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300,000 march for immigrant rights
"We're here and we're not leaving"

By Lee Sustar | March 17, 2006 | Page 12

AS MANY as 300,000 people took to the streets of Chicago March 10 to demonstrate for immigrant rights.

The protest, one of the biggest in the city's history, began as a grassroots initiative of activists fed up with the failure of mainstream politicians to challenge anti-immigrant legislation and other attacks.

The sheer size of the protest displayed the centrality of immigrant labor to the U.S. economy--including what the Pew Hispanic Trust estimates at 10 to 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S.

The protest came three days after a march of 20,000 in Washington, D.C., for similar demands--opposition to House Resolution (HR) 4437, legislation proposed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) that would criminalize both undocumented immigrants and those who assist them, compel state and local authorities to enforce federal immigration laws, and fund the construction of a massive wall on the U.S.-Mexican border.

In Chicago, immigrant groups reflecting the city's diversity turned all turned out--Polish, Irish, South Asian, Arab and more. But the overwhelming majority were Mexican American, a reflection of the immigration into the Chicago area over the last 20 years.

"I am completely opposed to this law--it would harm millions of people," said Juan, who emigrated from Guanajuato, Mexico. "This demonstration is magnificent. The Latin Americans, the Central Americans, the Mexicans, Hispanics are all together here."

Protesters took up demands far beyond HR 4437, and conversations with marchers revealed a desire for far-reaching change--equality and civil rights for all immigrants, with or without documents.

"I think everybody can be united, and nobody's going to stop us," said Arturo, who came to the Chicago area from Guanajuato 23 years ago. "I think it's like the African American people. When they united, they got a lot from the government in the '70s."

The comparison to the civil rights movement may have seemed far-fetched to some before the Chicago rally--but not afterward. The march was a milestone in the struggle for immigrant rights in the U.S. and the efforts of activists across the country in recent years to create a new movement.

Veterans of antiwar and labor protests were shocked at the size of the turnout. As the closing rally began in Federal Plaza downtown, demonstrators were still lined up to join the march from a West Side park nearly three miles away.

The streets in between were jammed with delegations from community groups, schools, labor unions and the staffs of entire small businesses, often with their employers' blessing. "I'm losing $2,000 today for this," a construction foreman good-naturedly grumbled as he stood with his work crew, all of them Mexican American.

Middle-aged working-class men, young mothers pushing baby carriages, teens, retirees--every generation was represented, as the unseasonably warm day helped maximize turnout.

Many came at the urging of others who couldn't make it. "My mother wanted us to come by, because she had to work," said Anna López, a student at Harold Washington College in downtown Chicago.

López's mother arrived from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, at age 21, and gave birth 16 hours later to Anna's oldest brother. "She made sure we were awake this morning," López said.

López is especially angry over proposals to militarize the border--as well as the anti-immigrant vigilantes in the Minuteman Project, who organize armed patrols there. "It's really interesting that people who want to oppose abortion say, go ahead, kill people on your property" if they're trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, she said.

Countless protesters added their own messages to those of the march, with homemade signs including, "Don't bite the hand that feeds," "Bush, My Mexican Son Died in Iraq," "¡No somos criminales! (we are not criminals)," and "Who's the immigrant here, pilgrim?" More than a few signs targeted the man behind the anti-immigrant HR 4437: "Sensenbrenner: Where were your ancestors from?" and "Sensenbrenner: Mendigo Racista (miserable racist)."

Both U.S. and Mexican flags were on display to demonstrate immigrants' feelings that while they have a right to be in the U.S., they are proud of their roots as well.

Thousands had been bussed in from the suburbs and across the state line in Wisconsin, reflecting the breadth of the mobilization through the Spanish-language newspapers, television and radio. High school and college students used the Web site MySpace.com to spread word of the protest, and many took the day off from school--sometimes with administrators' support, sometimes not.

Among those who skipped school was Abner, a senior at a high school in suburban Lockport, Ill. "They are looking for a scapegoat--somebody to blame when things are going bad in the economy," he said. "Look at what Bush is doing in Iraq. He is looking for a way out, and something to make him look good."

Abner was joined on the march by his friends Yuri and Jennifer, seniors at Hubbard High School on Chicago's West Side. The three were all born in the U.S. to Mexican immigrant parents, but see themselves as targets of the backlash, too.

"I think this is an attack on anybody that's not white, or not American-born," Abner said. Jennifer agreed. "A lot of us are getting college degrees now," she said. "With their racism, they think we are probably going to take over."

The march was overwhelmingly working class in composition. "No immigrant justice march like this has happened in Illinois history since some 80,000 immigrants marched down State Street demanding an eight-hour workday in 1886," wrote Josh Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Overwhelmed by the endless surge of marchers into downtown Chicago's Loop, city officials called an end to the rally at 3 p.m., two hours earlier than the previously announced ending time. Two hours later, tens of thousands of marchers who had only just reached the protest site were still in the streets, chanting, "El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido"--the people united will never be defeated.

The tail end of protests is when Chicago cops typically flex their muscles to show who's boss--as was the case with mass arrests at the protests at the beginning of the Iraq war three years ago.

Not this time. Nervous officers, watched closely by the department's top brass, avoided confrontation, pulling back a contingent of mounted police that briefly blocked a group of young people who wanted to keep marching.

Who was in charge? "We all are," a young man said after successfully negotiating with police to keep his self-organized contingent on the street.

Predictably, Democratic politicians tried to ride the wave of anger that led to the protest. Speaking from the stage, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Sen. Dick Durbin all declared their opposition to HR 4437.

While Blagojevich, the son of an immigrant, promised support for protesters, his counterparts on the U.S.-Mexico border--New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, both Democrats, have declared "states of emergency" over immigration.

The Chicago march came just days after Napolitano ordered the National Guard to bolster "security" on the border. Such actions only legitimize Sensenbrenner's proposals and lend credence to other immigrant-bashing politicians, like Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and the Minutemen.

Other politicians favor some immigration to supply employers with cheap labor--but without rights. Legislation proposed by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), would create a "guest worker" program that would allow workers to stay in the U.S. for only six years before leaving the country and reapplying for the program--and it has no provision for citizenship.

To deflect the anti-immigrant backlash, many Democratic politicians and immigrant rights groups--such as the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights--have signed onto a "compromise" proposed by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Their bill would let undocumented workers apply for citizenship after a four-year waiting period, and allow an initial 400,000 guest workers a possible path to citizenship after six years, with the caps on the number of such people to be reset each year.

Yet McCain-Kennedy would force workers to leave the U.S. if they become unemployed for more than 45 days, giving employers final say over who stays and who goes--a perfect way to undermine workers' efforts to organize. McCain-Kennedy would also fund the greater "border security," rewarding the right's racist campaign.

While it was the Sensenbrenner bill that sparked the protest, organizers of the march--including the community organization Centro Sin Fronteras (People Without Borders)--maintained their demands for amnesty for undocumented workers and making Illinois a sanctuary for immigrants. Those demands--not the politicians' posturing--reflected the mood of the protest.

"We need to fight for opportunities for our children," said one man who moved to the U.S. 14 years ago and raised four sons of his own. "This is a fight for our rights."

Nicole Colson contributed to this report.

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