My View from the Steps of the Capitol: A Reflection on 15 Years of Immigrant Day in California

Fifteen years ago, on the first Immigrant Day in Sacramento, I remember standing on the Capitol steps. I stood there worried, what if no one showed up?

That fear melted away as I saw a group of Hmong immigrants approach the Capitol from one side. Then I turned to see Russian immigrants approaching from another side, Latinas from across the street, and so many other communities converging on the capitol. We were impressive.

As we prepared our advocates for the first-ever Immigrant Day on May 24th, 1996, I recall working with my fellow leaders and deciding to scrap our formal talking points and encourage our allies instead to speak from their heart–to share their stories.

The legislative response was overwhelmingly positive and we’ve tried to take that approach ever since. When we talk about the real immigrant experience and share ways to make California a better place for everyone, we win.

Advocating for immigrants fifteen years ago required great courage from communities around the state. Back then we were fighting the anti-immigrant policies of Pete Wilson. We worked together to push back as Congress turned its back on immigrants, denying food stamps and SSI and health care benefits to documented and undocumented immigrants. California, home to nearly half of the nation’s immigrants, had to respond and restore this safety net for those who needed it most. We faced a very hostile climate and were fighting against ignorant and regressive policies.

Today, the challenges before us are of a very different nature. Despite overheated rhetoric from our opponents, we have the opportunity to push a forward-looking, progressive and proactive agenda. This year, we’re advocating for the DREAM Act, which helps eliminate barriers for students seeking to access higher education. We have come a long way from Prop 187, but we still have a ways to go.

Immigrants have fundamentally reshaped California and have had a positive impact on our state. We create jobs, we help build the new economy, and we provide the core of our state’s community, civic and economic life. It was when the national AFL-CIO officially changed its policies on immigrant workers embraced this value, and focused on organizing immigrant workers that I wanted to join the Labor Movement.

Fifteen years ago, I was no less certain that we were on the right track than I am today. We may have been a bit frightened about the challenges facing immigrant communities in 1996, but we found that by building a movement, standing up for ourselves and not being afraid of the consequences, we could fundamentally alter our future and the future of California for the better. I am so proud to have played a small role in making this a reality.

Looking forward, we have the responsibility to lead the way and spread the message that we are all in this together. We can encourage and engage our opponents to move beyond the fear mongering and have a real conversation about how we build One California consisting of many peoples. Together we can improve the labor market and create jobs, together we can promote health and safety in our workplace, and together we can create a California that works for all of us.

Click here to register for Immigrant Day 2011.