When immigrants marched out of the shadows

March 28, 2016

Bridget Broderick and Orlando Sepúlveda remember the mega-marches for immigrant rights in 2006--and look at their impact in the years that followed.

"THE SLEEPING GIANT has woken up." That's how some in the media described the wave of mega-marches for immigrant rights that took place in cities around the country in the spring of 2006.

"Giant" was the right description. Everywhere demonstrations were organized, they defied the expectations of organizers who called for protests against a Republican proposal to criminalize the undocumented--all 12 million of them. As Socialist Worker reported on perhaps the largest single mega-march--in Los Angeles on March 25, when more than 500,000 people took to the streets:

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.

But the masses of people who made the marches mega weren't asleep before. They were there all along, but pushed into the shadows.

One of the massive mega marches for immigrant rights in Los Angeles in 2006
One of the massive mega marches for immigrant rights in Los Angeles in 2006 (Sarah Knopp | SW)

Now they were taking the streets for themselves and sending a message of resistance, as the defiant chant put it: "Aquí estamos, y no nos vamos. Y si nos echan, nos regresamos." ("Here we are, and we're not going anywhere. If they kick us out, we're coming back.")

THE FIRST of the mega-marches came in Chicago on March 10. Organizers of the protest were surprised when working immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Poland, Korea, Ireland and many other countries not only took the day off, but organized entire workplaces to attend a mass rally and stand up for their rights. Spanish-language media, particularly local radio DJs, had spent the previous week encouraging immigrants to show their strength in large numbers. The English-speaking media was stunned.

Overwhelmed by the endless surge of marchers into downtown from an opening rally on the West Side, city officials insisted that the closing rally in the Loop conclude two hours before the planned end time of 3 p.m. But at 5 p.m., marchers were still in the streets downtown, chanting "El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido"--the people united will never be defeated.

The final estimate for the number of participants was 300,000, making the 2006 mega-march for immigrant one of the largest single demonstrations in Chicago's history. Lee Sustar's report in SW gave a sense of the spirit of the protest:

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.

Over the weeks that followed, there were mega-marches in at least 39 cities across the U.S.

And that wasn't all. On the day before the 500,000-plus demonstration in LA, thousands of students staged walkouts from high schools across the city. "Even though administrators tried to have a lockdown, students were climbing the fences to protest and have their voices heard," Sandra Lucano, a 10th grade student, said. "Students want to keep organizing and fighting for immigrant rights." Then, on the Monday after the LA march, hundreds of students walked out of school in San Diego.

The protests culminated in a national "Day without Immigrants," with marches around the country on May 1, International Workers Day.

NBC News reported: "More than 1 million mostly Hispanic immigrants and their supporters skipped work and took to the streets [across the country], flexing their economic muscle in a nationwide boycott that succeeded in slowing or shutting many farms, factories, markets and restaurants."

But May 1, 2006, wasn't a boycott. It was a general strike. One well-photographed placard held by a protester said, "The sleeping giant wasn't sleeping--we were working."

THE IMPETUS for the wave of marches was proposed federal legislation known as HR 4437, which would have increased penalties for "illegal" immigration and classified undocumented immigrants as "aggravated felons," along with anyone who helped them enter or remain in the U.S. Sponsored by Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the House bill had been approved in December 2005 and was scheduled for a Senate vote in March 2006.

The draconian Sensenbrenner bill was the final insult that galvanized simmering anger among immigrant workers at abusive working conditions, racism and scapegoating. Along with the rise of the racist Minutemen vigilantes and an unprecedented increase in deaths at the border due to the Bush administration's militarization of Operation Gatekeeper, it was another expression of a stepped-up anti-immigrant climate.

That climate dated back to the 1990s and, for example, the passage of the repressive Proposition 187 ballot measure in California in 1994. But various immigration reform measures were proposed through 2000, with the aim of safeguarding the flow of immigrant labor vital to American capitalism, though on Corporate America's terms.

Those initiatives ended with the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. When immigration legislation was again proposed after 9/11, the Republican Right took the initiative, putting forward proposals that hyped border security and ignored the plight of those already living in the U.S. without papers.

The mega-marches doomed HR 4437. Sensenbrenner's criminalization bill never even came to a vote in the Senate. But that wasn't the end of the anti-immigrant attack.

