"The time has come to draw the line against attacks on immigrants," union and immigrant rights leader Jaime Martinez told a public forum at the University of Houston Friday.
More than 60 UH students, faculty and others attended the immigration symposium sponsored by the UH chapter of La Resistencia, an immigrant rights organization.
Martinez cited as "attacks" a series of anti-immigrant laws recently enacted or up for consideration at a federal and state level and an increasing number of immigrants beaten and killed by law officers.
He called "fear of the growing numbers and potential power of immigrants and minorities in the U.S." the source of these alleged attacks.
Martinez urged a change in strategy in the fight for immigrant rights, encouraging activists to consider the tactics of civil disobedience employed by Martin Luther King Jr. and by United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez.
Martinez is an international vice president of the International Union of Electrical Workers and was a central leader of the national march for Latino rights which took place Oct. 12, 1996, in Washington, D.C.
He spoke as part of a panel sponsored by La Resistencia.
Also on the panel was Jose Palacios, the focus of a national civil rights defense campaign.
Palacios was fired from his job of seven years with the California Department of Motor Vehicles for refusing to report license applicants with questionable proof of citizenship to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Under the recently enacted Proposition 187 in California, state employees were required to finger undocumented persons for deportation. Since the law was passed, however, many of its provisions have been struck down in court.
Palacios attributed his actions to his Catholic upbringing. He said his defiance of Proposition 187 was "an act of religious conviction."
The California government is now also trying to strip Palacios, he asserts, of his right to teach.
Proposition 209, a law to end bilingual education in California, was also criticized by panelists. This proposition is currently being debated by the California Legislature.
Cecilia Aguilar Ortiz of the Houston Immigration and Refugee Coalition encouraged activity on the federal level by announcing a plan to send empty paper plates to members of Congress.
The plates would symbolize the loss of food-stamp benefits to legal immigrants as a result of the 1996 federal welfare reform law.
The HIRC is urging Congress to accept the restoration of these benefits, a consideration included in President Clinton's Feb. 2 budget proposals.
Students in attendance said they found the symposium informative and thought-provoking.
"Many people come to this country looking for freedom only to discover that the U.S. violates the civil rights of immigrants," said Jagbir Kaur, a second-year psychology major.
Kaur is particularly sensitive to this issue because her family immigrated twice. Originally from India, they moved to Hong Kong and then to the United States.
The increase in anti-immigrant laws and sentiment impelled UH students to form a campus chapter of La Resistencia this semester, said president Teresa Webb, a graduate social work student.
"There is definitely a war on immigrants in this country, so there is a lot of interest at UH in this issue," Webb said. "UH has a lot of international students, and this is not just for justice for Mexican immigrants, but for all immigrants."
Martinez ended his remarks with a call for unity in the fight to defend immigrant rights.
"Through unity we will not only grow in numbers, but we will also grow in power," he said. "We will be able to act directly to resist injustice against our brothers and sisters."