How Immigrant Activists Changed L.A.

How Immigrant Activists Changed L.A.

At the 2010 May Day rally in Los Angeles (SEIU / Flickr)

Once known as the “wicked city” for its vicious anti-labor politics, Los Angeles has, particularly over the last decade, gained a reputation as a bastion of progressivism. In L.A., one of the few places in the United States where private-sector unionization saw steady gains before the 2008 recession, activists have organized across racial lines for community benefits agreements, job training programs, and transit justice. They have also elected progressive mayors like former community organizer Antonio Villaraigosa in 2005—eight years before Bill de Blasio’s victory in our (friendly) rival city, New York—and Eric Garcetti, the city’s youngest mayor in more than a century, in 2013.

Why the dramatic shift in L.A.’s tone and policy? Any success has many parents (or, at least, people who claim to be its parents), but there seem to be three main causes: the rise of a progressive labor movement with electoral ambitions and skills, the emergence of regional community-based organizing with a sharp analysis of power, and—the concern that lies at the heart of this essay—the creation of an immigrant voice that has gained both the confidence and the capacity to effect change.

While the importance of immigrants in L.A. has not gone unnoticed, they are often depicted largely as a complementary force to labor (see Ruth Milkman’s L.A. Story) or community-based organizing (see our own L.A. Rising). But immigrant rights organizers and advocates—often immigrants, themselves—have not just played supporting roles in the progressive make-over of L.A. Rather, they have had their own organizations, agendas, and political battles to improve the quality of daily life in a region in which nearly one-tenth of residents are undocumented and where one in five children have at least one undocumented parent.

At the same time, immigrant rights organizations and their leaders have been deliberate in joining the progressive pull in California’s Southland. So a better understanding of the contribution of these advocates—and how they came to see themselves as tied to a broader progressive project in Los Angeles—can help illustrate how other cities in the United States can promote immigrant integration, stronger movements for social justice, and a better future for all.


The “Los Angeles Riots” of 1992 were a breaking point in L.A.’s political history. While cataclysmic violence cast into stark relief the deeply conflictual relationship between the police and the community (and eventually led to major reforms in the Los Angeles Police Department), the unrest was not only connected to police abuse. The fact that the wave of looting and arson occurred in areas where per capita incomes were half that of the rest of the city highlighted the contradiction between a rapidly deindustrializing economy and the anemic response of a five-term African-American mayor, Tom Bradley, to poverty in the city’s black and Latino neighborhoods.

Indeed, the “civil unrest”—as it is referred to by many on the left—bolstered a progressive critique that the Bradley strategy, which had focused on boosting downtown development and generating more government positions for people of color, could not by itself address inequalities in income and opportunity. From this analysis grew one of the country’s first battles for a living wage and, to achieve this, the creation of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE). Birthed from the County Federation of Labor (known as the “Fed”), LAANE now boasts a staff of about fifty. But its mission remains laser-sharp in its focus on working poverty and it continues to work closely with the Fed.

It was not just a focus on broadening economic opportunity that emerged from the ashes. The 1992 unrest also revealed that the region had rapidly and dramatically “Latinized,” and nowhere was this more apparent than in South Central, the historic heart of black Los Angeles. While television commentators and pundits seemed surprised at seeing Latinos in the riot-torn streets—and even more surprised when post-riot analysis revealed that about half of the people arrested during the widespread looting were Latino—it was no big shock to statisticians like myself: while South L.A. was roughly 80 percent African American in 1970, it was 45 percent Latino in 1990 and is about two-thirds Latino today.

One of the main drivers of that change was immigration. In 1980, 22 percent of L.A. County residents were foreign-born, a figure that rose to 33 percent in 1990 and has since leveled off (36 percent in 2000 and 35 percent in 2010). The largest numbers came from Mexico and other Latin-American countries. Often undocumented, the newcomers expanded the ranks of the working poor as good jobs in durable manufacturing slipped during nationwide deindustrialization and lower-paid service sector and non-durable manufacturing jobs filled the void. Spilling out of traditional entry neighborhoods like Pico-Union, Westlake, or East L.A. into other parts of the city like South Central, chain migration soon further swelled their ranks.

