About: A History of El Comité

El Comite Pro-Reforma Migratoria Y Justicia Social is a social justice organization based in Seattle, Washington which focuses on civil, labor and human rights.

History of El Comité: 2000-2010

In December 1999, El Comité Pro-Amnistia General Y Justicia Social (the name changed to El Comité Pro-Reforma Migratoria Y Justicia Social in 2008) was organized as a grassroots organization in Seattle to draw attention to the plight of immigrant workers in Western Washington. The group came together immediately following the massive protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) that occurred in Seattle in late November 1999.  Initial organizers included members of CASA Latina, LELO (Legacy of Equality, Leadership, and Organizing), the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, the Carpenters’ Union, the Painters Union, as well as parishioners from St. Mary’s Catholic Church. One of the organizers’ key considerations was lack of representation within the WTO protests of Latinos, Chicanos, and the immigrant community in general. According to organizer Carlos Marentes, the group worked at first as a loose coalition and later, in April 2000, formed as an official entity. The organization further allied itself with faith-based organizations, organized labor, and civil rights groups to give a marginalized Latino immigrant community a voice in organizing for social justice.

El Comité itself noted that it was a Latino organization “which struggles to achieve a comprehensive immigration reform for all working immigrants and fulfill the dream for social justice.” Furthermore, the group states, “only in this form will this country will be able to truly recognize the contributions of immigrants and be consistent with its own history.” (Quote on El Comité’s original website, 2007).

The organization evolved as one with a three-pronged structure that included social non-profit organizations, labor unions, and faith groups working alongside each other. It sponsored its first May Day march for immigrant rights in 2000. The march of about 700 participants took place in Bellevue. In the following years, activity continued from “Posadas for Immigrant Rights,” resistance to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), informational campaigns with various allied community organizations, as well as the “ICE Melt” campaign and many others.

Spring of 2006

The spring of 2006 witnessed the development of a mass immigrant-rights movement throughout the nation in response to House Resolution 4437, debated in Congress, which would have instantly criminalized all undocumented persons, as well as persons who offered them humanitarian aid. The mass mobilizations resulted in huge marches in cities from Los Angeles to New York to Atlanta.

In Washington, El Comité took the lead in organizing various events throughout the year. The first major immigration rights march was organized on March 18, 2006, in Seattle. The march, which received little attention in the press, had participants numbering anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000.

In March 2006 activism emerged in the Yakima Valley when more than 500 students walked out of Davis and Eisenhower high schools. Walkouts also occurred in the Columbia Basin and in South Seattle. On April 2, students marched in Yakima in support of immigrant rights.

On April 5, 2006, university and college students at the University of Washington, Western Washington University in Bellingham, Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Yakima Valley Community College, and Columbia Basin Community College organized marches and teach-ins at their respective schools. The Chicano organization MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) brought resolutions to their respective student governments in support of immigrant and student rights.

Organizers called for a National Day of Action on April 10, 2006. On this day, marches were organized simultaneously across the country. Seattle hosted one of the largest nonviolent marches in its history, with approximately 50,000 participants filling the streets. According to The Seattle Times, the march registered zero arrests. Among the organizations participating was the Northwest American Indian Movement.

Yet another march was coordinated for May 1st, which would coincide with a national work stoppage and one-day boycott. The groundswell of opposition to H.R. 4437 succeeded in stalling the bill’s progress through Congress. The march in Seattle had a distinct flavor as organizers parted from what other cities did and coordinated a silent march from St. Mary’s Church in the Central District to the Federal Building in downtown Seattle. Many of the participants, who donned black shirts, did so as a visually distinctive gesture that brought attention to the death toll of people who sacrificed their lives in attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. The silent procession culminated in a massive rally in downtown Seattle that called for collective action in opposing the proposed draconian legislation at the national level, and an appeal to peace and the recognition of civil, labor and human rights of all who come to the United States as immigrants.

The legislation, House Resolution 4437, which was passed in the House, but stalled in the Senate, was at the center of the debate. Though odds are the legislation “as is” will die, different sections of it are being passed individually, such as the new legislation signed by the President that will add an additional 700 miles of fencing to the border. Included in the original text of the resolution was the idea of deporting the immigrant parents of U.S. citizens (instantly tearing apart families and making anyone under 18 a ward of the state), and the idea of incarcerating for up to three years in prison and handing fines to anyone who “aids” undocumented immigrants. (This meant the instant criminalization of schools, churches, hospitals, community organizations, and families of anyone who is undocumented for providing them with assistance.)

Though H.R. 4437 died in Congress, members of Comité asserted that more sophisticated crackdowns have continued against communities opposed to current policies.  Operation Return to Sender was the name of a massive sweep of immigrant communities initiated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on May 26, 2006, within a month of the large demonstrations. ICE conducted raids on and deportations of immigrant workers that activists contend have separated many families and produced an atmosphere of fear in Latino communities.

In subsequent years, activity has ebbed and flowed with the election of Democrats to congress not necessarily translating to decreased raids, deportations and repression of undocumented communities. Likewise, the proliferation of right-wing anti-immigrant groups has kept the movement fresh in many minds. Despite the inaction at the federal level, the very real need to secure workers rights is what guides El Comité as the terrain of struggle continually shifts locally and nationally.

“Street Closed” by O. Rosales Castaneda (May 1, 2006), Seattle, Washington.

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