A movement back in the streets

March 26, 2010

Brian Tierney describes the mood and the message at a D.C. immigrant rights march.

IN THE largest demonstration for immigrant rights since 2006, some 200,000 people came to Washington, D.C., on March 21 to highlight the growing demand for reform among more than 11 million undocumented immigrants and their supporters.

The marchers expressed their frustration with the Obama administration's inaction on changing what the president has repeatedly called a broken immigration system.

Organized by the Reform Immigration for America coalition, which represents some 200 different organizations, the throngs of protesters packed the National Mall and rallied for several hours before marching toward the Capitol building.

Thousands of immigrants and others came with their families, many traveling from as far as California to join the mostly Latino crowd of young and old protesters--in addition to the many African, Asian and West Indian immigrant families and organizations present. Buses came from as far as Iowa, and 283 buses were organized in Maryland alone.

A vast array of labor, community and faith organizations were present, both as contingents among the crowd and with representatives speaking from the stage. Many unions brought out large numbers, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Laborers union, UNITE HERE, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the United Farm Workers.

The March 21 demonstration for immigrant rights in Washington, D.C., drew more than 200,000 people
The March 21 demonstration for immigrant rights in Washington, D.C., drew more than 200,000 people (Vanissa Chan)

The size of the protest recalled the "mega-marches" of 2006, when people were galvanized by a full-scale legislative attack on immigrant workers and their families--in the form of reactionary legislation proposed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).

On March 21, however, the huge numbers of people were there not for a show of resistance, but rather to assert their demands on the Obama administration for full rights for all undocumented immigrants.

José, a union construction worker who came with his daughter from Maryland, said he heard about the march on the radio. "It will take a lot more than this to get rights for immigrants in this country," José said. "But it's a start. We have to come together. They want to drive workers apart. We can only hope Obama will listen to us today--we can only hope and march and fight."

The feeling at the march was festive but also urgent and defiant. Drums and music could be heard in between chants of "¡Sí se puede!" (Yes we can!) and "El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido" (The people united will never be defeated). Hundreds held signs that read, "We work for America" and "No one is illegal."

Evelina, who works with a leadership organization for Latina women in Virginia and came to the march with some friends, said immigrant rights is a human rights and workers' rights issue.

"It's exciting to be here with people from all walks of life--all ages and races," she said. "Without struggle, we're not going to get anything. Obama talked about immigrant rights during the election and being here today is a way for us to tell him we don't want to help you get elected, and then you shove us to the side."

UNFORTUNATELY, THE feisty spirit of the crowd wasn't matched by the politics of the speakers at the rally. Many stressed patriotism and pleaded for Democrats to "do the right thing."

As with many recent immigrant rights marches, liberal organizers crafted the messaging and imagery of the demonstration to disarm right-wing charges against unpatriotic immigrants and advocates. A sea of American flags drowned out the few Honduran, Mexican and Salvadoran flags.

And if the patriotic messaging wasn't sufficiently emphasized after the singing of the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance, there was SEIU President Andy Stern--currently under fire for his undemocratic, pro-employer policies--to lay it on thick. He opened his remarks by calling on demonstrators to "Show me those American flags," and he led the crowd in chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A."

The extensive lineup of speakers included dozens of labor leaders, representatives of many non-profit groups and community organizations, clergy from all different faiths, politicians and other public figures. Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO spoke, as did Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the leading advocate of immigration reform in the House of Representatives.

The most celebrated speaker was President Barack Obama himself, via pre-taped remarks to demonstrators that were presented on multiple JumboTrons. After using the opportunity to pay tribute to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, Obama told the excited crowd:

I've always pledged to be your partner as we work to fix our broken immigration system, and that's a commitment that I reaffirm today. Nobody knows the cost of inaction better than you. You see it in the families that are torn apart and the small business owners who strive to do the right thing, while others game the system. You see it in the workers who deserve the protection of our laws and in the officers who struggle to keep our communities safe while earning the trust of those they serve.

While Obama's comments were well received, his failure to fulfill his campaign promises is precisely why the many thousands were gathered on the Mall in the first place. Many saw the day as a chance to express their anger with the administration's empty promises on immigration reform.

Rather than push for reform, the administration has ratcheted up enforcements. Anti-immigrant raids have accelerated across the country. In many localities, federal immigration authorities have deputized municipal governments to enforce laws that terrorize whole communities and rip families apart.

What's more, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are conducting "briefcase raids" that have led to mass firings of workers. Even worse, deportations have actually increased by 50 percent since Obama took office, with a total of 387,790 deported in 2009 compared to 264,503 in 2008 under President George W. Bush.