The new immigrants expanded the community and labor base for left-leaning politics in Los Angeles, particularly as organizers sought to channel the rage that had burned down part of the city into something more socially productive. Through the 1980s and 1990s, union organizers found that immigrants brought a repertoire of practices that included familiarity with labor organizing—and immigrant janitors, hotel workers, and others proved themselves willing to stage dramatic strikes and public actions (such as marching through major commercial corridors) to secure new contracts. The impacts of these organizing efforts can be seen in the data: from 2000 to the Great Recession of 2008, U.S. private-sector unionization dropped from 9 percent to 7.6 percent, while in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area (the so-called Combined Statistical Area) those rates went from 8.9 percent to 10.6 percent.

Of course, making change also requires political voice. While Latinos comprised nearly 40 percent of the city’s population in 1990, they made up only about 10 percent of L.A.’s registered voters, partly because of immigration status and partly because they were (and are) a younger population. However, immigrants became part of the army of precinct walkers who expanded the number of pro-labor voters even when they themselves could not vote. Such immigrant-involved electoral organizing was facilitated by union contracts that included “lost time payments” for members to do union work, thus giving the central labor council access to the best worker organizers. And while labor took the lead in this type of campaigning, it was partially built on a set of grassroots get-out-the-vote efforts from the mid-eighties— originally put in place by community organizers seeking to shift spending from military to civilian purposes—known as the Jobs with Peace campaign.

Meanwhile, local groups, often starting from a strong base in black neighborhoods, similarly found that immigrants could be loyal members of broad-based coalitions for economic and social justice. These included drives to win less expensive and more accessible mass transit (that is, the Bus Riders Union–led campaign against the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority that secured a 1996 consent decree to expand bus service and hold the line on fares), better job training (such as the Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education–led campaign that won a private-sector-funded workforce development program from DreamWorks in 1999), and community benefits agreements that held developers accountable to the communities in which they built (like the 2001 campaign at the Staples Center led by Strategic Actions for a Just Economy and LAANE, with a surprising role for immigrant organizers usually assumed to be witnesses and not participants in such key decisions). In short, the L.A. progressive renaissance had much to do with immigrant energy and enthusiasm, and the weaving of new multi-racial coalitions for social change.


So goes the story of how immigrants helped fuel labor and community-organizing in progressive Los Angeles. But there is a broader tale to be told in which immigrant rights work had its own unique and parallel arc toward justice. For while 1992 was a crucible for a rebirth of progressive politics in Los Angeles, 1994 was an equally momentous year for immigrant rights: California voters enacted Proposition 187, a measure designed to bar undocumented immigrants from using nearly every public service, including education for their children. The courts later struck down most of its provisions but it managed to spark an autonomous immigrant-rights movement.

Moreover, the campaigns for and against Prop 187 made two important things clear. First, the Republican decision to embrace the nativist reaction eventually marginalized the party as the state’s demographics and political attitudes shifted. The second but less appreciated consequence of the campaign was that it revealed a growing tension between recent immigrants and many traditional Latino political officials (nearly all of whom were then Mexican-Americans).

The initial flash point for the latter came in the fall of 1994 when such officials criticized a march against Prop 187 that included participants boisterously flying Mexican flags. For immigrant organizers, this critique seemed to miss the point of the march—which was not so much to win an election as it was to inspire immigrants to take independent political action. It was a striking idea—immigrants as actors, not subjects—and it triggered a debate about who should be in control of the strategy to defend their rights.

The uneasy and uncertain relationship between immigrants and U.S.-born Latino leaders is actually a key feature of Latino political ascendance in L.A. While the rising share of immigrants (and the wave of naturalizations that came in reaction to Prop 187’s victory) propelled Latino politicians, it was not a passive process of accumulating voters and assimilating immigrants into ethnic politics; indeed, several of the rising Latino officials, including Antonio Villaraigosa and Gil Cedillo, found themselves learning Spanish to better communicate with newcomers who had their own hopes and demands.

