Immigrant Workers March on D.C.: ‘Trump Benefits When We are Divided’
Outside a creaky, two-story building that looked to be more house than office space in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C., a sign saying “DC en huelga!” welcomed guests. Inside: a flurry of activity.
Cases of bottled water and bags of fruit lined the doorway, ready to be distributed to protesters. In the hall, a boisterous community organizer named Hannah Kane switched seamlessly between phone calls in Spanish and conversations in English, all while tip-toeing around a sea of protest signs that littered the floor. “Stop police brutality against DC trans women now!” one read, while another demanded, “Ice in our raspados not in our barrios.” There were giant, hand-painted banners being constructed by organizers and volunteers.
This bustling office is the home of Many Languages One Voice (MLOV), an organization that empowers Limited English Proficient/Non-English Proficient people by teaching them community organizing so they can advocate for their rights and access public benefits and services in the District of Columbia.
MLOV organized DC on Strike, a collective demand for the city to provide sanctuary to vulnerable communities; for the respect and uplifting of affected leaders, including those in immigrant, Muslim, and queer communities; and for the City Council to commit to protecting vulnerable people from the Trump administration. Twenty-seven organizations signed on as partners to the event, and it included participation from Beyond the Moment, a coalition of more than 50 organizations engaged in a month of action that culminated on Monday.
MLOV granted Rewire permission to trail it during DC On Strike, which coincided with May Day—also known as International Workers’ Day, an occasion marked by marches and demonstrations. Historically, workers have gone on strike on May Day, and that was perhaps the biggest risk MLOV members were taking. Because it is illegal for undocumented people to work in the United States, they are one of the workforce’s most exploited populations: They have few workplace protections, work longer hours for little pay, often work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, and are threatened with deportation if they speak out against this workplace exploitation. Striking for one day could mean losing employment, or worse.
One of the most important services MLOV offered to those on strike were “walk-back teams” of volunteers who would return to a worker’s place of employment with them if they feared retaliation for not working on Monday. The employer would be presented with a community letter that served as a warning: We are watching you. The team stays in touch with the worker, to ensure that they were not being threatened for striking.
Elizabeth Falcon, executive director of DC Jobs with Justice, coordinated the teams. She told Rewire that it’s a tactic successfully used by Fight for $15 activists.
“A lot of these folks aren’t protected by a union so these walk-back teams are the closest thing to protection they have,” Falcon said. “It’s a support system and a watchful eye. It tells employers they can’t punish a person for striking.”
Back at MLOV’s office space on Monday, across from Executive Director Sapna Pandya’s office, a group of women worked upstairs to comfortably affix buckets to their waists with rope. These would serve as makeshift drums for the three-hour march to the White House, an action that was three months in the making. The women drummed loudly in unison between bites of breakfast sandwiches. The sound reverberated through the building, seeming to bother no one, including Sulamita Kafati, who was next door in the kitchen having a cup of coffee and staring out the window, as if the drumming wasn’t even happening.
Kafati is an elderly undocumented woman and a member of the Comité de Apoyo Laboral y Poder Obrero, a worker-led group that fights for the protection of worker rights and dignity. It is one of a few groups housed under MLOV.
With the help of an interpreter, Kafati told Rewire she has spent many years working in the restaurant industry but has been unemployed for a year. Shortly after a co-worker made unwanted sexual advances, Kafati fell ill and was hospitalized for a few days. When she returned to work with a doctor’s note to explain her absence, she was fired. It is because of experiences like this, she said, that she was marching.
“There is mistreatment of workers here and people are not paid for the work they do,” Kafati said. “There is mistreatment from co-workers, from bosses, there is all kinds of abuse against workers.”
Kafati’s family has been brutalized by the immigration system. When her Houston-based brother was deported to El Salvador, his children were left alone. He was so distraught from being separated from his children that he killed himself, Kafati told Rewire. The activist said that another brother was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and badly beaten. But she remains optimistic; what brings her hope, she said, are her religious beliefs. Despite so much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric emanating from the White House, several miles away from where she sat, Kafati is not afraid of marching, speaking out, or making her story known. She is confident that God is on her side and that immigrants–and their rights–will prevail.
Before the undocumented student movement that emerged in the early 2000s, one in which undocumented youth made their immigration status known for the first time while risking deportation by participating in acts of civil disobedience, it was unheard of to publicly discuss your lack of “papers.” The risk of detainment and deportation was too great. But that’s changed drastically since the student movement surrounding the DREAM Act, which could have been a pathway to citizenship for young, undocumented people who met specific educational requirements.
