IMMIGRANTS

When Undocumented Americans Had Few Allies

How people-powered organizations changed that and built political power

Heath Brown
3Streams
Published in
6 min readJul 27, 2021

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Photo by rob walsh on Unsplash

Earlier this month, longtime labor and immigrant rights leader, Kathy Andrade, died at the age 88. The New York Times ran an obituary on her incredible life last week, quoting a family member who said “She was like the Godfather…There would be a line of people outside her office, just waiting to get help.”

Andrade spent much of her career as the education director for New York City’s Local 23–25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). In this role, she was one of the first in the country to defend undocumented workers, believing their rights needed to be protected along side the rights of other workers. As national union leaders persisted in the belief that immigrants were a threat, Andrade convinced ILGWU to take up the cause of the undocumented, the first union in the country to do so.

It is easy to forget this history of undocumented workers and Dreamers. To this day they are holding onto the threads of protections from the 2012 DACA program. Just this past week, President Biden lamented a recent federal court ruling threatening the future of DACA and, again, he called on Congress to pass a permanent solution.

But progressive support for undocumented Americans — as Andrade’s story attests — is only recent. Not only were unions slow to come around, powerful philanthropic foundations resisted attempts by organizers to defend the undocumented. This story is played out in excruciating detail in Benjamin Marquez’s new book, The Politics of Patronage: Lawyers, Philanthropy, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) (University of Texas Press).

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Heath Brown
3Streams

Heath Brown, associate prof of public policy, City University of New York, study presidential transitions, school choice, nonprofits