And this non-traditional approach to ethnic politics was also demonstrated in the ways in which campaigns played out. For example, Marty Martinez, a pro-business Latino Democrat, was thrown out of Congress in 2000 when L.A.’s Central Labor Council complained he was not supportive enough of its concerns. The council mobilized its union and immigrant bases to win the seat for Hilda Solis (who later became President Obama’s Secretary of Labor—the first Latino to hold that post—and is now on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors).

And being Latino was not enough to guarantee success with immigrant voters and activists. In 2000, Jackie Goldberg, a Jewish, lesbian city council member who led the fight for the living wage, ran for state assembly against a Latino opponent supported by political figures who complained that she was competing in a “Latino” district. The 45th Assembly District was more

than 70 percent Latino. But Goldberg won with strong support from labor, progressives, and immigrants, all of whom cared more about her agenda than her ethnic background.

It was a similar coalition—and not simply demographic change—that helped Villaraigosa become the city’s first Latino mayor since 1872. After all, while the city went from about 39 percent Latino in 1990 to 47 percent in 2000, the election of Villaraigosa occurred in a decade during which the percentage of Latinos barely budged (it was 48 percent in 2010). Instead, there was a nuanced process in which immigrants, the labor movement, and progressives wound up pulling traditional politicians, including Latinos, in their direction, instead of just the other way round.


Immigrant electoral politics was bevvied by a number of immigrant rights organizations that combined demands for immigrant rights with gains at the workplace—often outside of a traditional union structure. They included the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Association (KIWA), the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), the South Asian Network (SAN), and the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN). Activist groups like these made sure that immigrants were not simply providing “boots on the ground” for a newly mobilized labor movement and its electoral ambitions. Rather, their members helped shift the stance of organized labor both locally and nationally.

In 1999, breaking from organized labor’s historically anti-immigrant stance, the AFL-CIO, with heavy influence from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, officially adopted a platform supportive of immigrant rights and comprehensive immigration reform. The following year, a labor-sponsored hearing to demonstrate support for the importance of immigration reform—one of a series of forums across the nation—drew an overflow crowd of about 20,000 at the L.A. Sports Arena. “If someone had told me three or four years ago that we’d be taking this position today,” John Wilhelm (then president of HERE) told the L.A. Weekly of the AFL-CIO’s reversal on immigrant politics, “I’d have thought they were out of their minds.”

Meanwhile, the immigrant rights groups themselves jumped into direct electoral work when in 2003, a statewide bill repealed the right of undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. The next year, a new statewide multiethnic collaborative called Mobilize the Immigrant Vote (MIV) began registering, educating, and mobilizing residents to vote and became part of a larger set of efforts to encourage infrequent voters to cast their ballots. MIV’s impact extends beyond Los Angeles County.

Yet the real “coming out” of immigrant organizers occurred on May 1, 2006. Across America, immigrant activists and their allies in labor, the left, and faith communities (most prominently, the Catholic Church) came together to protest the proposal of the Sensenbrenner-King bill in Congress. Among its other draconian provisions, this bill would have criminalized any assistance to undocumented immigrants. While the turnout was dramatic all over the country, the largest crowd gathered in Los Angeles: here, half a million people clogged downtown streets.

And unlike in 1994, this time—and at the insistence of immigrant organizers themselves—many marchers waved American flags and encouraged one another to become citizens and to vote. Indeed, a popular chant in that May Day march was “Hoy Marchamos, Mañana Votamos” (“Today, We March; Tomorrow, We Vote”). A surge of naturalizations did occur, as lawful permanent immigrants realized the best way to defend their relatives was to show up on election day. Soon, Republican office-holders became as scarce in Los Angeles as a rainy day in August.

The multiethnic nature of this organizing showed that this was a movement and not a special interest group. Groups like the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (since renamed Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a telling switch) was critical to showing that this was not a matter of Latino politics. Other organizations like the Pilipino Workers Center helped Asian immigrants engage with the labor movement, particularly since their members were (and are) low-wage, often undocumented workers in homecare and other exploited occupations.

