BY RACHELE FRUIT
MIAMI - More than 800 people demonstrated in front of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) offices here on January 14. Chants of "What do we want? Amnesty! When do we want it? Now!" and "Amnesty - yes! Discrimination - No!" could be heard blocks away.
The demonstration was organized by the Committee for Dignity and Justice for Immigrants on the last day that Section 245(i) of the immigration reform act was in force. This provision had allowed immigrants whose visas expired to stay in the country while they requested permanent residence, for a fee of $1,000.
Most of the demonstrators were Haitian and many said they were there to protest discrimination by the U.S. government. Numerous people said they wanted "to see Haitian people treated the same as everyone else," referring to the bill adopted by Congress that promised residency to about 150,000 Nicaraguans, as well as many immigrants from Cuba and western Europe.
After January 14 people who want to apply for residency will have to return to their country of origin and wait for years before they can obtain their status. There is no guarantee they will be accepted.
A representative from the Guatemalan Groups in Exile spoke at the rally and expressed that they also were fighting for equal treatment and that they were organizing a demonstration in Washington, D.C. on January 30, demanding justice for Guatemalan immigrants. As she repeated "Amnistía para todos" (Amnesty for all) several times, the crowd responded enthusiastically.
Francisco Javier Garza from the Farmworker Association of Florida also addressed the crowd. "We all come here to improve our life," he said. "We all have the same problems, suffer the same hunger. We're fighting for the same thing."
Garza told a Militant reporter that in Homestead where he lives, "the INS are stopping cars and they look only at the color of your skin. This is discrimination."
Several students attended the demonstration from Edison High School, where most of the students are Haitian. One senior said "No one in my family has a green card," referring to permanent residency status. "I don't have a green card, so I can't go home for a visit. I haven't seen my mother for five years." Under another part of the new laws, immigrants who have been in the United States without documents can be barred from reentry for up to 10 years if they leave.
Among the speakers at the rally was Tony Jeanthenor from Veye-Yo, a Haitian rights organization, who told the protesters, "They [U.S. officials] don't give any gifts to people. We have to keep protesting in the streets and we will rip our residency from their hands." He told the crowd to support a bill introduced in Congress by Rep. Carrie Meek, a Florida Democrat, that would give residency to about 30,000 Haitian immigrants who came to the U.S. before Dec. 31, 1995.
Along with representatives of different Haitian groups, Monica Russo, southern organizing director for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, also addressed the crowd, as did several immigrant rights lawyers.
Rollande Girard from the Socialist Workers Party also spoke, saying, "The attacks on immigrants' rights and the deportations are part of the workings of the capitalist system in crisis. Look around the world at the economic crisis in Asia, the massacre in Chiapas, Mexico, the U.S. threats against Iraq, and the worsening situation in Haiti, which remains occupied by U.S. troops. More people will be forced to leave their countries," she said. "What we need is a movement like the civil rights movement to fight to defend immigrants, workers, and all the oppressed."
The INS offices were open until midnight that day, as a seemingly endless line of people waited with their manila envelopes and file folders to pay their $1,000 fee. For several hours they could hear the protesters chanting outside.
Rachele Fruit is a member of International Association of
Machinists Local 1126. Rollande Girard, a member of United
Steelworkers of America Local 7609, contributed to this
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