Labor Activist, Ai Jen Poo: “We have the opportunity to choose life and love.”

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre:

Fifty years after passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, the debate surrounding immigration, domestic workers and elder care remains contentious and colored by issues of race and class. Labor activist and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, Ai-Jen Poo recently spoke at Indiana University Bloomington about the complexity of the immigration debate and her vision for a society that “chooses love.”

Ai-Jen Poo

Ai-Jen Poo

“There is a crisis in immigration, a crisis in domestic jobs and a crisis in caregiving. As a nation, we are at a crossroads,” Poo said. “Will we choose life and love or racism and hate?”

Poo delivered the keynote address “Caregiving and the Future of our Democracy” as part of the IU Themester’s Politics, Promises and Possibilities symposium in the Whittenberger Auditorium on Friday.

Poo’s parents moved to the U.S. from Taiwan in 1971, making her a self-proclaimed “child of the 1965 legislation.” As an undergraduate, Poo successfully organized an occupation of the Columbia University library, which led to the creation of Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. She has since worked at CAAV Organizing Asian Communities and founded the organizations Domestic Workers United and Caring Across Generations.

The 1965 legislation eliminated immigration quotas that previously favored Europeans and attempted to democratize immigration. But she said the racism that fueled opposition to the bill at the time continues to pervade the debate today.

Poo referenced recent legislation like Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070.

“The goal of the legislation was to make immigrants want to self deport by creating a climate of fear,” Poo said. “It’s the same rhetoric heard by a certain presidential candidate today  — Donald Trump.”

Poo pointed to Trump’s June speech on Mexican immigration where he said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

In Poo’s experience, not only are these broad assumptions wrong, they also have tangible effects on immigrants nationwide. Poo told the experience of Sylvia, a Mexican immigrant now working in Seattle as a housekeeper and nanny, two days after Trump’s comment.

Sylvia was stopped on the road by a civilian who demanded she produce her passport. The civilian then followed her two blocks and physically assaulted her.

“The politics are complex,” Poo said. “But the answer is not. The fundamental choice is either love or hate.”

Despite struggles against intolerance, Poo’s organizations have overseen major successes, including the adoption of domestic workers bill of rights by seven states. These bills are the first to assure domestic workers with mandated paid leave.

“This is incredible progress in just a few years,” Poo said. “But it is not enough. We are on the horizon of an elder boom.”

Because of healthcare and technology, Americans are living longer than ever before. As a result, people age 85 and over are the fastest growing demographic. Poo cited statistics such as: 10,000 people turn 65 every day in the U.S.; by 2050, 27 million people will need basic caregiving; and 1.4 million caregiving jobs will need to be created by 2018.

That is where Caring Across Generations steps in, Poo said. The organization is currently working both to introduce legislation that will create a path for undocumented domestic workers to become citizens and on comprehensive immigration reform.

“I have faith as this entire nation changes and ages that we will have a unique opportunity to choose life and love over hate,” Poo said. “We have the chance to become mostly love.”

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