Chicago, IL – On January 24, over 60 people crowded the Latino Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) to join a discussion with Juan González of the Great Cities Institute and David Ramirez of the Cuban Embassy around the current immigrant crisis and its root causes. The discussion was co-hosted by two campus groups: New Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at UIC and Mexican Students de Aztlán (MeSA) at UIC.
SDS is a national grassroots organization fighting for progressive change on campus, led by and for students. Members of SDS continually work to fight against U.S. wars and interventions, racist discrimination, police crimes, homophobic and transphobic attacks, attacks on women, attacks on reproductive rights and more through mobilizing protests and campaigns. MeSA is a Chicano, Latino, community-based organization that was established in 1993. MeSA emerged primarily to address pressing problems and issues affecting the Mexican, Chicano and the Latino communities. Young student activists and representatives from six other organizations also got the opportunity to chime in and speak at this extremely insightful gathering.
The importance of a conversation around the current immigrant crisis was made clear to members of SDS and MeSA after tens of thousands of Venezuelan immigrants began pouring into Chicago after being bused out of states like Texas and Florida by racist right-wing Republican governors Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis. These new arrivals are living in poor conditions inside and outside police districts, local parks, empty lots, and sometimes on street corners and sidewalks. Meanwhile, both major political parties are set to host their national conventions in the summer of 2024 – with the Democratic National Convention taking place in Chicago.
In October 2023, the veteran activist and renowned journalist Juan González published his report titled How U.S. Policy Toward Latin America Has Fueled Historic Numbers of Asylum Seekers. It was then that SDS and MeSA decided to team up with the Chicago Cuba Coalition to organize this educational event. Student activists and representatives from the endorsing organizations were asked to speak about the effects U.S. foreign policy has had on immigration from their respective homelands, as well as what that means for our movement today.
First to speak was Louise Macaraniag from Anakbayan at UIC, a youth activist organization fighting for the liberation of the Philippines through the national democratic movement. Macaraniag drew connections between the newly arrived immigrants from Venezuela to those coming from Mexico, Syria and the Philippines, reminding the crowd that this immigration “is a symptom of U.S. imperialism.” After elaborating on the economic ties between the governments of the Philippines and the U.S., they shared the story of their own family’s forced migration and the trauma that ensued. Macaraniag urged those in attendance to “stand in solidarity with all colonized people across the world to fight against U.S. imperialism.”
Next was the vice-president of the Union of Puerto Rican Students at UIC, Patricia Sepulveda. She began her speech by commending the discussion’s attendees for refusing to stay silent in such turbulent times. Sepulveda shocked the room as she quoted what Puerto Rico’s first civilian governor, Charles Herbert Allen stated in 1901, “Puerto Rico is a beautiful island with its natural resources undeveloped, and its population unfitted to assume the management of their own affairs. With American capital and American energies, the labor of the natives can be utilized to the benefit of all parties.” However, Sepulveda pointed out that what followed was exploitation and destruction of the island in the name of profits, much to the benefit of the U.S. and to the detriment of Puerto Ricans.
Sepulveda concluded that there is an immigrant crisis only because the U.S. has “created a system that leaves people all over Latin America in shambles, and with no choice but to come here, just to be treated like second-class citizens.”
Mahdi Muhamad spoke immediately after on behalf of the Students for Justice in Palestine at UIC, a powerful student organization that promotes justice, human rights and liberation for the Palestinian people. His passionate speech further exposed the heinous crimes that the U.S. government continues to facilitate in Gaza and all of occupied Palestine by sending billions of dollars in “aid” to the genocidal state of Israe. Muhamad closed his remarks with chants of “Free Palestine” that participants proudly echoed.
A co-founder of the newly formed Latine Student Coalition at UIC, Jay Campos, spoke about the brutal exploitation of Latin America by U.S. multinational corporations in the 20th century and the crippling consequences of the coups that they backed against several democratically-elected governments in the region. He also identified the annexation of northern Mexico by the U.S. in 1848 as a “critical point in history” and oppression.
Then, Sol Márquez joined the discussion online to represent Legalization For All (L4A), a large network of organizations and individuals fighting for immigrant rights and legalization for all 12 million undocumented people across the country. Márquez shared what she and others in L4A witnessed during their delegation to the U.S./San Diego border in April 2023, “Policies like NAFTA and embargos like the ones placed on Cuba and Venezuela led to immigration waves from these progressive nations.”
Márquez continued, “We have witnessed protective asylum status for Ukrainian immigrants, and the U.S. fondly referring to them as refugees – but the same gestures are never afforded to immigrants like my Mexican parents or Central American ones.”
The co-hosting student organizations, MeSA and SDS, made their final remarks before segueing to Juan González and David Ramirez. The president of MeSA at UIC, Lucy Arias, called attention to the historic hypocrisy of the U.S. government for their use of Mexican labor via the “Bracero” program implemented during World War II. She said, “Policies have been passed in the United States to both impede and facilitate the flow of immigration, depending on what is most convenient and needed by the United States. We are exposed to exploitation, maltreatment, threats, extortion and more, all because we looked for a new opportunity. They wanted our Braceros, “our brazos” but not our persons and people.”
Sahian Sotelo, a student organizer, emphasized the importance of community and solidarity in their speech on behalf of SDS at UIC. “Recently,” they said, “right-wing reactionary politicians have been having their way as they watch generations of existing Latino communities in Chicago turn against the incoming Venezuelans. The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. In turning against each other, we oppress ourselves and our very own community, when the reality is we are all struggling- and struggling together at that. In the struggle, there should be solidarity. Solidarity to stand up to our true oppressor.” Sotelo left the crowd on a powerful note with the vintage SDS chant, “Dare to struggle, dare to win!”
After the student activists and organizers finished their remarks, keynote speakers Juan González and David Ramirez were set to talk. At this point in the program, they both acknowledged and informed the audience that the youth speakers had energized and fired them up. González, in particular, fondly recalled being a member of the original SDS during his time as a youth activist in the late 1960s. During the presentation of his report on the current immigrant crisis, González repeatedly drew attention to and identified U.S. economic warfare against three specific countries – Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba – as a driving force in the latest migration surge.
González also detailed why so many people are fleeing Venezuela; the endless Cuba embargo; the sanctions against Nicaragua; the history of U.S. intervention in Latin America, and practical solutions.
Finally, David Ramirez joined the discussion virtually from Washington, DC to speak on his work at the Cuban Embassy, the historic relations between the governments of the U.S. and Cuba, and Cuba’s tourist economy. Ramirez explained that we need background and context to understand why over 400,000 Cubans have immigrated to the U.S. Southwest border in the last couple years – the vast majority then heading to Florida.
Julie Wolenski spoke on behalf of the Chicago Cuba Coalition and motivated the audience to see Cuba for themselves. She suggested to folks, “Join a May Day delegation or brigade and join the campaign to take Cuba off the SSOT list!”
Afterwards, the students, organizers and community members gathered and held banners to record a short video demanding the U.S. end its blockade against Cuba and lift the sanctions against Venezuela and Nicaragua. The Latino Cultural Center was soon infused with a militant mood as activists broke out in a spirit of solidarity. We chanted “Cuba si! Bloqueo no!” and “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” Juan González and David Ramirez reminded those of us in the room that day that things didn’t have to be this way. If we wanted the situation to change, we had to fight for it.