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GRIID Class on US Social Movements – Part VII: The Immigrant Justice Movement in Grand Rapids

March 11, 2021

In the 7th week of the class on US social movements, we looked at the Immigrant Justice  Movement in Grand Rapids, using a chapter from my forthcoming book, A People’s History of Grand Rapids. 

When Grand Rapids was formally founded in 1850, just shy of 3,000 people lived in the city. As was mentioned earlier, the Europeans who came to the area were French, English, German and Dutch, but soon came Polish, Lithuania, Irish, Italians and Jewish immigrants. 

According to Randal Jelks’ book, African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids, there were few African Americans in the City in the middle of the 19th Century. According to the archives of Paul I Phillips, an African American leader in 20th Century Grand Rapids, there were 9 African Americans in 1854 and 48 in 1870. However, African Americans did not migrate to Grand Rapids in significant numbers until the 20th Century. 

US immigration policy began to adjust in the later part of the 19th Century, particularly when non-European’s were coming to the United States. The growing Chinese population on the west coast eventually led to the passage of the Chineses Exclusion Act in 1882. This legislation was coupled with growing anti-Chinese sentiment in the US, so much so that white Californians were recruiting other white people to come their state to deal with the “Chinese problem.” According to a December 24, 1885 story in the Grand Rapids Evening Leader, headline, The Chinese Must Go:

Nine members of the Cigar maker’s Union of this city will leave Saturday to join the army that is going to California to help drive out the Chinese. They will meet a train load of tobacco rollers at Chicago going in the same direction. E.B. Griffin, formerly of Michigan, now located in San Franciso, writes that there are situations for about 2,000 cigar makers in that city, the war on the Chinese having been a success. 

Ethnic resentment was used by the Capitalist Class in Grand Rapids to pit Euro-Americans against each other during the 1911 Furniture Workers Strike, but for most of Grand Rapids history this was not the norm.

This is not the case with non-Europeans who came to live in Grand Rapids, where they face discrimination and xenophobia. African Americans faced Jim Crows realities in Grand Rapids in the 20th Century, like red-lining, while Arab Americans who came here faced xenophobia, along with religious discrimination and an increase in anti-Arab treatment, especially after September 11, 2001. 

This is not to say that Grand Rapids doesn’t have a long history of welcoming people who have come to the US with a refugee status. There are numerous agencies in the city that have a decades-long history of providing support and transition to refugees from Vietnam (see Flight to Freedom: The Story of the Vietnamese of West Michigan, by Gordon Olson), people who have fled violence in various African nations, and Haitians who began coming during the politician conflicts between the US and Haiti in the early 1990s.

However, for lots of other people who immigrated from south of the US border, particularly Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadoran, Honduran and to a lesser degree, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans, there has been a different kind of reception.

Mexicans who have migrated to Michigan started coming in the early part of the 20th Century, primarily because of the large migrant labor demand that exists in West Michigan. Mexicans and Mexican Americans have been living and working in West Michigan in the agricultural sector for decades, especially since the Bracero program was begun during WWII. Even after the Bracero program was formally ended in 1964, other temporary visa programs were designed to allow farm workers to come into the US.

However, as the US/Mexican border became more militarized and anti-immigrant organization became more influential (like the group Federation for American Immigration Reform) the amount of undocumented/under-documented immigrants increased across the US and in the Grand Rapids area.

It was in this context that the immigrant justice movement was born. We used a timeline that Movimiento Cosecha GR uses when they do trainings on this topic, which are included here.

Part I of the Immigrant Justice Movement began as a response to proposed legislation in 2005 from Rep. Sensenbrenner, known as the  Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005. The immigrant community got organized over the next several months and then held a massive protest (10,000 strong) in late March of 2006, which was reported on by the Indymedia site Media Mouse.

However, there was no immigrant-led entity to maintain the necessary organizing, plus many in the immigrant community got behind the candidacy of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party’s proposal of Comprehensive Immigration Reform. The Obama campaign promised Comprehensive Immigration Reform, but never delivered on this promise and many immigrants became disillusioned by electoral politics, along with the fact that roughly 3 million undocumented immigrants were deported under the Obama/Biden administration. 

After the election of Donald Trump, there became a renewed interest in immigrant rights, in part because of the overtly anti-immigrant rhetoric of the new administration and some of the early policy positions. More importantly, the immigrant justice movement now was being led by immigrants and immigrant groups like Movimiento Cosecha. This was all discussed in the class as Part II of the Immigrant Justice Movement.

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