African-American politics in L.A. changed too. While the aforementioned Latinization of South Central fueled certain conflicts and fed into some nationalist impulses, the most successful organizations in the new landscape were committed to—indeed, had to be committed to—black-brown coalition building, including around issues of education, neighborhood quality of life, jobs, and immigrant rights. In return, the largely Latino (and often immigrant) SEIU deliberately organized a largely black security guard sector while a similarly Latino-dominated union, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), secured provisions in new contracts to ensure outreach to and hiring of black workers who were once so prominent in the sector but had since been eclipsed by Latino numbers.


So where will L.A. be in 2015? A strong progressive movement with prominent immigrant voices has given Mayor Garcetti an opportunity both to reboot the Office of Immigrant Affairs—which was established by Mayor James Hahn (2001–2005) but lay dormant under Villaraigosa (2005–2013)—and to advocate what is likely to be the nation’s most significant increase in a city’s minimum wage. (Seattle’s $15 will be higher, but Mayor Garcetti’s proposed $13.25 will cover more people given the extent of working poverty in L.A.)

Los Angeles has become a city where a progressive think tank can propose a measure to address inequality and have it swiftly put on the books: LAANE developed a policy package to adopt a competitive franchise system for waste collection that would simultaneously reduce the city’s trash, improve the environment, and create green jobs. The city council adopted it relatively quickly, considering the fierce opposition from businesses that led to what the L.A. Times deemed “a battle royale” at city hall over the issue. L.A. is also a place where unions can still improve conditions for union and non-union workers alike—as has been the case for workers in big hotels who will, starting in July 2015, be paid a minimum wage of $15.37.

Local politicians have also done the right thing to aid immigrants in legal limbo. In July 2014, the Mayor and the LAPD announced they would no longer honor “detainer” requests from ICE, the federal agency responsible for immigration and customs. Detainers are government attempts to jail an undocumented man or woman arrested for a non-immigration-related offense, such as a minor driving violation, for up to two extra days beyond their release date (either because they posted bail or because the charges were dropped) in order to transfer him or her to the ICE. This has been a huge relief for families whose lives have been disrupted by deportation.

Los Angeles has become a city where immigrants routinely lobby public officials not only to end such detainers or the towing of cars driven by undocumented (and, as a result, unlicensed) drivers but also pressure policymakers for better land-use planning, improved education, and enhanced job training. City officials have also encouraged naturalization, joining New York and Chicago in a Cities for Citizenship campaign that aims to increase the number of immigrants eligible to vote and use public services. Even public libraries have gotten into the act, creating “citizenship corners” that provide information to immigrants where they live.

L.A. is also one of the centers of the DREAMers movement, which seeks to legalize the status of undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. One sign of the progressive nature of the movement’s local branch is the existence of “Dream Summer”—a title that is a nod to the youth of the civil rights movement. It places these young migrants in organizations that work for LGBTrights, climate justice, and a variety of other issues. Dream Summer nudges participants to view themselves as part of a wider left while simultaneously helping the groups in which they intern better understand immigrant issues. Tellingly, it is run out of the UCLA Labor Center, an organization traditionally focused on developing union leadership.

Of course, one should not make too much of L.A.’s pro-immigrant surge. The city has lagged behind other big cities in enacting policies that would improve the daily lives of immigrants, such as issuing municipal identification cards (New Haven, Connecticut, took that lead). Moreover, L.A. County frequently heads in a direction different than the city; for example, its Board of Supervisors recently reaffirmed a policy to have the County Sheriff hand off immigrant detainees to federal authorities. Still, this is a remarkable change from the past and it holds hopes for an even more welcoming future.


That immigrant politics would tilt in a progressive direction in Los Angeles— or anywhere else—was not a foregone conclusion. Certainly, activists saw their work as advancing a universal ideal of human rights, which is essential to defending those without papers. The prior involvement of some immigrants in labor and leftist movements in their homelands also created a basis for political engagement. However, emphasis on individual initiative, the conservative pull of cultural traditions, and the desire to avoid the overt discrimination faced by African Americans are also factors that can drive immigrants to the right of the political spectrum.

