We all want to be equal

March 25, 2016

Ten years ago, immigrant rights supporters took the streets of major U.S. cities--from Chicago to Milwaukee to Los Angeles and far beyond--for mega-marches opposing draconian anti-immigrant legislation sponsored by Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner. In an amazing show of force, the demonstrators were not only protesting Congress' right-wing attack, but demanding true equality, including amnesty. On the 10th anniversary, we reprint a report by Ty Coronado, Sarah Knopp, Katie Miller and Avery Wear from the biggest of the mega-marches, the mammoth March 25 demonstration in Los Angeles--the report first appeared in the March 31, 2006, issue of Socialist Worker.

A SLEEPING giant awoke March 25 in Los Angeles as some 1 million people marched to protest anti-immigrant legislation that would make criminals out of tens of millions of people.

The LA demonstration was the largest in a recent string of protests for immigrant rights that have shaken the U.S. It was also probably the largest demonstration of any kind in the city's history.

People of all races and nationalities, but most of all immigrants and their families, traveled from across Southern California and the Southwest to converge on downtown LA. Aerial photos of the area around LA's City Hall showed huge seas of people stretching in several directions, as far as the eye could see. Everywhere, the streets were a mass of white--marchers wore white T-shirts to symbolize peace.

The marchers turned out to take a stand against legislation sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.)--and passed by the House in December--that would classify not only undocumented immigrants but anyone who assists them as "aggravated felons."

The streets of Los Angeles overflowed with demonstrators for immigrant rights
The streets of Los Angeles overflowed with demonstrators for immigrant rights

The day before the big march, thousands of students staged walkouts from Los Angeles high schools. Sandra Lucano, a 10th grade student, said, "Even though administrators tried to have a lockdown, students were climbing the fences to protest and have their voices heard. Students want to keep organizing and fighting for immigrant rights."

The Sensenbrenner bill, known as HR 4437, was the final insult that galvanized simmering anger here and across the country about the rise of the racist Minutemen vigilantes and the unprecedented number of deaths at the border due to the militarization of Operation Gatekeeper. Many signs read, "We are not terrorists. We are workers."

Alfredo Rodriguez, a day laborer originally from Mexico City, traveled to the march from Arizona. He carried a sign reading, "The sleeping giant has woken up," and a T-shirt that read, "Thank you, HR 4437, for reuniting us."

Juan, an undocumented worker from Hidalgo, Mexico, marched with his young son and daughter. He said it felt good to see support from people of all nationalities, not just Latinos. "We are worth a lot," Juan said. "We raise this country up. We're not trying to be better than anyone else. We just want to be equal."

Plinio Castro explained why he came to the U.S. "The treasury of Central America was taken by North Americans," Castro said. "That is why we are poor, why there is unemployment, poverty and hunger."

"We are against gangs, and we're having a hard time economically--that's why we're here," explained Mario Alberto Bautista, a 24-year-old construction worker from El Salvador. Castro added, "I'm here because I want to make a better life for my family."

Bitterness at the hypocrisy of politicians and their victimization of minorities ran high. One protester held up a sign that read, "We take care of your kids, mow your lawns, and now we're felons?"

THE MARCH added to the growing confidence of the struggle for immigrant rights on display at previous demonstrations, like Chicago on March 10, when as many as 300,000 people clogged the streets of downtown.

Like in Chicago, Democratic Party politicians spoke to the LA rally, and urged demonstrators to support "compromise" measures. LA's Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a rising star in the Democratic Party, told the crowd that he is for an amnesty for undocumented immigrants, but also said, "We need to get behind Kennedy and McCain."

But the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill that Villaraigosa was referring to doesn't grant amnesty. On the contrary, it sets up a guest worker program and adds spending on border enforcement.

Maria Sanchez said a group that contributes so much to the U.S. economy deserves much better. "With this many people, we should demand legalization and amnesty," Maria said.

Carlos, a community college student from San Bernadino, said, "This march isn't just about illegal people. Look at all the Blacks and whites. They're living terribly too. We all have to fight back."

