On November 6, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the historic Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) into law. In addition to implementing stronger border security and penalties for employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers, the act created a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who had been in the country since 1982. IRCA ultimately granted legal status to 2.7 million individuals.
This groundbreaking law built on the tireless advocacy efforts of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), the subject of the Center for Women’s History’s current show Ladies’ Garments, Women’s Work, Women’s Activism.Women union workers and members were at the center of providing support to the mostly female garment workers before, during, and after IRCA’s passage in areas such as collecting information and documents to resolve immigration issues, fighting for workers rights, providing education, and supporting civic engagement. The ILGWU’s New York City Local 23-25 launched their Immigration Project in 1983, when the first versions of the IRCA had just been introduced in Congress. The ILGWU was the largest union at the time to lobby for the act, and Local 23-25 dedicated the first three years of its Immigration Project to providing legal counseling on immigration issues and naturalization to its members in New York.
The Center for Women’s History hosted some of these activists in our fourth-floor Skylight Gallery to bring our ILGWU exhibit to life and illuminate the stories behind the movement. “Oral History, Women’s Work, and the ILGWU’s Role in Immigration Reform” on June 21, 2019 was the Center for Women’s History’s first bilingual salon, offering live interpretation as panelists reflected on their roles in immigration reform advocacy. The event was presented in partnership with The Path Home: Immigrants Making America, a multimedia storytelling project that asserts the present-day relevance of the historic legalization of undocumented people under IRCA.
“The Immigration Act was a transforming moment in our lives, as it was in the history of our country,” said Muzaffar Chishti in his opening remarks. Chishti was the ILGWU Immigration Project’s first director, and today, he is Director of the Migration Policy Institute at the New York University School of Law, where he focuses primarily on U.S. immigration and labor legislation.
After IRCA officially became law, the ILGWU expanded the Immigration Project from a Local 23-25 project to serve ILGWU members on a national scale. The new national Immigration Project continued to provide legal advising and was also chosen by the federal government to be a Qualified Designated Entity to help union members and their families apply for legalization under the IRCA amnesty program. At the same time, the ILGWU created its Amnesty Education program to provide English classes for anyone applying for amnesty, as well as provided other types of education to help expand worker and family members’ skill sets.
On June 21, in a crowd filled with retired union members and organizers, three women wearing ILGWU pins shared their insights. Nancy Lorence, the former director of the ILGWU’s Amnesty Education program, displayed a button featuring early ILGWU organizer Clara Lemlich and her famous words, “I’ve got something to say,” which inspired a massive garment strike in New York in 1909. Sagrario Mendez, a retired ILGWU member and IRCA beneficiary who was born in Honduras, sported a traditional ILGWU pin with the union name marked in bold blue letters. May Chen wore two pins: In addition to her sparkling ILGWU brooch, the retired union officer and Immigration Project staff member showed off an ornament that read 萬衆一心, or “thousands of workers of one heart. Rachel Bernstein of Labor Arts moderated the proceedings, which integrated live discussion with video clips of oral histories conducted by The Path Home with Chen, Chishti, Lorence, and Mendez.
Fighting on the Legal Frontier
Founded by working-class immigrants in 1900, the ILGWU pioneered what is known today as “social unionism,” creating education and health care programs for workers and their families. In those early years, the undocumented status of many Jewish and Italian members went unnoticed, though the ILGWU began organizing citizenship classes for its members after the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 sharply curtailed the ability of migrant workers to travel back and forth from Europe to the United States.
As Chishti explained in his opening remarks, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished quotas on national origin, and new immigrant communities flourished in New York City. By the 1980s, the ILGWU’s locals in New York City came to comprise mainly Chinese and Latinx women. The termination of the Bracero program in 1964 — which had allowed Mexican men to migrate to the US for agricultural work on a temporary basis — sharply increased the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States, prompting a government crackdown that gathered steam throughout the 1970s. As immigration officials began to raid ILGWU factories and offices, the union leadership realized the need for a specialized immigrant rights program.
“There was no union in the country at that time which supported immigrants. Today, it’s fashionable to do it. It’s politically profitable to do it. But at that time, it was neither fashionable, nor politically profitable,” Chishti said.
This rare political stance was accompanied by industrious dedication, and it led to substantial results. Though, as Chishti explained, no one at the union had official training in immigration law, they combined their various areas of expertise to form the Immigration Project. ILGWU lawyers and policy makers fought deportations and helped workers obtain legal status in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Miami. With these free services, the Immigration Project legalized 3,000 workers over the course of the 1980s and proved itself a defender of immigration rights.
