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Leading 'La Marcha'

The mass immigration demonstrations reveal the humanity and diversity of the people—not just workers—who are often invisible.
 
 
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Last month, hundreds of thousands of immigrants marched to protest Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner's, R-Wis., punitive immigration bill. Five hundred thousand marched in Los Angeles, 100,000 in Chicago, and 50,000 in Denver. Similar numbers are expected today . The protests have touched many more than even those numbers imply. Millions of people--at kitchen tables, in bars, at the bowling alley--are now debating the rights of immigrants, particularly Latinos, to assert themselves as Americans while holding to their original identities. These developments appear to have killed the House bill. Whether or not a better bill passes this year, there's no question that the immigration policy debate has shifted.

These events offer important lessons for advocates and policymakers. Strategically, the protests have exposed the true nature of the immigration debate, which is far more cultural and racial than our economic arguments have accounted for. Tactically, they teach us that social networks and media have to be integrated with our political strategy, even though they cannot, by their very nature, be fully predicted or controlled.

The immigration debate has largely pitted two images of undocumented immigrants against each other. On the political right, they are lawbreakers. On the left, they are hard workers. Conservatives are careful not to appear racist by focusing on legal technicalities. Progressives have also been silent on race because they fear that immigrants don't see themselves as people of color, or because they want to pander to Americans who can't stomach the idea that their nation is growing browner with every passing year.

For many years, the right and left have been talking in codes around the real issue. Americans, whether corporate leader or working mother, are perfectly fine having brown people from other countries provide cheap labor. But they draw the line at letting those people bring or build families here, and at letting them speak other languages or marry their children.

The look and feel of the demonstrations indicates that these racial and cultural dynamics has driven the debate into the streets. A New America Media poll reveals that the vast majority of legal immigrants are alarmed by the racism embedded in the debate. This is an uprising of people, not just of workers, who are social beings rather than economic objects.

Hundreds of thousands of marchers are now telling America what its leaders have kept quiet: you can't have our labor without changing the color of the country. Immigrants, legal or not, will change the complexion and culture of the United States within the next 50 years.

The controversy over protestors carrying Mexican and Central American flags proves the point. The criticism from conservative ideologues and liberal tacticians isn't going to change the reality of a multiracial, multilingual, multinational America. It's because of the racial identity base of the protestors that these marches have so much focus--the kind of focus that similarly massive anti-war protests, which have included everything from Palestine to global warming, have lacked.

This explosive movement has been driven by social, rather than by political, networks. In fact, every U.S. social movement has reached its apex when the political and social elements came together, when they had the political base, used the mass media creatively and effectively, and activated friendship, spiritual and family networks.

While immigrant rights organizations have worked for years to generate mass action on a range of anti-immigrant ballot measures in California, the convergence of distinct cultural trends has made all the difference.

Young people are moving their friends through cell phones and MySpace, Spanish-language radio DJs (in the corporate media, by the way) are talking to their listeners, and church leaders, both lay and ordained, are getting to their parishioners.

Certainly, unions and immigrant rights groups are also activating their members, but let's face it, these kinds of numbers are generated virally and many thousands of people who show up to these protests will never join an organization. The activity is decentralized. No single organization or coalition owns it. Therefore, it can't be fully directed and it's a bit unpredictable. The organized chaos of social movements often frightens advocates who spend most of their time trying to get legislative cooperation.

This doesn't mean that organizations and policies are irrelevant to movement building. Movements rise from the foundation of organizing, policy development and community leadership so that when the public eye moves around looking for the truth, there's somewhere for it to land.

While this mobilization has been driven by a web of intimate associations it is the political organizing across generations that has pushed politicians to take up the immigration debate. Without this kind of persistent political activity, there would be no immigration policy to challenge; and no alternative to the increasingly punitive immigration policies.

People tend to rise up over specific threats that represent a larger system--someone has to agitate anger over that threat and raise the public's expectations for better policy. That's what immigrant rights organizations and their allies have been doing over the last 15 years.

Today's events show us again how focused mass movement emerges from social networks and media, then changes public opinion, which then puts new pressure on policy makers. Innovative organizations equip themselves to deal with social networks and the media, not just when something big needs to happen, but all the time. As a friend said to me over dinner after organizing 100,000 marchers in D.C., "You work on immigration for 10 years, and then all of a sudden your moment comes. It almost killed us, but we were ready." The only way to get ready is to build social activity and media work into our programs and products.

Progressive funders, however, constantly ask advocates and organizations to prove that our work results in policy change. They'd like us to draw a straight line between our activities and the change we seek, year after year, and they'd like us to walk down that line quickly. The fact that social movements that feed truly large scale policy change doesn't work that way wouldn't be so unfortunate if progressive elites weren't so attached to that idea, forcing the flow of resources into very narrow channels.

Something important is happening. It's showing us that we have to talk about race because that is what the policy debate--and the reality of peoples' lives--is really about. It's also showing us that we have to lay the foundation to ride a spontaneous movement when it does arrive. In these high moments, we also have to remember that no individual movement is successful forever, that all victories generate a backlash. So it's important not to over-exceptionalize the immigrant rights movement, to recognize that its real strength will be in its broader lessons for advocates and in its broader moral resonance for all people of color, and indeed, for all Americans.

Rinku Sen is the publisher of ColorLines magazine and communications director of the Applied Research Center (ARC).