Barrios Fired Up for Sunday’s Immigration March

NEW YORK--It is being billed as the largest immigration protest since the mass demonstrations of 2006. 

In immigrant neighborhoods nationwide the expectation ahead of Sunday’s march in Washington, D.C., was palpable. 

In New York, immigrants gathered days before the protest to paint signs with messages like “Obama, keep your promise.” Popular FM stations La Mega and Amor broadcast special PSAs encouraging people to join bus caravans to the nation’s capital. 

Tens of thousands of immigrant activists and their allies from around the country--with an estimated 10,000 from the New York area alone--will converge this Sunday on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. 

The goal is to put comprehensive immigration reform firmly back on the political agenda after a year in which immigrant communities have been bitterly disappointed by congressional and White House foot-dragging. 

Organizers’ ultimate aim: immigration reform legislation before the November 2010 mid-term elections. 

“The march is only one step in a much longer trajectory for us in getting this passed,” Gabe Gonzalez, lead organizer of Sunday’s protest, told New America Media in a phone interview. 

On Thursday, Gonzalez sent supporters an urgent fund-raising e-mail to finance transport costs for last-minute marchers. 

According to the e-mail, organizers wanted to “make sure that on Sunday afternoon, everyone sees just how powerful the immigration reform movement is and that lawmakers give us the respect we deserve. But that won't happen unless we bring a crowd so big, it exceeds expectations.“ 

Even without a last-minute bump, turnout goals already seem to have been met, if not surpassed, organizers said. There are more than 50,000 participants registered, and 819 buses traveling to the capital from 33 states.

Prominent labor, civil rights, religious and immigrant organizations all collaborated in turning out marchers.

Longtime observers of the immigration debate said that in many ways the goals of the demonstration--dubbed “March for America”--already have been achieved. 

“I think it’s already having a big impact, and the event hasn’t even happened yet,” said Angela Kelley, vice president of immigration policy and advocacy at the pro-reform progressive think tank Center for American Progress. 

Late last year, immigrant advocates were confronted with the perception in Washington, D.C., that immigration was off the radar. 

“We realized we needed a game changer,” said Gonzalez, who works with the Reform Immigration for America campaign. “We couldn’t allow this to play out like that.” 

So the decision was made by advocates to try the tactic that could set immigration apart from other issues vying for politicians’ attention: a mass mobilization. 

The strategy seems to have worked. As the plans for Sunday’s protest built, President Obama and Cabinet officials granted a series of meetings to immigrant advocates. 

“This meeting with Obama wouldn’t have happened without this incredible grassroots movement,” said Norman Eng, spokesman for the New York Immigration Coalition. 

On Friday, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., revealed the outline of their bipartisan immigration reform bill through an op-ed in The Washington Post. It includes a national identity card for legal workers, strong enforcement and border security, a temporary worker program, and a path to legalization for unauthorized immigrants already in the country.

Immigrant advocates often repeat that President Obama won the 2008 elections partly on the backs of 2 million new immigrant voters and Latinos who tilted 2-1 in his favor. Inaction on immigration could risk forfeiting this support. 

But there is a political minefield between advocates and their goal of immigration reform this year. 

Organizations seeking to restrict immigration, like Washington, D.C.-based online group NumbersUSA, disagree sharply with immigrant advocates’ vision for reform.

In particular, restrictionist groups oppose a path to citizenship for the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. 

“We’re obviously at 100 percent odds,” said NumbersUSA Executive Director Roy Beck. “Our position is that putting Americans back to work is the top priority.“ 

NumbersUSA is urging its hundreds of thousands of registered members to join a campaign to “Stop Amnesty in Four Days” that will include visits to congressional offices today, as well as fax and petition drives. 

Beck said he is not planning a counter-demonstration Sunday, but will webcast live reports from the march for the NumbersUSA Web site.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Sen. Graham, so far a lone Republican advocate of immigration reform, has threatened to drop his support if Democrats use aggressive procedural tactics to pass health-care legislation, as they are expected to do. 

Another pitfall may be the proposal by Sens. Schumer and Graham to require a national worker ID card containing fingerprint or other “biometric” information.

Libertarians and privacy activists on the left and right are sure to criticize the idea.

Whatever the challenges, it is still possible for immigration reform to surface as a priority with bipartisan traction once health care is settled, said Kelley of the Center for American Progress. 

“There is a definite uptick in attention and focus by the key senators in this,” she said. 

Even after Sunday’s march, immigration reformers plan to keep the pressure on.

Demonstrations will be held later this month in California, and during April’s congressional recess advocates will visit legislators’ home offices. 

The Catholic Church is organizing congregations in political battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Missouri to push legislators on immigration reform, according to Kevin Appleby, director of Migration Policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But this week in immigrant neighborhoods, advocates were focused on the marches planned for this Sunday.

Two hours before sunrise, more than 200 Hispanic and South Asian immigrants from the Jackson Heights section of Queens will board four buses bound for the capital, said Martha Chávez, advocacy and organizing coordinator for the nonprofit New Immigrant Community Empowerment. 

The march has revived morale as well as hopes for a deal that will address the nation’s undocumented immigrant population, family reunification, the visa backlog, and the current enforcement-heavy policy. 

“This (march) is a way to show … we are active,” Chávez said. “We don’t want just anything. We want something that’s fair.


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