After the Protests, San Francisco Activists Must Build Latino Power

by Randy Shaw on April 11, 2006

Latino immigrants and their supporters have shown unexpected strength the past two weeks, leading many to ask what will happen to this growing movement once the fate of the pending immigration bill is resolved. San Francisco activists should be raising a similar question. San Francisco’s large Latino community has remained a politically sleeping giant for decades, securing few elected positions and exercising nowhere near the clout of Latinos in San Jose, Los Angeles, or even Orange County. While San Francisco’s immigrant protests have not matched other cities, the city’s belated response reflects activists’ recognition that the needs of San Francisco’s over 100,000 Latinos are largely going unmet. Can House Republican attacks on immigrants become the springboard for growing Latino political power in San Francisco?

While San Jose and Los Angeles have Latino mayors and powerful Latino voter outreach programs, San Francisco’s Latino political infrastructure has advanced little over the past four decades. Latinos are 14% of San Francisco’s population, but remain politically unorganized and voter turnout remains far below the rate of Latino immigrant voting in Los Angeles.

Three forces bear chief responsibility for the massive immigrant rights crowds that have surprised America: organized labor, particularly SEIU and its Justice for Janitors members and supporters, the Catholic Church, and Spanish-speaking radio. Unfortunately, only the ethnic media played a similar role in San Francisco, and collectively these forces are unlikely to build Latino political clout.

The Catholic Church: While Cardinal Mahoney in Los Angeles is on the front lines in the struggle for immigrant rights, San Francisco’s politically conservative Catholic leadership has taken a “hands off” approach. While individual churches like St. Boniface urged parishioners to attend last night’s March, the San Francisco Archdiocese cannot be counted upon to help foster local Latino power.

Organized Labor: UNITEHERE Local 2 has played a critical role in the struggle for immigrant rights, coordinating the national “Freedom Ride” in 2003. Local 2 could eventually help build local Latino political power, but remains embroiled in a contract fight with the multinational hotel owners. This battle began in 2004, and Local 2 is also involved in the national Hotel Workers Rising Campaign.

Given Local 2’s two-front battle against the global hotel industry, union members cannot be expected to focus on local Latino political organizing anytime soon

SEIU’s local janitors union, Local 87, has been missing in action from the national immigration fight. Local 87’s membership voted to break from the activist-oriented state janitors union Local 1877, an action whose negative consequences for progressives and Latinos in San Francisco becomes increasingly clear. Stung by criticism of its lack of effort in the current struggle, Local 87 is now urging members to join the protests. But jumping on a bandwagon once the cameras arrive is not the type of “commitment” to Latino community organizing that San Francisco needs.

Ethnic Media: Spanish-speaking radio is credited with the unexpectedly large turnout in Los Angeles, and San Francisco’s Spanish station’s helped publicize yesterday’s evening march. This media can boost future turnouts, and if asked would probably provide publicity and encouragement for a Latino voter registration campaign. But radio across the board plays a less important role in a city like San Francisco, whose residents, unlike those in Los Angeles or San Jose, are typically not driving to work. Spanish language media could still provide vital assistance, but its capacity for helping build Latino power in San Francisco remains uncertain.

With the three leading agents for national Latino mobilization unable or unwilling to play a decisive role locally, this puts the burden on San Francisco’s nonprofit community groups serving the Latino community.

The organizing of Latino immigrants in San Francisco has been divided between “immigrant rights groups” who have focused on legal status, tenant groups that have organized Latinos around housing conditions or evictions, and multi-issue organizations that have tended to prioritize neighborhood and class issues over building Latino political power. Lacking the staff and resources that labor unions and the church can provide, community groups have been hard-pressed to generate the resources to design and implement a joint Latino organizing campaign.

But the recent immigrants rights protests may change this. Ironically, San Francisco’s belated response to pending Congressional action appears to have created a new momentum toward boosting Latino organizing.

The groups that organize on behalf of San Francisco’s Latino immigrant families include La Raza Centro Legal (which has typically played a leading role), ACORN (which played in major role in the protests in many cities), St. Peter’s Housing Committee, Companeros del Barrio, Coleman Youth Advocates, PODER, CARACEN and the San Francisco Organizing Project (SFOP). In addition, La Voz de la Cuidad Central is a recently created group organizing the Tenderloin’s rising Latino family population.

Many groups also provide services to Latino immigrant families, and some would be eager to help bolster organizing efforts. The creation of a vast array of Latino service agencies in the Mission District has not translated into increased community political power, and organizing can and must change this.

One reason that groups organizing Latino families have not worked together in the past is differing agendas. It’s easy to come together against a House bill that criminalizes immigrants, but quite another to combine battles for affordable housing, children’s services, improved schools, violence prevention programs, anti-crime measures, open space and other issues.

But whereas Los Angeles activists at least succeeded in coming together around Latino voter outreach efforts, no similar unity has been implemented in San Francisco. As a result, while voting among Latino naturalized citizens has boomed in Los Angeles, Latino immigrant voter turnout in San Francisco has remained so low that candidates believe it is wasteful to devote resources toward that goal.

Moreover, as the current protests show, undocumented and non-citizen Latino immigrants can also impact the political process. This could translate into large turnouts at City Hall around housing and budget issues that concern all groups, and particularly to getting big crowds to School Board meetings.

Building Latino power in San Francisco—and nationally— must go beyond the next march and rally, and the next conference and press event. It requires organizing, a task that the city already has sufficient groups to implement.

Regardless of the outcome of the federal immigration debate, the test for San Francisco’s Latino organizing groups is translating the recent protests into the creation of a common focus and the development of immigrant leaders who can lead the fight for greater Latino power.

An easy starting point for joint community group action could be a long overdue massive voter registration drive among Latino immigrants eligible to vote. This could easily result in thousands of new voters, and if they register as permanent absentees this could result in a dramatic increase in Latino votes next November.

Los Angeles engaged in such a massive drive in the 1990’s and saw voting rates among newly naturalized Latinos exceed that of native born Latino voters. In 1998, the percentage of Democratic Latinos voting in Los Angeles even exceeded the turnout rate for the city’s Republicans!

For groups working with Latino immigrants ineligible to vote, there is no shortage of activist opportunities, with school issues perhaps being the most common focal point of concern. Despite their large numbers in city schools, Latino immigrants are not often heard at School Board meetings. Organizing can end this disconnection from school affairs.

Let’s look back on the rallies and protests of April 2005 as a launching point, not the high point, for Latino activism in San Francisco.

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