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"Sí Se Puede" Means "We Shall Overcome"

Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.
Chicago, Illinois

The earth is shaking as immigrants rise up around the country with their voices singing "Sí se puede"--Yes, we can. This uprising is in the best tradition of the American Dream and the civil rights struggle for freedom. At great personal risk, immigrants are defending their dignity and energizing the whole movement for social justice.

Let’s be clear right from the start: while the mainstream media seeks to put just a “Mexican face” on the issue, immigrants from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, from Ireland and Canada, from Africa are part of the equation.

Immigrants seek precisely what has made our country great: They thirst for democracy and freedom, a job and security for their families, for citizenship rights and to leave repression and poverty behind. While the White House has turned the fight for freedom and democracy into a tragic rhetorical farce in Iraq, millions of immigrants are keeping the dream alive.

No human being is "illegal." All human beings have human rights. Let no legislation pass that violates this fundamental principle.

This new immigrant freedom movement must and is being embraced by African Americans and today’s movement for peace and social justice. The polls show that the hands that picked the cotton are joining with the hands that picked the lettuce, connecting barrios and ghettos, fields and plantations.

The Republicans have passed the draconian Sensenbrenner legislation in the House of Representatives. This bill would make felons of millions of undocumented immigrants as well as anyone who aids them such as friends, church leaders, teachers, employers and unionists. It authorizes the building of a prison wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

In the name of "fighting terrorism," it unfairly punishes immigrants as suspected terrorists.

So far the Sensenbrenner bill has not passed the Senate or become law. But it has inspired literally millions of Latinos and human rights supporters to rise up with one voice to defend the integrity and dignity of their community.

Anti-immigrant legislation is a cutting edge of the Bush administration’s "war on terror" at home: unconstitutional spying, military tribunals and other acts that undermine the civil liberties of all of us. It is ironic yet fitting that undocumented immigrants, used and abused for so long, are now standing up in unprecedented numbers to assert their humanity and to lead the fight for freedom for all.

Hot anti-immigrant rhetoric --“illegal alien hordes are pouring across the border taking jobs away from Americans” -- Is an awful refrain we have heard before: in the 1880s the anti-Chinese movement led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act banning their immigration; by 1924 all Asians were excluded. The “bracero” program in place from the 1940s to 1960s enticed Filipino and Mexicans to serve as America’s new source of cheap labor.

But immigrants have not just “come” here -- they were “brought” here by employers who have always sought out the lowest wage workforce possible – by going abroad and exploiting Third World workers, and by bringing immigrant labor into the fields, factories, restaurants, high tech firms and even the homes of the U.S.

Immigrants didn’t take jobs from U.S. auto, steel and mineworkers. Big business has been exporting whole industries and jobs -- from steel to textiles -- and replacing them with low wage service jobs. This policy has undermined America’s industrial base and resulted in the loss of millions of middle class jobs. It’s what I call the Wal-Martization of our economy.

Indeed the current circumstances and history of African Americans and Latinos, immigrant and non-immigrant, are indelibly linked.

Many of today’s immigrants share with African Americans a history of enslavement and colonization. They share a history of being subjected to back-breaking, soul deadening work -- or to no work at all.

They share a history of making a way where there was no way, creating community in often hostile environments, and fighting to carve out a better future for their children.

Less than ten percent of enslaved Africans ended up in the United States. The vast majority was shipped to Latin America and the West Indies. Numerous Asian workers were also brought to the Caribbean and Latin America to serve as cheap labor. And indigenous peoples still constitute the core of the population of many of those countries.

African Americans, like Latinos and West Indians, are a beautiful amalgam of many different peoples who share a common history. People of color are brothers and sisters under and of the skin, whether we are called undocumented "Latino" immigrants or "African Americans."

And hundreds of thousands of Asians, Africans and indigenous people are among those now scorned as "illegal" immigrants.

Few complain when African Americans and immigrants are deprived of their rights and relegated to enslavement or cheap labor. But when we become too numerous, begin to demand our right to fair wages, human rights or citizenship suddenly we are denounced as "undermining the economy."

Critics emerge who want to send us back to Africa, back to the plantation, back to Mexico, back to China or shift us to even more barren Native reservations, even those of us who have been here for generations.

Last century’s slave hunters become this era’s illegal alien hunter. The KKK has morphed into the Minutemen border vigilantes. Segregationists have reemerged as exclusionists.

Ironically each new group is said to "undermine the standard of living" of the poorest groupings that preceded it, the better to keep us divided and powerless. 19th and early 20th century European immigrant workers were said to undercut "genuine American stock." African Americans migrants from the South were cursed as scabs on the "white worker." Asians were denounced as a yellow horde that threatened American civilization.

And now Mexican and other undocumented immigrants are said to threaten African Americans and other poor people, not to speak of the entire "American way of life." We cannot underestimate the impact of this new wave of hate-filled rhetoric: just last week, Mayor Antonio Villargorosa of Los Angeles and California Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante received death threats. And a new, “Kill Mexicans” video game is piercing its way through the internet.

But something unprecedented happened when the House approved this latest anti-immigrant legislation. It awakened and stirred the entire Latino community in the U.S. -- 20 million and growing.

Criminals? No. They are our mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles. Illegal aliens? No. They are our friends, teachers, church leaders, health care providers and business owners. Whatever differences we may have are dwarfed by our common struggle for dignity.

From Chicago to Dallas, from Atlanta to Nebraska, from Maine to Los Angeles, and in small towns throughout the land an outpouring of millions of Latinos and human rights supporters are taking to the streets. Immigrants have reignited this era’s civil rights struggle.

Now is the time to put an end to the vicious cycle of pain and blame, to fulfill the promise of the Statue of Liberty and the fundamental notion that all people have "an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

And, indeed, this country also has a powerful tradition of freedom struggle. From Thomas Paine to Harriet Tubman to Eugene Debs to Susan B. Anthony to Martin Luther King to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, it is this freedom struggle that has made our country great.

In today's great movement, many undocumented immigrants have already lost their jobs, been detained or deported, and separated from their families. But like the African American freedom fighters of the 1960s, their minds are "stayed on freedom."

Undocumented Latino and other immigrants have magnificently taken a place in the front ranks of the historic freedom struggle. It is up to the rest of us who profess to love freedom to join them in this epic battle, a battle that is for all of us.

As I see it, their rallying cry --"Sí se puede -- (Yes We Can)" is Spanish for "We Shall Overcome."

Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr., is founder and President of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

Published in In Motion Magazine August 13, 2006.

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