Saket Soni is Executive Director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice and the National Guestworker Alliance.
I arrived in New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina. It was a moment in America that many of us remember well. People from all walks of life came to New Orleans—white workers and African American workers, Latinos and Native Americans, men and women. They brought whatever they had to rebuild the city: skills, tools, and empathy.
Among them were immigrant day laborers. Nobody sent them. They just picked up their tools and came to help rebuild an American city to be what it once was and what it should be. They came and gave their labor so New Orleanians could come home.
Yes, they worked for pay—and often had their wages stolen from them. But they also volunteered to rebuild New Orleanians' homes. On the first May 1 after Katrina, day laborers marked International Workers' Day by rebuilding the home of an elder in the community.
These day laborers and others like them—in post-Sandy New Jersey, in post-tornado Oklahoma, in virtually every corner of the country—have worked to help others rebuild their homes, communities, and lives. They deserve the right to remain.
As the Senate debates how immigrants may qualify for legalization under its new immigration proposal, one amendment could pave the road to citizenship with community service, civic participation, and volunteerism.
This week, Senator Cardin introduced Amendment 1294, which would recognize the invaluable contributions immigrants have made to our country through volunteering and community service. Indeed, during times of great crisis, America's day laborers and other undocumented workers have a track record of coming forward to volunteer in service of our neighbors, our communities, and our country.
Last year, when Hurricane Sandy struck New York City, day laborers stepped up from all around the region to assist their fellow New Yorkers. As the New York Times reported, day laborers formed "volunteer brigades, helping other people chip away at the mountains of debris and accepting nothing in return except work gloves, face masks and safety information cards from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration."
These day laborers risked deportation and injury to support communities ravaged by Sandy and abandoned by government agencies. As one group of day laborers showed up to Far Rockaway, one of the poorest and hardest hit areas in New York, organizers of an emergency food drive thought they were looking for handouts. But after the workers told the crew they were there to help out as well, all the volunteers stood side by side to clean out and reconstruct the devastated neighborhood—the food drive operators happy to have assistance, the laborers gratified to be recognized as human beings and neighbors, as more than a piece of labor.
As President Obama reflects on his trip to Arizona on Jan. 25, look he has some soul searching to do. In recent months, rx the President has displayed a schizophrenic approach to immigration as he attempts to straddle impossible opposites. He gives lip service to legalization but doubles down behind policies that criminalize. The Department of Homeland Security, nurse headed by Arizona’s former Governor, has made conscripting states into immigration enforcement a centerpiece strategy while the Department of Justice sues states for usurping federal authority. Within the white house, it would seem that constitutional rights and discriminatory deportation programs are in a tug of war.
Nowhere else in the country is this disconnect more clear than in Arizona.