The question of how Latino immigrants identify themselves by their race is one part of this equation. Some commentators predict that most Latinos will eventually identify themselves as “white”—helping America become a “post-racial” society without solving the problem of racial inequality at all. But research on Southern California Latinos actually suggests that the longer Latino immigrants are in the country, the less “white” they feel. Some of that is due to the way in which the contemporary hostility to immigrants creates a sense of being “other.” But it is also the case that key campaigns, such as those around transit justice or domestic workers’ rights, have created coalitions in which participants are self-identified “people of color.”

In any case, progressive identification by immigrants must be nurtured, not assumed. According to Angelica Salas, executive director of one of L.A.’s most well-known immigrant rights groups, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), the choice of a progressive identity for CHIRLA was intentional, not accidental. While the organization cut its teeth protecting day laborers and continues to lobby on issues relating to local, state, and federal policy toward immigrants, it has recognized that what will most improve immigrant lives are policies that should appeal to other Americans, too: a stronger and more inclusive economy, a cleaner and more sustainable environment, and an educational system that leads to economic security, rather than a path to the criminal justice system.

Working in coalition on all these matters helps to build alliances with progressives, and the logic flows in the other direction as well. In Los Angeles—and across the country—progressives have to work hard to secure the loyalties of immigrants by proving their own solidarity with immigrant concerns. It is remarkably easy for the immigrant agenda to slip off the table; witness the president’s postponement of executive action on immigration until after the November election and the reluctance of congressional Democrats to force the issue. While the eventual decision to defer deportation for millions of undocumented residents was a welcome victory for immigrant advocates and their allies, it’s important to remember what is always at stake in delays and decisions: the future political alignment of both immigrants and their children and the way that that could create a different—and progressive—new American majority

After all, it is not just progressives who are cultivating an immigrant following. In Los Angeles and elsewhere, evangelical Christians are increasingly waking up to their undocumented congregants and have started to back some version of immigration reform. Right-leaning megachurches view this strategy, in part, as a way of increasing their numbers. The Mormon Church has worked to limit the worst nativist impulses and civic leaders in the very red state of Utah have agreed to a “Utah Compact” that would improve the lives of immigrant residents in that state. (Utah also secured driver’s licenses for undocumented residents long before progressive California, and also secured in-state tuition for that same group a mere one year after the Golden State.)

So progressives need to take the lead on creating a welcoming atmosphere for immigrants, particularly in metropolitan areas that are politically to the left. We should help protect families from the threat of deportation, encourage naturalization and other forms of civic engagement, promote English classes and job training, and continue to include immigrants in broader movements for economic and environmental justice. The political payoff for the progressive agenda will come in unexpected ways: for example, Latino voters in California are actually more concerned about climate change than white voters (and this sentiment is even stronger on the part of those Latinos who are Spanish-dominant and so, likely to be immigrants) and they are therefore a key component of addressing our climate crisis.

Coalition-building at the local level is especially important as long as immigration reform is stuck in Congress. But it may not be stuck forever. Consider that the next electoral redistricting will occur in 2021, right after a presidential election in which there will be more Latinos, Asians, and black people (in addition to immigrants and their children) in the electorate. The resulting remapping could release us from the current gerrymandered Congress in which Tea Party Republicans hold undue influence and are therefore plugging the dike against a potential tide of change.

Will progressives be ready to seize that moment? It will require many things: a more compelling narrative about the ills of the economy; a willingness to connect issues such as marriage equality, immigration reform, and women’s reproductive rights to an economic justice agenda; and a clear-eyed strategy to both win elections and govern effectively. Immigrants and their children are a vital part of the progressive coalition, but the alliance is not predestined. As immigrants see progressive politicians as a wise option and as those political actors work in collaboration with immigrant rights organizers—as they have in contemporary Los Angeles—we will build an America that is more inclusive and more equitable for us all.


Manuel Pastor is professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and the director of the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity.

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