In this context, Obama's message seemed more like the words of a politician courting a constituency rather than answering to a movement.

It should be clear, however, that Obama was responding to pressure. His statement reaffirming his commitment to immigration reform was clearly prompted by the expectation that hundreds of thousands of people were about to descend on Washington.

Yet even while Obama tried to reassure impatient supporters that he would push for reform, his press secretary signaled that immigration isn't a priority for the White House this year.

Instead of leading on the issue of immigration reform, Obama has handed over the reins to Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.). Their recently published framework for an immigration bill presents a cumbersome, punitive and patronizing "pathway to citizenship," alongside stepped-up enforcement measures.

Under the Schumer-Graham plan, undocumented workers would be required "admit they broke the law," pay fines, pay back taxes, learn English and perform community service--that is, free labor. The plan also includes biometric Social Security cards to prevent employers from hiring workers with false ID cards--something that would compromise the civil liberties of everyone in the U.S.

The Schumer-Graham framework isn't an improvement over previous failed congressional attempts to enact immigration reform. Those proposed measures included draconian enforcement polices, militarized border security, employer sanctions and guest worker programs--all these same measures are contained in the Schumer-Graham proposal.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, many in the immigrant rights movement favor instead the more humane bill put forward last year by Rep. Gutierrez. Unlike the Schumer-Graham proposal, the Gutierrez bill doesn't include a new guest worker program, and it calls for the elimination of programs like 287(g), which deputizes local officials to enforce immigration laws.

"We've been patient long enough," Gutierrez told the crowd at the march. "We've listened quietly, we've asked politely. We've turned the other cheek so many times our heads are spinning. It's time to let immigrants come out of the shadows into the light, and for America to embrace them and protect them."

Still, Gutierrez's speech didn't include any specific mention of his bill and some of the more progressive elements it contains--a seeming implication that we should expect many concessions to the right on immigration reform. Gutierrez's bill already contains big concessions to the anti-immigrant right by proposing to ramp up enforcement, and his proposed path to legalization and citizenship is demeaning and burdensome.

Nevertheless, it appeared that speakers at the rally had already given up on Gutierrez's approach, whatever its concessions, in favor of the much worse Schumer-Graham plan. This reflects the moderate politics of the section of the immigrant rights movement that is most tied to the Democratic Party.

Indeed, the march was organized by a large coalition that included many well-funded lobbying groups, as well as grassroots organizations at the base. Called "March for America," the demonstration raised few specific demands other than a path to "earned citizenship," an end to policies that break up families, and an effort to "restore fairness to labor markets."

Despite its flaws, however, the march represented a significant remobilization of immigrant rights forces supporting reform, and it was organized for the express purpose of pressuring Obama.

As one activist speaker from the stage said following Obama's comments: "President Obama was a community organizer, and he knows the power that our organizing represents. In 2006, we defeated the criminal Sensenbrenner bill because we marched. This is a civil rights issue. We thank you for your message, President Obama--now we will hold you accountable!"

Gutierrez also prodded Obama. "I want the light of justice to guide his actions and make him our ally and our protector," Gutierrez said. "And I want it to guide his pen, so that he can keep his promise to our nation of immigrants."

Another strong point of the rally was the contribution of speakers from various unions, who argued that immigrant rights is intrinsically tied to workers rights. Last year, both federations in the labor movement--the AFL-CIO and Change to Win--issued a joint declaration in support of comprehensive immigration reform.

"We reject divide-and-conquer tactics that seek to split workers--immigrants, Blacks, whites--against each other," said a representative from UNITE HERE. Another speaker from the AFL-CIO rallied the crowd as he reiterated the federation's demand for legalization of all undocumented workers.

After almost three hours of speakers and music, demonstrators grew impatient and decided it was time to march. Families and contingents with banners seemed to spontaneously begin marching away from the Mall, and it wasn't clear if the organizers were directing anything at that point.

Police tried to keep the throngs on grass and sidewalks as the haphazard procession moved along what seemed to be an un-permitted route toward the Capitol, but the marchers wouldn't be stopped.

Although the liberal organizations at the helm of the Reform Immigration for America coalition seem willing to accept the harsh terms of the Schumer-Graham framework, it's a step forward that they're willing to mobilize large numbers of people to put some heat on Obama. And it's fair to say that the majority of the 200,000-plus people who came out to attend the march were significantly to the left of the politics coming from the stage.

Now, many of those who participated in the Washington march will return to organizing for local May Day marches to revive the movement for immigrant rights at the local level. This will be the next step in building a movement for the legalization of all undocumented immigrants.

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