200,000 March For Immigration Reform in Massive D.C. Rally

The message was clear: fix our broken immigration system, stop the deportations that split up families, and allow immigrants to come to the US legally and to earn legal status.

With many eyes focused on the health care debate seven blocks away at the U.S. Capitol, an estimated 200,000 people rallied for immigration reform on the National Mall. They came from California and Florida and the neighborhoods around Florida Avenue in Washington, DC. Like the “mega-marches” that exploded on the American political scene in the spring of 2006 – and remain the largest series of demonstrations in American history – the message at this massive rally was clear and loud: fix our broken immigration system, stop the deportations that are splitting up families, and allow immigrants to come to the U.S. legally and to earn legal status if they are already here illegally.

The President, who by all reports, was feverishly working the phones with Democratic House Members on health care, delivered a video address to affirm his commitment to passing immigration reform and added the magic words “this year” that the crowd and organizers were hoping to hear.

The strongest and most enthusiastically received remarks came from Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the only Latino in the Senate, and Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL), the point person for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on immigration reform and the most visible leader on the issue in the Congress, but dozens of Democratic House lawmakers -- and one Republican, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida – made their way to the stage.

Gutierrez indicated he wants to “take the battle to the streets” if Congress and the President need more pushing to act. Like many of the activists who have been fighting for immigration reform for more than a decade, he seemed to indicate it may take civil disobedience to create the pressure on Washington to act on immigration reform.

Deportations have gone up under President Obama, to a record 387,000 per year, Rep. Gutierrez and others pointed out, which is having a devastating impact on families, neighborhoods, and whole towns.

There was a rainbow of flags and signs in the crowd of supporters who had, in many cases, been up all night on buses from up and down the East Coast and from the Midwest and South. The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) in Chicago filled 132 buses, more than 30 vans, and dozens of cars to make the road trip for reform.

The event was organized by the Reform Immigration For America campaign, with considerable organizational and logistical support from its national, state, and local partners, not the least of which was the Center for Community Change whose staff were the backbone of the operation that brought nearly 1,000 buses to DC and credentialed more than 300 journalists.

Key allies in labor (including AFL-CIO, SEIU, UFCW, UFW, and UNITE HERE), religious leaders (lead by Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles and Rev. Sam Rodriguez, a leading Hispanic evangelical, but including almost every religious variety you have ever heard of), were joined on stage by an array of immigrants and leaders like Haitian advocates for youth, Korean DREAM Act activists, and the President of Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform.

And if you are a star in the Latino media – even if the rest of the United States does not know you that well – this was the place to be. Eddie “El Piolin” Sotelo, whose morning radio show on the Univision Network mixes music and bawdy humor, is one of the biggest stars in Spanish-speaking America and was mobbed by reporters and supporters. Lucia Mendez, a staple of Spanish Telenovelas, also sent an electric shock through the crowd. The day concluded with a brief set by Texas rockers Los Lonely Boys, who missed the Austin Music Awards ceremony Saturday at SXSW where they were selected best rock group in their hometown so that they could be at the rally.

While the audience and the speakers were distinctly Latino, there was a heavy emphasis on demonstrating the bridges being built between the pro-immigration reform movement and the African-American community. The heads of the NAACP, Benjamin Jealous, and the National Urban League, Marc Morial, each spoke and Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. and civil right icon Dick Gregory mingled with the crowd and with the press and organizers back stage.

As the Washington Post reported this week, the cooperation between the pro-immigration reform movement and the leading black and Latino civil rights organizations has been building for some time. As Krissah Williams reported Saturday:

Last year, [the National Council of] La Raza and the NAACP launched their first joint ad campaign in support of overhauling the health-care system. The Urban League joined with [NCLR] and the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development in a program to stem home foreclosures in minority communities.

A similar level of cooperation is happening in North Carolina, where the state NAACP and the immigration rights group El Pueblo have formed an alliance in Raleigh. "We found that the same forces that fight changing the laws to help immigrants also fight civil rights, they also fight health-care reform, they also fight educational reform," said the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP.

Tony Asion, executive director at El Pueblo, put it this way: "If we don't stick together, then we both lose."

Asion was one of the hundreds who rode buses from North Carolina to the rally and his theme was continued by Janet Murguía, the President and CEO of NCLR. She shared the stage with Wade Henderson, President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and her remarks reflected the shared goals of two communities that many in the anti-immigration movement try to pit against one another:

Our African American brothers and sisters took a stand here in Washington before, and continue the fight to keep the dream alive.

That’s why we are here, united, to win opportunity for all America’s families. So we can say, powerfully, respeto a nuestro prójimo - I am my brother’s keeper.

Early on Sunday morning on C-SPAN, as they prepared for the day’s debate on health care and the dueling health care and immigration stories, it was Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez that summed up the confidence and optimism the activists were placing in the hands of President Obama to move the issue forward. Referring to the President’s term in office, he said:

It’s been a really a very difficult first fifteen months… I really am much more hopeful, maybe than I’m letting on in terms of turning that page and his embracing us more fully and really energizing and...I think of the Barrack Obama in 2004 that just lit up that Democratic Convention and if he could bring some of that charisma and energy and passion to our issue I know we can win.

Based on how they received his remarks, a crowd of at least 200,000 citizens and people who would like to be citizens some day, agree that the President’s support and leadership is welcomed and perhaps, a bit overdue.

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Douglas Rivlin is a consultant and blogger and the former Director of Communication for the National Immigration Forum.