The starting point for MLOV’s May Day march was Lamont Park, where the all-woman drum circle gained a new member: Lazaro. Dressed in jeans and work boots, Lazaro danced and drummed, his joy infectious. Lazaro, an undocumented person from Mexico and a member of MLOV, told Rewire he used to be afraid of making his immigration status known, but not anymore.
“When I came to the United States I was very scared, but I decided to fight. To fight for human rights because that is the right way. I’m here to support my people because no human being is illegal,” he said.
Lazaro certainly wasn’t afraid to speak out against Trump. He explained to Rewire that he can’t work at many places in the United States because of “background checks for immigrants.” It is technically illegal for undocumented people to work in the United States. Electronic systems like E-Verify, for example, are used by employers to ensure workers are American citizens.
“I have to go through background checks, everyone must, but what about Trump’s background?” Lazaro earnestly asked. “He disrespects women. He disrespects Mexicans and Black people and immigrants. He doesn’t pay taxes—but I pay taxes. Immigrants pay taxes. He has a lot of bad things in his background. Why is he president?”
After a testimony from an immigrant woman at Lamont Park who shared that workers like her were often denied the ability to drink water or use the restroom during shifts while enduring sexual harassment and being made to feel “like a machine,” Lazaro grew increasingly upset talking about the hardships of the undocumented community. When coupled with immigrants working in industries rife with abuse and exploitation—like the restaurant industry—a distressing picture emerges.
Black members of the restaurant industry were in attendance as well. Quantina Pringle, a 34-year-old restaurant server, spoke at Lamont Park on behalf of Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United. Pringle told the crowd on Monday that she was recently diagnosed with cancer and she was there for the restaurant workers who couldn’t afford to miss a shift and for populations within the restaurant industry who are often overlooked, including members of the LGBTQ community and disabled people.
Whether intentionally or by virtue of the fact that the populations historically affected by low-wage, abusive workplaces are people of color, MLOV’s DC on Strike rally was intersectional, highlighting how the most vulnerable communities are always those with the most complex identities. A white, self-identified socialist eager to speak to Rewire about how “capitalism sucks dick” seemed to be missing much-needed context about how the exploitation off of which capitalism thrives is compounded by race, immigration status, and gender identity, among other factors. Activists who spoke at DC on Strike made those connections known.
Tracye, a member of the D.C. chapter of the Movement for Black Lives, told the crowd that as a Black, queer person, he had no choice but to be there.
“Too often, we talk about immigration without talking about Black people. Liberty is intersectional and when Black people are free, everyone is free,” Tracye said. “I also have a message for white ‘allies’: We don’t need allies; we need co-conspirators and accomplices. What will you risk for someone who doesn’t look like you?”
Ruby Corado—a formerly undocumented transgender Salvadoran woman and the founder of Casa Ruby, one of the only bilingual, multicultural, LGBT organizations in the United States—addressed Monday’s crowd while draped in a rainbow flag. She said that while men receive a bulk of the media attention in the immigrant rights movement, it is women of color and members of the LGBTQ community who often do the work and lead the way. Any divisions must be done away with, she said.
“Black people and Latinos have no room to be divided right now,” Corado said. “Only the system benefits when we are divided, Donald Trump benefits when we are divided, and we are the ones that will save each other’s lives.”
Corado told Rewire that LGBTQ people have always been a force in the immigration movement, but their voices are not uplifted and they are not given the space to be leaders. When that space is given, all of the movements that have failed to invite trans women of color to the table—including the LGBTQ rights movement and the environmental movement—will undergo a “powerful change.”
MLOV’s march converged with other organizations at its first stop at Malcolm X Park, gaining even more people at Freedom Plaza. Workers of color at restaurants, banks, and hotels often peeked out of their places of employment long enough to take a quick photo or raise their fist in solidarity. White people in high rises filmed marchers.
More than 100 people marching with MLOV made their way to the White House and in the shadow of another Trump establishment on Pennsylvania Avenue—Trump Hotel—an undocumented woman who identified herself as Lilly told Rewire that while she has gone to many protests, this one made her emotional.
“With things how they are now, I feel very hated. Like my family is hated, like we are not wanted here,” Lilly said. “Today reminded me that’s not true. That there are people who love us and are in solidarity with us. I will think of this march when I’m sad and it will give me hope again.”
Tina Vasquez is the immigration reporter at Rewire. Previously, she was a freelance writer and editor with almost ten years of experience, focusing on intersectional feminism, racial justice, and immigration. She is the former associate editor at Black Girl Dangerous and she has contributed to the Guardian, Truthout, Jezebel, Bitch Magazine, and Al Jazeera.