On the front | Voces de la Frontera marches on

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

The marches take activists across bridges, down streets, through parks, along the lakefront, around the Capitol, into the halls of government.

Always the goal for the activists with Wisconsin-based Voces de la Frontera is to pave a path to citizenship – for young dreamers and also for the adults in their families.

“Our huge priority this year is to fight for federal immigration reform, forge a path to citizenship for the 11 million people in this country who are still living in the shadows so they can come into the full light of day,” said Voces executive director Christine Neumann-Ortiz. “That’s long overdue for immigrants.”

President Barack Obama has indicated the dream may not be deferred much longer. Immigration reform is a priority in his second term, which he symbolically began on Jan. 21, taking his public oath of office on the west steps of the Capitol. In his inaugural, he said, “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity.”

Wisconsin voice

Voces, founded in 2001, “fights for the rights of low-income and immigrant workers and students through education, advocacy and organizing.” In addition to the 501(c)(3) group, there is Voces de la Frontera Action, a 501(c)(4) group, and YES!, the Youth Empowered in the Struggle social justice group, with chapters in Wisconsin high schools and universities.

In 2012, Voces was at the forefront of the campaign to protect voting rights in Wisconsin, including challenges to the GOP-driven voter ID law. At the national level, the Obama administration responded to calls from grassroots groups such as Voces to defer deportations of immigrant youths. Voces also supported and promoted workers at Palermo’s Pizza, who went on strike in June for union recognition and continue to picket. The company, one of the largest producers of frozen pizza in the U.S., retaliated against unionizing efforts by intimidating and then firing immigrant workers.

Those efforts helped Neumann-Ortiz earn a place on Huffington Post’s list of “50 young progressive activists who are changing America.” Voces, meanwhile, secured a position as “Most Valuable Grassroots Group” in The Nation’s 2012 honor roll, which also included U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. The Nation said Voces “has allied with antiwar and gay rights groups and placed itself at the center of the struggle to defend public workers and teachers. With the NAACP, it successfully sued to overturn Wisconsin’s voter ID law and got another judge to overturn a redistricting plan that discriminated against Latinos. But the primary focus of Voces is on the toughest fights: organizing and defending immigrant workers. Its campaign on behalf of Palermo Pizza workers forged a strategic alliance with the United Steelworkers and won the endorsement of the AFL-CIO for a boycott of the company’s products.”

Voces also has come to the attention of right-wing media, specifically shock jock Mark Belling, who in recent months has attacked Racine’s annual Martin Luther King Day celebration specifcally because of Voces’ role in organizing it. 

Student Alexia Gates, a senior at Horlick High School in Racine, said Belling cost organizers thousands of dollars in donations and formal support from the school district, the United Way and the Racine Community Foundation. But Belling couldn’t stop the celebration, which included community service efforts, workshops and a march for peace and justice.

“We talked to churches, talked to local businesses, talked to individuals and our schools and community as a whole,” Gates said. “Although we’ve been through so much, we were still able to make this event as successful as it has been for the past three years.”

On King Day, about 500 postcards were distributed calling on WISN station manager Jerry Bott to take Belling off the air “for the harm he’s caused our community and democracy.”

And although the Racine Unified School District chose not to collaborate or support the King Day events, some school officials and teachers attended the programs. The theme was “the students united will never be divided,” Gates said. “And we know that is what King would have wanted.”

“In spite of Belling’s hateful rhetoric and bullying, our young leaders and adults are showing more courage and conviction in honoring Dr. King’s legacy. In fact, Belling might be offering them the best example of why getting involved is so important in the first place,” Neumann-Ortiz said of the King Day event, which was supported by the local teachers’ union and the local NAACP.

In its work,  Voces has built a broad, progressive agenda – peace, justice, education rights, LGBT rights, worker rights and immigrant rights. And it has stood in solidarity with other progressive groups in the state, including Equality Wisconsin, an LGBT civil rights group.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” said EW executive director Jason Burns, a contributing columnist to WiG.

Voces turns out activists for Equality Wisconsin efforts and EW does likewise. 

EW, for example, has marched for immigrant rights in Voces’ annual May 1 event and will do so again this May Day.  And Voces campaigned for domestic partnership rights and against anti-gay marriage drives in the state.

“There are so many parallels,” Neumann-Ortiz said of the LGBT and immigrant rights movements. And, of course, there is a blending of constituencies.

“The communities intersect. There is a need to have strong protection against hate crimes. There are issues around workplace rights,” she said, adding that in the fight for immigration reform is a fight for how families are defined and a struggle to keep families together.

“We have common ground and common goals,” Burns said.

Solidarity for citizenship

With the oaths taken and the new Congress seated, Obama has indicated he wants quick action on immigration reform. 

How quick? A bipartisan group of senators is already writing a bill that could be introduced by March and likely will include a path to citizenship, as well as an increase in the number of visas and probably a guest-worker program.

Lawmakers in both parties cannot avoid the issue without peril – Latinos represent the youngest and fastest-growing voting bloc in the nation. The president won re-election with 65 percent of the Latino vote in Wisconsin and 71 percent nationwide.

“The president’s move to provide relief to hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth through deferred action was instrumental in the remarkable voter turnout that we saw,” said Neumann-Ortiz.

Support for comprehensive reform comes from a coalition of labor, faith, law enforcement, civil rights and business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In a recent speech on the state of business, the chamber’s president called for an overhaul of immigration law, saying the “door to the American dream must always remain open.”

Broad support among voters also exists. A bipartisan poll released in mid-January said four out of five voters support reform ensuring that undocumented immigrants have a chance to work toward citizenship. The survey commissioned by the Service Employees International Union, Americans Voice Education Fund and National Immigration Forum showed support at 83 percent among Republicans, 91 percent among Democrats and 82 percent among Independents.

“The results of this poll confirm that Americans of all political stripes agree that the current patchwork of immigration policies is not working for our nation’s best interests,” NIF board member Jeb Bush Jr. said.

Such broad support may help to explain why Wisconsin’s GOP, looking ahead to the 2014 and 2016 elections, apparently has backed off anti-immigrant legislation modeled on Arizona’s controversial law.

Onward in 2013

By May 1, when Voces holds its annual march and rally in Milwaukee, activists should know the specifics of proposed reform – and where Wisconsin’s congressional members stand on any legislation.

Milwaukee’s May Day marches often are among the largest in the nation. More than 70,000 people attended the 2006 march in Milwaukee, largely a response to U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner’s campaign to bar immigrant workers from getting driver’s licenses. In 2012, an estimated 20,000 people marched.

This year’s May Day event will begin taking shape on Jan. 26, when the organization’s members gather at Ascension Lutheran Church, 1236 S. Layton Blvd., Milwaukee, for an annual assembly. Supporters of Voces’ political action group also will gather that day, with a likely focus on the April elections. For the November election, Voces Action organized 250 volunteers to mobilize voters for Obama and Baldwin, with a focus on 22 Milwaukee wards.

“Every year we have an annual assembly where members come together to elect our steering committee and have a discussion about what our priorities are going to be, about strategies to move forward,” Neumann-Ortiz said.

Looking forward, Gates said, “One thing I hope to see the group accomplish this year is immigration reform. We’ve been in this fight for too long now and it’s time for a change. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Dr. King. …I can’t stop and won’t stop until justice is served and I will continue to fight for what’s right.”