In one oral history clip, Sagrario Mendez recalled how the ILGWU helped her at a critical moment: the day she was apprehended by immigration authorities. Fearing she would be separated from her child in the U.S., Mendez had been crying for hours when an ILGWU lawyer called her and counseled her not to sign any papers. The union’s legal team was able to beat back the threat of deportation, and Mendez was able to remain in the country.
With the ILGWU’s aid, Mendez eventually became a U.S. citizen after IRCA was passed. With her new legal status, she was able to travel out of the country to see her two children in Honduras for the first time in eleven years. “I couldn’t believe it, when I saw the airplane, that I could travel legally and return legally. It was a gift from God,” Mendez said (translated from the original Spanish).
Students of the Union
While the Immigration Project’s legal services helped workers secure their position in the country, its educational program allowed them to find their place within a community. By organizing curricula specifically for undocumented individuals, the women of the ILGWU built an even more expansive version of social unionism—the philosophy that unions should aid members beyond the workplace.
Lorence, who established the education program for ILGWU members and non-members obtaining legal status through the IRCA amnesty provision, recalled that a vibrant community of immigrants coalesced with the union’s help. The Immigration Project was the second largest program of its kind in the city and offered computer courses, GED courses in Spanish, and college preparation classes. Members also took trips to museums and the Statue of Liberty and shared their own vocational skills, such as cooking and cake decorating.
“Especially the union members—both the Chinese community and the Latino community—really felt like the union was their home base in the city,” Lorence said. The classes had been conceived to help ILGWU members earn their citizenship, but became a much broader site of community building and empowerment for immigrant women. Mendez, for example, started as a beneficiary of the union’s work, but quickly became an organizer herself, first with the ILGWU and then with Make the Road New York.
Across National Borders and Gendered Boundaries
For Chen, Lorence, and Mendez, their work for the ILGWU and the Immigration Project is inseparable from their experience of womanhood in late-20th century America. “Workers’ rights and women’s rights are related,” Chen said, recalling the many working women she had represented who were also wives and mothers, expected to carry out household chores and child-rearing duties after each eight-hour work day.
Juggling domestic functions with full-time work was certainly demanding, but it was a catalyst for progress on many fronts and challenged perceived limitations on what women were capable of, particularly in immigrant families. Mendez became an outspoken advocate for her fellow workers at the factory, encouraging them to join the union and speaking on their behalf when they were mistreated.
Despite being marginalized on multiple levels, the majority-Chinese and Latinx women of the ILGWU wrote a new immigrant narrative through their political activism and unwavering vigor. “You have this image of garment workers being downtrodden and oppressed and exploited,” Chen said, “but really, this community of women was very lively and very active in their own way. They were successful at raising their kids and overcoming a lot of obstacles. It’s important for those stories to be known.”
Memory Work as Activism
As panel moderator Rachel Bernstein articulated, oral history is a particularly remarkable form of preserving the past because memory changes—one’s recollection of an event or feelings about an experience are bound to shift with time. While American labor unions have entered a period of considerable decline in the past few decades, panelists shared that more spontaneous collective action without the official structure of a union—among freelance writers or adjunct faculty, for instance—is still very much making an impact.
Other aspects of today’s U.S. sociopolitical climate are particularly striking for the retired ILGWU members. In recent years, new immigration issues have arisen at the center of fierce national debate: increased efforts to deter undocumented immigration, higher deportation rates, and the separation of undocumented children from parents at the border.
For Mendez, the fear of losing family members is a far too familiar feeling, and the hostility that many immigrants face, regardless of their legal status, is a troubling reality. “The time that we’re living in now, I believe I am suffering more than when I was illegal. I’m scared because I never imagined how the laws would be now,” Mendez said (translated from the original Spanish).
And yet, Chen holds fast to hope, because she knows what an earnest movement of determined, tenacious individuals can accomplish. “Having lived through earlier periods that were very anti-immigrant,” she said, “it makes me more optimistic that even in times like today, you can, with the right combination of allies and teams of advocates, accomplish something that really helps people. But you need to have the institutions and the trust.”
– Liana Chow and Suan Lee, Summer Interns, Center for Women’s History
Ladies’ Garments, Women’s Work, Women’s Activism is on view through July 2019.
Top Photo Credits: ILGWU Local 23-25 marching in New York City, circa 1986. Photo via The Path Home.