Today's Immigration Reform Rally A Milestone

Today’s Washington, D.C. immigration rally was a milestone in the battle for immigrant rights.

Whatever its ultimate impact on immigration politics this year, the rally served to galvanize a new cohort of immigrant activists, especially young people and recent immigrants.

Much of the nation’s attention was elsewhere today, on the health care debate taking place simultaneously in Congress. That’s despite the fact that turnout at the rally, estimated at some 200,000 people, exceeded even organizers’ expectations.

But the impassioned speeches on the National Mall, in front of an enthused crowd of immigrants and their supporters, were intended not just for the ears of lawmakers.

They were also meant to keep morale high in what is a solidifying mass movement for immigration reform rooted in immigrant communities nationwide.

Before taking the stage at the rally, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, (D-Ill.), made this point in an interview with Spanish-language media reporters.

“If we see this protest as a culmination of our struggle we’re going to lose,” he said.

The rally is part of a larger movement for immigration reform, which can only be won “battle by battle” by activists, Gutiérrez added. And like civil rights movements of the past, the immigration movement needs to organize further demonstrations if efforts at legislation stall.

“We have to take the struggle to the street,” Gutiérrez said.

Alma Díaz, an Ohio immigrant activist, drove 12 hours from Cincinnati to attend the event.

Shortly before Sunday’s rally, Díaz said she felt overwhelmed with expectation and pride.

“I feel like my heart’s on fire,” she said.

Díaz, a 28-year-old bartender and an immigrant from Mexico who arrived in this country seven years ago, began her activism only recently, and last year attended training sessions in Washington, D.C. put on by national immigrant advocacy groups.

Now she recruits other immigrant activists for the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers’ Center, and gives talks on immigrant rights at local churches. In January, she and her colleagues attracted a local immigration rally that turned out some 2,000 people.

Like Díaz, many who have become active on this issue emerged from the overlapping worlds of faith-based, labor, and immigrant rights political organizing.

The rally on the National Mall and earlier events around the capital featured emotive speeches by Hispanic legislators, labor and religious activists, and civil rights leaders. President Obama spoke via a video address, saying the broken immigration system affects the entire country.

The speakers framed immigrants as the workers, soldiers, and community leaders who formed a backbone of U.S. society.

Immigrants themselves, politicized by recent years of hard-line enforcement policies, could be seen assuming a prominent role and taking increasing ownership of their movement.

There were immigrant leaders of state-level rights groups, as well as undocumented immigrant activists who have “come out” and are openly advocating for reform despite risks they face by revealing their immigration status publicly.

Student activists could be heard chanting: “Obama, we want education, not deportation.”

One of the many personalities who attended the rally was Piolín, an L.A. Spanish-language radio personality who was born in Jalisco, Mexico.

He also argued for immigrants and their advocates not to fixate on whether or not immigration reform is taken up by the White House or Congress, but to focus simply on keeping pressure on.

Expectations are high since Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced a bipartisan reform plan that includes a legalization program for the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

President Obama reiterated his vows to fix the broken immigration system in a taped video address to the crowd, and it could be that with health care’s passage, immigration comes next.

But Piolín said despite politicians’ gestures this was not the moment for the movement to slack.

“We can’t stop what we’re doing because they’ve taken an interest or no interest in immigration reform,” he said.


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