The immigration debate has traveled all across the United States and finally landed at Pierce College.
Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, spoke about immigration to students and faculty at the Campus Center. The Oct.. 9 event was organized by the Dolores Huerta Labor Institute, an educational partnership between the Los Angeles Community College District and founding Los Angeles unions.
The institute sponsors lectures on community college campuses.
The daughter of immigrant farm laborers, Durazo has a rich history in representing workers of all races.
Before becoming secretary-treasurer, she was the first Latina ever to be elected to the executive board of UNITE-HERE International (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union), which represents more than 450,000 workers.
Durazo was also named one of the 100 most powerful people in Southern California by Los Angeles Times West magazine in 2006.
She covered a variety of topics during the lecture, even touching on her previous experiences as a migrant worker. However, the theme focused on immigration reform.
“Most reasonable people can agree that the immigration system is broken. Hundreds of immigrants die every year as they try to cross the border, a symptom of this broken system,” Durazo said.
“Wouldn’t it be smart to have a system that allows immigrants to come over and earn their visas in a orderly way?”
Durazo continued, accusing the U.S. Congress of taking no action to fix this “broken” system.
“Congress does not have the courage to do anything about this.” She said. “The politicians are riling us up on broad issues and distracting us from the real problem here; the system we have now does not work.”
Durazo cited plans to give undocumented workers the ability to earn legal status while working in the U.S., while also giving them the opportunity to legally bring their families into the country.
She highlighted the California Dream Act, a bill that if passed would allow undocumented immigrants to compete for financial aid at community colleges and state universities.
“When I grew up, I worked the fields until high school,” Durazo said. “My family had to move from town to town to survive. My motivation to finish school were the memories of those fields.”
She voiced her anger against the government’s scapegoating of immigrants, emphasizing that other national issues are being placed on immigrant’s shoulders.
“Employer-based health care has gone down,” Durazo said.
“Employers are not providing adequate health care, and immigrants are not responsible for the 48 million people who do not have health care because their employers do not provide it for them.
“Can we say to the world that this is the land of freedom, except for immigrants and their children? The answer to this question will tell us and the world who we truly are as a country,” she said.
The lecture ended with Durazo answering audience questions, ranging from her views on immigration reform to why she thought prejudice existed.
Afterwards, she made herself available for individual student questions.
The speech provoked debate amongst attendees, who stayed afterwards to talk to their peers.
Some did not agree with what Durazo had to say.
“I believe they should have had another speaker. For many of the students this is the first time they have heard anything about the subject,” said Matthew Vallecilla, a full-time Pierce student. “It just seems biased.”
Pamela Brown, associate professor of economics at Pierce, also voiced her disagreement with the event layout.
“I wish we could have had a more panel-like organization, there are a number of issues concerning labor unions that should be discussed.” She said.
Durazo, though, seemed pleased with the resulting debate.
“I hope the students realized that we all have common values and I hope these issues give them all reason to get out and vote, no matter their political views,” she said.