Defining the Melting Pot

In New York's Washington Square Park, the influence of immigration -- both legal and illegal -- was obvious long before today's immigrants' rights rally began. Hours before the marchers arrived with their flags and megaphones, nannies from the far corners of Latin America and Africa strolled through the park with their fair-skinned American toddlers in tow. Mexican and Irish construction workers ate Indian kati rolls on their lunch breaks. A gaggle of international students from New York University hailed a taxi, driven by a man with a West African accent.

Then, the pro-immigrant marchers converged.

From far off, it sounded like an impromptu pep rally, drums banging and whistles blowing. Once engulfed in the frenzy of the crowds, marchers could have been in any number of places. Phoenix, Los Angeles, Atlanta -- any of the 100 plus cities where people rallied on the National Day of Action for Immigrant Justice. The chants were similar, the signs were similar, the message was clear: 11 million illegal immigrants, along with millions of their legal relatives and friends, want legal status. "We love America!" one marcher exclaimed via megaphone. "We are America!"

Children and parents, friends and cousins, cheered at this pronouncement. "We are here to let them know we're working hard. We're already part of this nation," said Tito, who crossed into the United States illegally ten years ago and now lives with his wife, Reyna, and their two kids in New Jersey. The children, 7-year-old fraternal twins, are American-born. Reyna is a naturalized citizen. If Tito were to be deported, Reyna would be an instant single mom. She is acutely aware of this fact and says she is here for him and many more relatives who are here illegally.

Alongside entire families, students and union organizers supported the immigrants' call for citizenship.

"I feel that our country needs to acknowledge the people that do most of the low-wage labor," said David Vigil, a Columbia University student, ESL teacher and former organizer for the Janitors for Justice campaign. Though he acknowledged the worry that illegal immigrants take citizens' jobs, Vigil said "I think it's problematic to say to they're 'our' jobs and not somebody else's, especially since so many companies don't respect borders anyway."

The long march was slowed by police officers using strict crowd-control measures; marchers were gated in on many blocks, and near City Hall they were allowed to leave but not to reenter. Throughout the long afternoon, the mood was jubilant, and the speakers plentiful. Among the notables were Manhattan Rep. Charles Rangel, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Al Sharpton, a handful of local elected officials, heads of immigrant rights groups and the like. The most compelling stories, though, were not the political but the personal.

Representing an immigrant network called Families for Freedom was a young man named Julio, who told the story of his father's sudden deportation. "Six immigration agents with guns took my dad … they deported him without telling us anything and turned my mom into a single mother," he said. "Immigration laws are tearing families apart, taking mothers and fathers away from their American-born children."

It was the family ties at this and other rallies that seemed the strongest motivator for many marchers. Contemplating the day's events, Mexican-American author and scholar Richard Rodriguez likened the entire immigrant movement to a family gathering. He wrote in Salon:

Indeed, illegal immigrants, who were supposed to live a shadowy existence, belong to neighborhoods and to church congregations that were willing to stand alongside them. And most important: Many millions of illegal immigrants have U.S. relatives, sons and daughters, in-laws, cousins, grandchildren.
That family tie is the lesson of these parades. In Houston and Boston, in Phoenix and in San Jose, Calif., what we saw were not exactly "protests," nor were they political demonstrations, primarily. We were seeing huge family gatherings, celebrations of the clan.
In Los Angeles, I saw a veritable platoon of young women with baby strollers, the babies asleep or not, the women chatting, as though they were headed to the grocery store. I saw carnival balloons and comic oversize sombreros. I saw the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe floating on somebody's shoulders. I saw the flags of several nations, often, of course, Mexico's. On one Mexican flag, an old man with an Indian face had taped the photographs of his sons, serving in Iraq.
In generations past, for example during the Depression, once America had done with the eager hands of Mexico, there were mass deportations. Send the Messicans back!
But now, how do you deport so many millions who belong to even more millions?
For the hundreds of thousands of marchers and the millions who support them, the answer is simple: You can't.

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