Los Angeles is a city historically rich in ethnic diversity. It is home to immigrant groups from throughout the world and has a long and successful tradition of organizing for issues of social justice, including immigrant rights. For the past twenty-one years, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) has been at the forefront in the fight for immigrant and refugee rights in Los Angeles and across the state and nation. The 1980's were a turbulent time in the social and political struggles of the immigrant community.
Civil wars in El Salvador and other Central American countries brought refugees and asylum seekers to the U.S. The war in Vietnam created a mass exodus of refugees from Southeast Asia also seeking asylum in the U.S. This influx of new immigrants and refugees, in addition to the passage of the Immigration Reform & Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), which offered amnesty to undocumented immigrants, created unique challenges for social service organizations.
While churches like the Our Lady Queen of Angels (La Placita), under the direction of Father Luis Olivares, provided sanctuary to refugees facing deportation, organizations such as the Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund (MALDEF) were tasked with helping immigrants navigate the legalization process under IRCA.
Together, these factors created an unprecedented need for coordination between direct service providers and advocacy groups. In 1986, a steering committee with representatives from organizations such as the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), LA Center for Law & Justice, and Dolores Mission convened.
Under the fiscal sponsorship of the United Way, the Coalition for Humane Immigrants Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), was founded as a multiethnic collaborative of advocacy groups, social service providers, policy makers, and legal services organizations dedicated to advancing the human and civil rights of immigrants and refugees in Los Angeles. In 1993, CHIRLA was officially established as its own 501(c)(3) (i.e. non profit organization).
A year later, it faced daunting challenges with California’s passage of Proposition 187, denying access to social services, health care, and public education to undocumented immigrants. Although ultimately found unconstitutional, Proposition 187 fostered an environment of fear. Immigrants and non-immigrants alike faced harassment at work, public humiliation as services were denied in restaurants and banks, and a widespread misperception that basic rights afforded under U.S. law no longer applied.
In response to this crisis, CHIRLA spearheaded public awareness and education campaigns, and instituted an Information Hotline & Referral Service, providing accurate, reliable information to the immigrant community and dispatching hundreds of speakers throughout Los Angeles to dispel rumors and allay fears. Moreover, the release of “Hate Unleashed,” documenting 267 confirmed cases of discrimination further cemented CHIRLA’s role as a prominent voice in the fight to protect the rights of immigrants, hold institutions accountable, and promote positive dialogue between various communities within Los Angeles.
More recently, CHIRLA has spearheaded the California AB 540 network to unite immigrant students across state; worked with Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez and the California State Household Worker Coalition to introduce a bill outlining overtime protections for household workers; helped to convene the Southern California Comprehensive Immigration Reform Working Group to fight for comprehensive immigration reform; spearheaded the Immigrant Rights Organizational Network (IRON) of service providers and advocacy groups; and is working with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) to sponsor a cross-country “Day Laborer Run for Peace & Dignity.” As issues have changed over the years, so has CHIRLA.
From its pioneering efforts to establish the first day laborer centers in the country (1989), to its training and mobilization of young activists in its Wise Up program (2001), and its participation in national, state, and local public policy initiatives, CHIRLA has adapted its strategies, but never abandoned its core mission to represent and advocate for the interests of the immigrant community. It was upon this commitment of responsibility to immigrants’ welfare that CHIRLA was founded.
It began as the collaborative effort of individuals and organizations working to protect the human and civil rights of all people. It began with the call to action of those, who, when confronted with the plight of mistreated individuals, chose to stand, organize, and fight for a more just and humane society. What began in 1986 in Los Angeles is today a powerful and growing movement that continues to serve as the template for innovation and success in the immigrant rights movement for the 21st century.
A video documetary of the history of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles Created by Janiva Cifuentes-Hiss Music by Los Jornaleros (Day Laborer Band)