"We let Washington know we're still fighting"

Nicole Colson rounds up reports from around the U.S. on the May Day demonstrations for immigrant rights.

Marching on May Day 2008, Chicago (Paul D'Amato | SW)

FOR THE third year in a row, supporters of immigrant rights celebrated the workers' holiday of May Day by taking to the streets in cities across the U.S. to demand equal rights for all. Tens of thousands came out in Los Angeles and Chicago, but there were hundreds and thousands at rallies in other cities.

When they reported on them at all, the mainstream media focused on the fact that the turnouts weren't as big as the mass marches of last year and especially 2006. "Immigrants march in U.S., but rallies lose steam," declared a typical headline in a California paper.

But the demonstrations were significant in carrying on the spirit of the mega-marches of two years ago into an election year, when people expected there to be no protests at all--and in city after city, the rallies showcased important ongoing struggles.

-- In Los Angeles, 20,000 people filled the streets of downtown to demand legalization, an end to raids and deportations, and dignity in the workplace.

Two protests, organized by the Multiethnic Immigrant Workers Organizing Network (MIWON), Coalition for Humane Immigrants Rights Los Angeles (CHIRLA) and March 25th Coalition, converged on City Hall. Contingents included members of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), various Service Employees International Union (SEIU) locals, a vibrant contingent of American Apparel workers in their "Legalize LA" campaign, and Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice.

On the same day, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) West Coast shutdown crippled the Long Beach/San Pedro port complex that handles an estimated $1 billion of cargo per day.

Some of this year's participants included people who were on hand for last year's rally in MacArthur Park, when police in riot gear attacked the crowd of peaceful protesters. Doris Ochoa, a janitor and undocumented immigrant from Mexico, marched near the front of the demonstration with other victims of last year's attack. "It's important to show...that we are still standing," she told the Los Angeles Times.

Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the LA County Federation of Labor, told the crowd, "Over recent years, May Day actions have been organized to highlight immigrants as workers and our broken immigration laws that continue to terrorize them. This year, raids in the workplace are being used as a tool by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to allegedly address our broken immigration laws."

-- In Chicago, the more than 15,000 people who marched had to overcome the opinion of many who thought that an election year wasn't the right time for protests demanding amnesty for the undocumented and an end to raids, deportations and no-match letters.

A few months ago, it wasn't even certain that there would be a large May Day demonstration for immigrant rights in Chicago, the city that saw the very first mega-march in 2006. But in March, activists from around the Midwest organized a regional conference in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood to discuss the state of the movement and mobilizing for May Day.

On May 1, busloads of protesters from suburbs and high schools--like Kelly High School, in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood--and carloads of friends, families and coworkers--made their way to Union Park, west of downtown.

The event was sponsored by hundreds of progressive, community and labor organizations around the city. More than 200 students marched with the newly formed Youth May 1 Network contingent--and plans are being discussed for more actions and forums in the future.

Unfortunately, there were three different committees wrangling for control of the stage at the main rally at Federal Plaza, and liberal groups demanded that Mayor Richard Daley--who has allowed raids to take place in Chicago neighborhoods and attacked city unions--be allowed to speak.

As Orlando Sepúlveda of the March 10 Movement made clear in his remarks to the rally, the politicians may claim to be pro-immigrant, but the movement must keep organizing to put pressure on them.

"We were promised that NAFTA would open borders, but Operation Gatekeeper was the negation of that," Sepúlveda said. "We want to see a world without borders, but we can't rely on corporations or politicians to do that, because as we saw, NAFTA and Operation Gatekeeper were designed to keep the borders open for capitalism, but closed for workers."

A Mexican immigrant and factory worker from Zion, Ill., Eric Molina, told reporters, "We came here to fight for legalization. We're people. We have rights." Jorge Guzman, another marcher, said, "We came to let Washington know we're still here. We're still fighting."

-- In San Diego, as many as 700 people marched from San Diego City College (SDCC) into the city's downtown. The bulk of the protest was made up of students from SDCC and the nearby San Diego High School.

The rally heard from SEIU, UNITE HERE and United Domestic workers; maquiladora rights activists from Tijuana; students from MEChA, Amnesty International, Sí Se Puede and other organizations; and many others. Marchers joined up with a second rally organized by the Raza Rights Coalition.

Justin Akers Chacón, a teacher at SDCC and coauthor of No One Is Illegal, discussed the role of globalization and the effects of NAFTA on workers across the globe. Speakers also demanded that the Democratic candidates take a stand against the raids and deportations. At one point, the rally MC called the office of Nancy Pelosi, holding the phone out to the crowd so she could "hear the demands of the people of San Diego."

-- In Atlanta, "We are not the enemies of the United States" was the message from the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR), which organized a rally of over 350 people at the Georgia State Capitol Building.

The rally, which drew community activists and immigrant workers, was in part a response to the ongoing debate in the Georgia State Assembly around House Bill 978, which would require law enforcement officers to impound a vehicle operated by anyone without a license. This bill coincides with State Bill 350, which is waiting for approval from Gov. Sonny Perdue and would create a mandatory two-day jail sentence for anyone driving without a license.

Along with the rally, GLAHR also put together five billboards around Atlanta to begin a dialogue over the treatment of immigrant workers in Georgia. The focus by the coalition was on spreading the message through the media, hoping to build a campaign within the community that would force Perdue to veto the bills.

Despite recent setbacks--in a state that has seen one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the country--there is still hope among local organizers and community leaders that rights for migrant workers can be won with grassroots activism.

-- In Seattle, 70 students marched through the halls of Seattle Central Community College (SCCC), chanting "Walk out for immigrant rights, walk out against the war!" The protest was organized by the Campus Antiwar Network/Antiwar Collective (CAN/AWC), Muslim Student Association, MEChA and a Filipino youth group.

After the students walked out, they joined with other students from nearby campuses for a rally of up to 200 people, and then marched to the waterfront to meet up with 1,000 ILWU members, supporters and other workers.

A few hours later, 3,000 immigrants and supporters rallied and marched through downtown. Signs and speakers demanded an end to repressive raids and the breaking up of working families. Chants of "Sí se puede!" "El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!" and "Qué queremos? Amnistía!" rang out, as the march snarled rush hour traffic.

-- In Providence, R.I., as many as 300 people came out, despite an executive order from Gov. Don Carcieri that essentially gives the state police permission to act as ICE agents.

Groups involved in organizing the event included the Olneyville Neighborhood Association, Ocean State Action, English For Action, Fuerza Laboral, Immigrants in Action Committee and a coalition of religious leaders who have stood up for immigrant rights.

-- In Amherst, Mass., around 100 people rallied. Large banners with the slogans "An Injury to One Is an Injury to All" and "Immigrant Rights Are Workers Rights" were displayed. The demands of the rally included an end to raids and deportations and support for the right of all to join a union and earn a living wage.

-- In Rochester, N.Y., a rally of 50 was held that included immigrant rights and antiwar activists from the Rochester Alliance for Immigrant Rights and Rochester Against War, among others. The rally took place in spite of a raid by ICE just two days before that targeted a Mexican restaurant in Buffalo, N.Y., where some 60 workers were taken into custody.

Phil Aliff, Sam Bernstein, Justin Akers Chacón, Victor Fernandez, Nate Goldbaum, Jesse Hagopian, Sarah Knopp, Matty Owusu-Afriyie, Mayra Paulino, Robert Resto, Chuck Stemke, Jorge Torres, Adam Turl and Natalia Tylim contributed to this article.