Immigrant Workers Have the Power to Change Orange County

March 30, 2010 -- OCCORD

by Eric Altman, OCCORD Executive Director

Orange County’s history of laissez-faire, anti-immigrant extremism dates back to the 1960s, when groups like the John Birch Society and the Orange County School for Anti-Communism used what we would call community organizing techniques to build a grassroots conservative movement in our region. They held house meetings, gathered in church fellowship halls, and went door to door for Barry Goldwater in 1964. In the process, they launched the pro-business, conservative movement that eventually took over our county.

Demographically, Orange County has undergone a dramatic transformation since that time. In 1970, the population was 88% white, but by the year 2000, it was nearly 50% nonwhite, with much of the new diversity coming from immigration. In 1970, 5% of the population were immigrants, but by 2000, the immigrant population had increased to 30%.

Despite these demographic changes, Orange County remains a hostile place for immigrants: Our region is home to Jim Gilchrist’s Minuteman Project, and immigrant workers mobilized by OCCORD to speak at the Anaheim City Council have been heckled by people in the audience saying, “Go back to Mexico!” One local elected leader declined to meet with representatives of an allied community organization, privately saying, “They don’t vote anyway.”

Whether expressed publicly or privately, such hostility is keenly felt by immigrant workers in our region. In the words of Concepcion, an AFSCME member, “I’ve been here for thirty years, and I cannot vote – it’s as if I didn’t exist.”

The irony is that elections in central Orange County, where the largest concentration of immigrants live, are often decided by exceedingly narrow margins. A 2006 State Senate race was decided by 1,392 votes, a 2006 Anaheim City Council race by 200 votes, and a 2007 County Supervisor race by just three votes. Recent data from the California Immigrant Policy Center puts these electoral margins into perspective. According to their research, more than 215,000 immigrants were eligible to become citizens in Orange County from 2005 through 2007, and an additional 75,000 will become eligible by 2012.” Forty-two percent of Orange County’s immigrant population lives in Anaheim and the surrounding cities.

Nonetheless, immigrant workers will not have a significant voice in policy decisions that affect their families and communities unless they can show strength at the ballot box. OCCORD’s Immigrant and Workplace Rights Program is designed to enfranchise under-represented immigrant communities through citizenship assistance and nonpartisan voter registration. In the summer of 2008, we registered 2,000 voters from Anaheim neighborhoods with large immigrant populations—the same neighborhoods where our grassroots organizing program is focused—and in 2009, we launched our citizenship initiative.

We organize semi-annual citizenship fairs where residents and workers receive one-on-one assistance completing the federal N-400 naturalization application, plus free legal consultation if needed. At the fair, we sign people up for an eight-week citizenship course to prepare them for their exam/interview with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The course also links up with our grassroots leadership development program, which mobilizes neighborhood leaders to engage in the political process regardless of their immigration status.

“I am glad to be a citizen,” said Lucia, an Anaheim resident who participated in OCCORD’s first citizenship fair, graduated from our citizenship course, and then became involved with our Neighborhood Organizing Committee. “Of course, now I feel stronger to be able to do things, to vote, to speak up, to make my voice count, to help my community. OCCORD gave me two things – they helped me become a citizen, and they are giving me a platform to be able to do big things now that I am a citizen.”

OCCORD’s citizenship initiative is designed to scale up with additional resources and the involvement of new partner organizations, and our framework can be adapted to help people meet the legalization requirements of comprehensive immigration reform, should it pass Congress.

To date, 132 people have participated in our citizenship fairs, and our efforts have yielded 39 new citizens. Although the federal government recently increased the difficulty of the citizenship test, all but one of our graduates has passed on their first attempt. A big part of this success has been our strong partnership with labor, including AFSCME 3299, the Orange County Labor Federation, Teamsters 396, Teamsters 952, UNITE HERE 11, and United Domestic Workers 3930.

Our next citizenship fair is scheduled for April 17, 2010, with several new labor partners already committed to join in. To see video from our most recent citizenship fair, click here.