However Modest, May Day Rallies Showcase Immigrants' Awakening

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Today's May Day rallies in favor of immigration reform may have been smaller than the historic mass demonstrations of 2006, but they carried an important political message.

They represent the reawakening of a pressure group: immigrants and their families.

It's a grassroots lobby that has lain mostly dormant for three years. In large part, immigrants were scared into political hibernation by the backlash against them that followed immigration reform's collapse in the 2007 Congress.

Since that defeat, immigrant communities have faced increased raids, deportations, and scrutiny by local law enforcement.

Young marcherNow, encouraged perhaps by a more flexible White House stance on immigration, they're beginning to speak out again. They've heard Obama's vague promises to "move" on immigration reform this year, but haven’t seen any concrete results. Impatience is beginning to show.

"In 2006, we said si se puede (yes we can)," thundered one rally organizer onstage, trying to rile up the crowd here, just after a female singer in short shorts had sung a Venezuelan protest ballad, Casas de Cartón, or "Cardboard Houses."

The organizer then counted off the years that reform's been delayed: "2006, 2007, 2008, 2009," he intoned. "It's a shame but it appears Congress is deaf; our representatives don't want to hear us."

The morning May Day rally was in Hempstead, a Long Island town of 50,000 people some 30 miles east of Manhattan. Over 100 people, mostly Latin American immigrants, were in attendance, plastic coverings sealed over baby strollers to protect infants from the chill and drizzle.

Demonstrators marched through Hempstead's small downtown bearing signs like "I Want my Mother Back" and "Stop Breaking up Families," and then gathered at a downtown parking lot in front of the stage. After singing, poetry recitations and speeches the demonstrators packed into a bus to attend a much larger demonstration in Manhattan.

Greg Maney, a sociology professor at Hofstra University in Long Island, who studies social movements, was in the crowd, and also attended the 2006 protests in Long Island, which centered on the same Hempstead parking lot. In 2006, he said, it was "packed." This year, the crowd petered out well before the lot's edges.

Maney said it may be that immigration reform advocates need to be more persuasive explaining that right now there's a unique window of political opportunity, and it needs to be seized upon aggressively.

However, he acknowledged there's also a "climate of fear" that may keep immigrants away from demonstrations, not to mention the swine flu scare.

In some ways, whatever its size, an immigration rally in Long Island carried more weight than in immigrant-friendly New York City.

The Long Island suburbs, particularly exurban Suffolk County, have for more than a decade struggled to integrate immigrants, mostly Latinos, into community life. In November, a gang of high-schoolers killed Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant, in the seaside town of Patchogue in eastern Long Island.

Some immigrant advocates pinned part of the blame for Lucero's death on local elected officials like Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, a Democrat. The advocates argue that through hard line legislation and rhetoric targeting illegal immigration, Levy and others have created a xenophobic climate that breeds hate crimes.

"There's this kind of vacuum, and as long as the federal government does not come up with a solution, there's going to be pressure on local governments to respond" to immigration, and some do so with destructive measures, said Maney.

Protestors demand family reunificationJosé Avila, a 39-year-old Colombian immigrant attending the Hempstead rally and who works in real estate and marketing, says the immigrant reform message needs to penetrate further at the local level if it's to gain momentum in the Obama era. He was disappointed by the rally's turnout and said it should have been larger.

"We have to reach the community's base," he said-- not just Latinos or immigrants, but anyone with a stake in neighborhoods and municipalities. "We need to engage with the most civically active members of our communities, regardless of their politics."

In chants and speeches, the demonstrators demanded legal status for the nation's 12 million undocumented immigrants, arguing their contributions to the U.S. economy in low-wage, dirty jobs meant they had earned the right to some sort of legal status. The demonstrators argued it's inherently unsafe and unfair for 4 percent of the U.S. population to live in the murk of illegality, driving without drivers' licenses, falling prey to scams, crimes and exploitative employers.

"We live in that darkness because we have to," said a 40-year-old undocumented immigrant from El Salvador who has been in the United States six years, working as a carpenter. "We hide because we must."

Nubia M. López, founder and president of the Hempstead-based Salvadoran Civic Committee, said she has lived in the United States for 29 years, but that she helps advocate for immigration reform because she wants the undocumented, "who have nothing," to receive the same blessings she's enjoyed.

She fled El Salvador in 1981 with her three children after her husband was killed in armed conflict there. Later, she benefited from the immigration amnesty offered by Ronald Reagan.

Now, she's a citizen. "I'd like them to have the same opportunities I had in the 1980s."

If they're given a chance, she said, "the economy will flourish."


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