How Immigrant Activists Changed L.A.

Roundup
tags: immigration, Los Angeles



Once known as the “wicked city” for its vicious anti-labor politics, Los Angeles has, particularly over the last decade, gained a reputation as a bastion of progressivism. In L.A., one of the few places in the United States where private-sector unionization saw steady gains before the 2008 recession, activists have organized across racial lines for community benefits agreements, job training programs, and transit justice. They have also elected progressive mayors like former community organizer Antonio Villaraigosa in 2005—eight years before Bill de Blasio’s victory in our (friendly) rival city, New York—and Eric Garcetti, the city’s youngest mayor in more than a century, in 2013.

Why the dramatic shift in L.A.’s tone and policy? Any success has many parents (or, at least, people who claim to be its parents), but there seem to be three main causes: the rise of a progressive labor movement with electoral ambitions and skills, the emergence of regional community-based organizing with a sharp analysis of power, and—the concern that lies at the heart of this essay—the creation of an immigrant voice that has gained both the confidence and the capacity to effect change.

While the importance of immigrants in L.A. has not gone unnoticed, they are often depicted largely as a complementary force to labor (see Ruth Milkman’s L.A. Story) or community-based organizing (see our own L.A. Rising). But immigrant rights organizers and advocates—often immigrants, themselves—have not just played supporting roles in the progressive make-over of L.A. Rather, they have had their own organizations, agendas, and political battles to improve the quality of daily life in a region in which nearly one-tenth of residents are undocumented and where one in five children have at least one undocumented parent.

At the same time, immigrant rights organizations and their leaders have been deliberate in joining the progressive pull in California’s Southland. So a better understanding of the contribution of these advocates—and how they came to see themselves as tied to a broader progressive project in Los Angeles—can help illustrate how other cities in the United States can promote immigrant integration, stronger movements for social justice, and a better future for all....




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