Saint Mary’s Graduate Leading National Labor Drive for Immigration Reform

Maria Elena Durazo ’75 Urges Sweeping Reform in Speech at SMC

Members of La Hermandad with Maria Elena Durazo (second row, third from left).Maria Elena Durazo grew up as the daughter of migrant farm workers, one of 11 children following the harvest from Oregon to California. Today, she is leading a nationwide battle to win rights for other immigrant workers as co-chair of the AFL-CIO’s National Mobilization Campaign for Immigration Reform. The campaign, which began on February 7, is hosting boisterous rallies in 14 major U.S. cities and comes to San Francisco today.

In the midst of the 14-city blitz, Durazo, a 1975 Saint Mary’s graduate who is the head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, came to SMC last week and delivered a stirring appeal for the United States to enact “real comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship” for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.   

“Undocumented workers take jobs most other Americans won’t accept,” she told a standing-room-only crowd of students, faculty, staff and local union activists. “But instead of calling these workers who are so valuable to our economy by their names, we call them names - illegals, aliens, lawbreakers. ... We pretend they’re legal when we need them and we attack them for not being legal when they need us.”

State Senators (second row, left to right) Mark de Saulnier, Jim Bell and Kevin de Leon applaud Durazo.After years of fighting - and often winning - labor battles in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Durazo is now in a position to influence immigration policy on the national level as an executive vice president of the national AFL-CIO executive council and chair of its immigration committee.

Just as important, she was a national co-chair for the Obama for President campaign committee in 2008 and 2012, and this year, she was elected a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. She has used this new national prominence to push strongly for immigration reform.   

“We want an economy that works for everyone, not some, not sometimes, but everyone, all the time,” she said. “Our nation cannot function unless all men and women, regardless of their skin color or where they were born, can participate in the political process with the same full rights and equal protections.”

Praise and Criticism for Recent Action on Immigration

Durazo said recent attempts to create bipartisan immigration legislation were a move in the right direction because they contained proposals to include citizenship as a part of any immigration reform.

However, she also strongly criticized some specifics of the proposals, such as extended probationary status on the road to citizenship and insistence on complete border security as a prerequisite to reform.

Durazo with Professor Ted Tsukuhara, director of the John F. Henning Institute at Saint Mary's College.U.S. politicians “continue to use border security as an excuse,” she said, and argue that “until we can prove that not a mouse can get across that fence, there will be no path to citizenship.” She pointed out that the number of deportations has risen during the last four years and the number of border security guards has doubled. “That was a mistake,” criticizing the Obama administration’s tactics. “It wasn’t worth all the suffering that has been imposed on families.”

She also warned against instituting a new Bracero Program, a set of laws in place from the 1940s to the 1960s that led to exploitation of Mexican migrant workers. “When Latinos voted for Obama, “what drew them was a path to citizenship, not a path to exploitation,” she said.

A Transformative Era at Saint Mary’s

On a personal note, Durazo recalled her days at Saint Mary’s, saying that “as a child of migrant farm laborers, I was never supposed to make it to this place.” But her life changed when she enrolled at the College.

Karen Pedraza, Marie Elena Durazo and Guadalupe Alaniz.  It was the early 1970s, a time of tumult on campuses across the United States, including SMC. She became involved with rights groups and protests on campus. She was also inspired by the work of Cesar Chavez, the charismatic leader of the United Farm Workers, and by the Catholic Social Teaching she learned in her home parish and at Saint Mary’s.

She urged the audience to use the same kind of effort that was used to elect President Obama to pass genuine immigration reform, saying, “An America that elected the son of an African immigrant to be president can reform itself so every immigrant father can live without fear. We are going to dramatically change this nation when 11 million people come out of the shadows and earn the right to vote.”

Several Democratic state senators - Kevin de Leon, Jim Bell and Mark de Saulnier - attended the event, which was hosted by La Hermandad, coordinated by Karen Pedraza ’15 and Guadalupe Alaniz ’13.

Pedraza, who is also the child of migrant laborers, said Durazo’s work inspires her. “My parents have worked in the field for over 20 years, and conditions have not changed,” she said. “I hope one day to stand side by side with Maria Elena in building a strong farm labor movement.”

Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications

The event was co-sponsored by La Hermandad, the Bishop John S. Cummins Institute, Women's Resource Center, Ethnic Studies department, CILSA, the Intercultural Center, the John F. Henning Institute and UNITE HERE.

View a photo album of the event on Facebook.