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We Can Change Our Communities with Unity and Determination

We Can Change Our Communities with Unity and Determination

This is a cross-post from The Huffington Post's Spanish-language site, Voces, by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. Read "El Cambio en Nuestras Comunidades se Logra Con Unión y Determinación" on The Huffington Post. 

What is often missing from the highly politicized discussions about Arizona’s immigration policies and Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s law enforcement practices are the stories of people who live with those policies and practices on a day-to-day basis. People like 15-year-old Carmen of Tempe, Ariz. Carmen’s story helps us see that change is not only possible, but becoming more real every day.   

Carmen is part of a new generation of young Latinos who, with the help of unions and community organizations, have taken action on behalf of their own communities for the first time in their lives.

Carmen’s mother works at a carwash all day with no lunch breaks or sick days, “killing herself, sweating to death,” as Carmen puts it. Her mother does not have the proper documentation to live or work in the country.

“It hurts me to know that she can be taken away from me by Arpaio for being undocumented,” Carmen says. “When I’m out there [registering people to vote], that’s what I think about—my mom.”

Once a stranger to civic involvement, Carmen is now a volunteer team leader for the Adiós Arpaio campaign. The campaign is a project of the Campaign for Arizona’s Future political action committee and the political committee of the immigrant rights group, Promise Arizona in Action, with support from the hospitality workers union, UNITEHERE!  Over the past five months, the campaign trained more than 1,700 volunteers to register around 34,300 people (mostly Latinos) to vote. 

Carmen first heard about the community-organized labor coalition through an organizer handing out “Adiós Arpaio” stickers outside her high school, who invited her to attend a campaign meeting. Carmen says she took her involvement one day at a time. Now, more than two months later, she volunteers almost every day.

“I can’t leave [the campaign] even if I try,” Carmen says. “Every time I go out there it gets us closer to getting Arpaio out.” 

The Adiós Arpaio campaign has attracted hundreds of regular volunteers like Carmen, many of them young and Latino, Campaign Communications Director Daria Ovide says. Ovide has a theory as to why so many young Arizonans seem to have taken a sudden interest in state and county politics:

Most volunteers are immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. There’s this overwhelming fear among the parents of our volunteers. In their countries of origin, the parents feared the drug cartels, their governments. Here, they fear Arpaio, losing their jobs for speaking up, being deported. Their children react to this fear and they make a choice. And they’ve decided to do something different. Their children are American. They see themselves as American. And they’re fighting back in a more public way.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, a similar effort around similar issues took place in a state about a two-and-a-half-hour drive west of Carmen’s hometown. There, in 1994, California lawmakers introduced a discriminatory and inhumane ballot initiative—Prop. 187—that, among other things, would have prohibited aspiring citizens from using social services such as health care and public education. Then-Republican Gov. Pete Wilson was among the initiative’s most prominent supporters.

The idea behind that initiative was to make life so unbearable for people living in California without proper documentation, that they would have no other choice but to leave the state, go back to their countries of origin, self-deport. Sound familiar?

Soon after Prop. 187’s passage in late 1994, Californians came together to oppose and ultimately defeat Wilson-style divisive political agendas. They did it through organizing, community outreach and voter registration drives. As the Fronteras Desk Blog recently noted, political analysts believe California became a solid blue state during the ’90s due to a surge of Latino voters who were responding in part to Prop. 187.

To help bring about a repeat of history, last month, 50 students and DREAMers from Los Angeles traveled by bus to Phoenix on a trip sponsored by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor to help register new voters. That support energized Arizona activists, who were already well on their way to turning frustration with their state’s policies into political change. In 2011, they came together to make Republican state Sen. Russell Pearce, one of S.B. 1070’s most prominent sponsors, the first state lawmaker ever to be ousted in a recall election.

Now Sheriff Arpaio is up for re-election for the fifth time in his 20 years as sheriff of Maricopa County. This year’s election is shaping up to be the most contested of his career—a testament to the power of young people like Carmen, activist unions and other community members acting together. 

Regardless of the Maricopa County election results, the new movement that unions, immigrant rights advocates and other community allies have forged with the Latino community of Arizona will remain.

As Carmen put it—entertaining a possible Arpaio re-election—“I’ll keep fighting. I’m still going to try to make a change. I’m not stopping at all.”

And how could she? Her family’s future depends on it. As long as workers, community members and other sympathizers inside and outside Arizona continue to reach out to people like Carmen, the forces of divisiveness, hatred and fear that have temporarily taken hold of that state’s politics will ultimately be defeated. It’s happened before and it can happen again.

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