Activists urged to build alliances

November 18, 2006|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

When Juan Carlos Ruiz suggested to fellow organizers that tens of thousands of immigrants would descend on Washington to protest restrictive immigration reform legislation, they laughed at him.

But on March 7, immigrants and their supporters flocked to the steps of the Capitol. And they swept into the streets again on April 10 for large rallies in Washington and other cities nationwide.

The demonstrations were effective only because organizers reached beyond racial and ethnic barriers to build allies and tap into common bonds, Ruiz said yesterday to an audience of academics, activists and social service providers at Baltimore's third Immigration Summit sponsored by Towson University and the city.

"We should not only talk about building bridges among immigrants, but we must talk about building bridges among people in the struggle, with the underclass," said Ruiz, a coordinator of the National Capital Immigrant Coalition, an immigrant advocacy group in the Washington region that staged rallies in the spring.

Ruiz offered the 150 advocates who gathered at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture a crash course in grass-roots organizing, peppering his comments with advice, humor and realism. Though what has emerged as an immigrant movement is largely Latino-led, it must encompass all groups, he said.

"We shouldn't get African immigrants and African-Americans and Asians in the movement because it looks good in pictures," he said. "We need everyone to get involved because they want to alter the power relationship."

Overcoming barriers among various immigrant communities and between immigrants and natives was the theme of the conference, which touched on such varied issues as health disparities, domestic violence and the role that the arts can play in connecting cultures.

A panel discussion that included Del. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, a Baltimore County Democrat and native of Jamaica, and Luis E. Borunda, Maryland's deputy secretary of state, touched on the role that race plays in the immigration debate.

Ben Vinson, director of the Center for Africana Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, cautioned against what he sees as a reflex in American society: pitting African-Americans against the nation's burgeoning Latino population. He noted that Latinos are an ethnic group whose members can be of any race.

"The complexity of the immigrant experience is sometimes condensed into the shorthand of race," he said. "We need to avoid a silent race war when it seems they are pitted against each other."

The annual event began as an effort to connect the various social service providers and activists who had been working piecemeal to aid the region's small but growing immigrant population, said Elizabeth J. Clifford, a sociology professor at Towson University who helped launch the effort.

"It occurred to me that people just did not know about all the different organizations with services to immigrants," she said. "We wanted to focus on the issues unique to Baltimore."

Leonie J. Brooks, a psychology professor at Towson University, who came to the United States from Jamaica more than two decades ago, said the event presented an opportunity for participants to work together.

"There are a lot of common problems across groups," she said. "But I think that's lost because of the way the issues are framed. At least in a forum like this we can talk to each other to find some sense of commonality."

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