because of the appointees and promises of the president, the new administration has started deporting more immigrants with no criminal record at a faster rate than the previous administration. At the same time, while the president may be rhetorically showing a soft spot for the so-called Dreamers, the administration has also stepped up the deportation of DACA students, the Dreamers who were granted protection from deportation, and a work permit—a program set to expire after two years and is subject to renewal under former President Obama’s executive order.
In reaction to the course rhetoric, pro-immigration and immigrant groups in a show of preemptive resistance, have started to mobilize. Their short-term target: May Day. Both CASA in Action and Service Employees International Union, among others, have lent a hand in preparing for the May Day protests. “We are asking businesses to close, people to stop working and to come out to our march to show the world that immigrants are a large part of this country and that we make huge contributions. Thousands of people will participate because this is an effort to show the administration’s hypocrisy and their use of scapegoating immigrants” says CASA in Action Communications Manager, Maria Fernanda Durand. Based in greater Washington, D.C metropolitan area, CASA in Action engages in educational activities and legislative and political advocacy in support of Latinos and immigrants in Maryland and Virginia.
Vice President of Services Employee International Union 32BJ and Director of Capital Area District for the union, Jaime Contreras, whose union represents over 160,000 plus workers throughout the East Coast from over 60 different countries, has also mobilized his community to participate and champion immigrant rights. Contreras came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant when he was 13 years fleeing the war in El Salvador in 1988. He understands and has lived through the plight of immigrants, “People come here in the hopes of finding a place that is better than their homeland, and they come here in search of the American dream and what a lot of us find is that it’s now become an American nightmare because of the way this administration is treating immigrant families,” says Contrera.
The march will be held at Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. with different organizations also participating in different parts of the country. “The message is clear to this administration,” says Contreras, “stop deporting families, stop separating families, and stop harassing our community. The president’s policies are anti-American and go against everything we love about this country, which is we are a nation of immigrants and the only way to deal with the immigration problem is through comprehensive immigration reform” says Contreras. Asked what a sensible, humane immigration reform would involve, Contreras says, “give the people who are already here a path for them to stay legally—even if it means they have to pay a fine. Deporting 11 million people is not practical, morally reprehensible and not good for our economy.”
The May Day protests come on the heels of President Trump’s executive order last week aimed at discouraging U.S. businesses from hiring workers from abroad—another sore point in the immigration debate at a time when questions over “what is American” is rife in controversy. Fortunately, at this point, Trump’s order is only to study ways to reduce the H1B visas, with only a limited scope for his action to enforce dramatic changes. Still, the order and the rhetoric are sending a chill through the immigrant community and through businesses that depend on immigration, and the U.S. economy that has come to depend on immigrants.
On the front lines, as the fastest growing minority group, Latinos will be marching alongside other immigrants, refugees, individuals with green cards, students and families from all walks of life, to demand a voice in the most unconventional May Day to date, not just for better working conditions, but for social inclusion—in a democracy with changing demographics.
One hundred and thirty one years later, this May workers will take to the streets again to demand better treatment and their rights; the demographic and protests will differ, but the actions, demands and dreams of those workers will still be very American.