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Immigrants’ Rights

Resource type: Speech

Gara LaMarche |

Immigrants must win a rightful place in U.S. society and will do so through the efforts of diverse communities working toward a just and fair society, said Gara LaMarche, The Atlantic Philanthropies’ President and CEO, in this speech accepting the Raul Yzaguirre President Award at the National Council of La Raza in June 2008.

“What life have you if you have not life together? What life is there that is not in community?”
T.S. Eliot

In honoring me with the Raul Yzaguirre Presidents Award, you have really honored the organisations for which I have been privileged to work – the Open Society Institute and The Atlantic Philanthropies – and their donors, George Soros and Charles F. Feeney, respectively. The generosity of these men, who have given away billions of dollars, and their vision of social justice and human rights is what makes it possible for me to stand here tonight. I accept this distinction with some measure of personal pride and much gratitude, but I do so on their behalf, certainly not mine alone.

In the line of work I have been in for the last thirty years or so, I have had the great good fortune and privilege to be what I would call an enabler – sometimes using voice, sometimes legal support, sometimes money. At the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, two of the largest and leading human rights organizations in the world, and at Atlantic and OSI, two of the largest and boldest foundations, the talented and passionate staffs I have worked with have been able to provide support for women and men who stand on the front lines of the struggle for a more just and humane community.

When I led the Texas ACLU in the 1980s, we fought the exclusion of mostly Mexican-American migrant farm workers in the Rio Grande Valley, who held the most dangerous and exploited jobs, from workers compensation and unemployment benefits. At Human Rights Watch, we documented atrocities against heroic priests and nuns standing up to repressive regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala, and defended American church leaders who gave sanctuary to those fleeing violent persecution.

At OSI, George Soros, an immigrant himself, led us in standing shoulder to shoulder with immigrants when President Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform bill barred hardworking legal resident non-citizens from access to government safety net benefits. Through the Emma Lazarus Fund, we spent $50 million to underwrite services like naturalization assistance and legal aid, and the advocacy we funded – including that of the National Council of La Raza, a leading light in the American social justice firmament – was critically important in persuading Congress to restore $16 billion in benefits.

I was proud to join the Atlantic Philanthropies last year for many reasons, but none more than the fact that we have provided consistent funding for one of the most urgent human rights challenges of our time – the fight for comprehensive immigration reform, to forge a pathway to citizenship for more than twelve million human beings who have come here in search of a better life but whose means of getting or staying here bars them from full participation in the American society to which they have contributed so enormously. We have had our setbacks in this battle, and have been forced to confront, as Janet Murguia has so vigorously and eloquently challenged Lou Dobbs and other xenophobes, the ugly racism of too many of our opponents. We are coming back to fight another round, stronger and smarter than the last time. And make no mistake about it: we will win the rightful place of immigrants in the American community.

I keep using that word, community, and will close with it, because at root community is what it is all about. As Eliot wrote, without community we are nothing. We cannot be fully human without the embrace of our families and neighborhoods and churches and soccer clubs and hometown associations. We cannot endure the ostracization of bigots or the callousness of pandering politicians without these networks of support. But we cannot have the just and fair society that we all strive for unless these communities, whether they are Mexican meatpackers in Nebraska, Hmong students in Minnesota, Dominican home health aides in the Bronx, gay soccer moms in San Diego, disabled veterans in Amarillo, Anglo ministers marching side by side in the hot sun with immigrant parishioners in Chicago to demand justice – we cannot get there – unless each of these communities stitches its way, as so many others have before them, into the great American quilt.

For my small efforts toward this vision, which I promise to redouble as a result of the honor you have given me, I have received much more than I have given. For your great ones, and for all those not in this room tonight, I salute and thank you, and pledge that Atlantic will continue to stand by your side.