Since the Chicago demonstration, protests and marches have taken place in cities across the country, with the turnout surpassing organizers' expectations in nearly every case.

In Milwaukee--the home to HR 4437 sponsor Sensenbrenner--some 30,000 immigrants and their supporters took the streets March 23 in a march that was billed as "A Day Without Latinos."

In Phoenix, at least 20,000 marched to the offices of Arizona's conservative Sen. Jon Kyl. "Everybody's tired that people think we're criminals," said Demirel Montiel, who attended the march with his wife and three children. "If you drive, you're a criminal. If you work, you're a criminal. If you're Mexican, you're a criminal."

In Denver, some 50,000 people gathered on March 25 to voice their opposition to anti-immigrant measures pushed by politicians such as Colorado's own Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo.

Earlier in the week, protest organizers in Denver thought a couple hundred people would show up. But by 10:30 a.m., tens of thousands had gathered, and chants of "Si se puede" and "We are not criminals" rang out. A police spokesperson told the Denver Post that the protest "caught everybody off guard," and that he had not seen a crowd as large since the Denver Broncos' Super Bowl win in 1999.

On the Monday after the LA march, hundreds of students walked out of school in San Diego as a response to congressional debate over immigration legislation. The walkouts took place at cities across the city--the students later came together for a demonstration outside San Diego Community College.

IN CALIFORNIA'S capital of Sacramento, on March 25, as many as 10,000 people protested, the majority of them Mexican Americans. The protest was organized by several groups, including the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, La Raza, MEChA and unions, including the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and Service Employees International Union.

"People risk their lives to come over here to work and feed their families, not to harm people," said Alicia Mendoza, who drove from Yuba City with her family to attend. "The majority want to follow the rules, as long as the rules are the same for everyone and not based on the color of your skin."

In Atlanta, about 200 people turned out on the steps of the state capitol building to protest a bill passed by the Georgia House that would deny state services to undocumented immigrants--and impose a 5 percent surcharge on wire transfers from undocumented immigrants. Organizer Teodoro Maus told the Associated Press that as many as 80,000 Latinos responded to a call not to go to work on the day of the protest.

On March 26, as many as 1,000 people marched against HR 4437 in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood. Marchers beat drums and chanted, "Aqui estamos, y no nos vamos, y si nos echan, nos regresamos!" ("We're here, we aren't going anywhere, and if they kick us out, we're coming back")

"It's really awesome that this movement is getting stronger," said Marian Morell, from Iglesia San Romero de las Américas in Washington Heights and the Coalition in the Dominican Republic in Solidarity with the Haitian Community. "Hopefully, our movement will continue to grow and touch more working-class people. We shouldn't have to be afraid to stand up. Those of us who aren't afraid have to stand up for those who are, to help them to realize they don't have to be afraid."

Rev. Luis Barrios, of San Romero de las Américas, is calling for outright defiance of the law if it is passed. "If we can't keep Congress from voting against this bill, religious leadership in the United States has the moral responsibility not only to protest this bill, but to refute it and violate it with acts of civil disobedience, because this law violates humanity and has nothing to do with national security," he said.

Rhadamés Morales, one of the organizers of Sunday's demonstration, said, "We are warming up for a fight that needs to be much larger, because this law isn't just anti-immigrant, it's promoting racism and terrorism against all human beings. This law ignores the fact that this country has been built by immigrant workers...Our next step should be to mount a massive protest in Washington, D.C., right on the steps of Congress."

Hundreds protested in other cities, including Providence, R.I., where 200 people marched on Sen. Lincoln Chafee's office in support of immigrant rights and against HR 4437 on March 22. More protests are set to take place, with a march planned in Boston and a rally in Washington, D.C., on March 27.

April 10 has also been called as a national day of action for immigrant rights, with organizers promising demonstrations in at least 10 cities.

Jeff Bale, Jim Bullington, Brian Chidester, Richard Greenblatt, Sarah Hines and Jenny Olsen contributed to this article.

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