In Washington, the Senate passed alternative legislation backed by both Republicans and Democrats. The Senate bill eliminated the criminalization provisions in Sensenbrenner's legislation and included a drawn-out process for long-time undocumented workers to gain legal status, but it maintained many of the border security and enforcement provisions in HR 4377. Neither the House nor the Senate version won enough support in the other chamber to become law.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stepped up enforcement of immigration laws, with terrorizing raids on workplaces and communities. Short of raids, there were the Department of Homeland Security's "no-match" letter campaigns, which ordered companies to confirm their employees' legal status or fire them. State and local governments also passed laws against hiring the undocumented or renting housing.

So the immigrant bashing didn't stop. But because of the mega-marches and the organizing that went into them, workers, undocumented and documented, were in a stronger position to fight for their rights locally.

For example, in late July 2007, workers at a nonunion factory in South Chicago that made soap and detergent products went on strike after management used Social Security "no match" letters to threaten their jobs. The workers were nonunion, almost all were temps, and most were undocumented, but they were emboldened by the spirit of the mega-marches and the organizing that followed. Within two weeks, the company had to back down.

A year later, just after the 2008 election put Barack Obama in the White House, workers at Republic Doors & Windows occupied their Chicago factory when they were told the company was closing without notice. This throwback to the 1930s sit-down strikes won widespread solidarity and even a pledge of support from Obama.

Likewise, it would be hard to imagine the brave organizing of immigrant youth, fighting for legalization and around other issues like LGBTQ rights, without the legacy of the 2006 mega-marches.

THE MAJORITY of people who took the streets in March through May of 2006 were immigrants, their families and their supporters. They came to defend their most basic right to live and work as human beings, not criminals.

But the organized forces involved in the day-to-day meetings and organizing shaped the mega-marches and their impact with their debates around demands and political message.

Left-wing groups and individuals argued that the marches needed to stand for amnesty for all undocumented immigrants, an end to militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, and the protection of workers' rights against proposals for guest worker programs. These demands were broadly popular, and many people felt that, with over 1 million immigrants in the streets, we had the bargaining power to win them.

But there were other political forces that wanted a more limited message and demands. For them, the millions in the streets weren't a tremendous show of strength by the immigrant working class, but an opportunity for increased clout within the political system, via support for the Democratic Party and its associated organizations.

The politics that prevailed after the marches was summed up by the slogan: "Today, we march; tomorrow, we vote." Unions and mainstream immigrant rights organizations shunned the call for amnesty, claiming that this would give the right an opening to attack the marches.

These forces called for "just and humane immigration reform" and "legalization." But while the left demanded "legalization for all," the moderate wing of the movement championed proposals for a limited and highly conditional "path to legalization" like the one that emerged in the bipartisan Senate alternative to the Sensenbrenner bill.

Nonprofit organizations such as the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and ICIRR in Illinois and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles joined forces to form a national alliance called We Are America.

Local affiliates of We Are America intervened in organizing after the mega-marches to discourage more radical actions, such a public, inclusive marches for all, rallies against deportations or protests of the Minutemen vigilantes. Instead, they trained young activists to register voters in immigrant communities, teaching them to be "realistic" and see the Democrats as the true supporters of immigration reform.

As Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency after eight years of Republican rule under Bush, he seemed to vindicate this message. At a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gathering in 2008, he declared: "This election is about the 12 million people living in the shadows...They are counting on us to stop the hateful rhetoric filling our airwaves, and rise above the fear, and rise above the demagoguery, and finally enact comprehensive immigration reform."

Unions, mainstream advocacy groups and the NGO community worked tirelessly to get out the vote, helping to give Obama and the Democrats a resounding victory in November 2008. Not only was the first African American elected president, but the Democrats won both houses of Congress, with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

THE CONDITIONS couldn't have been better for the Democrats to fulfill their promises to immigrants. But they didn't.

The first 100 days of the Obama administration came and went without the Democrats pushing for immigration reform.

On the contrary, using the logic of paving the way for "comprehensive" reform by restoring public confidence and proving that the government was capable of upholding the rule of law, Obama soon had boosted border enforcement, increased funding for the Bush administration's "no-match" campaigns (now called the E-verify program) and allotted $200 million for the Secure Communities program, which put local police in the business of enforcing immigration laws.

With the administration negotiating the terms of Obama's health care legislation, the president was asked by CBS News' Katie Couric if "illegal immigrants" would be covered under the reforms--he answered "no." Obama chose his trip to Mexico in August 2009 to finally announce that "comprehensive immigration reform" (known as CIR) wouldn't be part of his priorities for his first year in office year.

The liberal and labor organizations that had called for urgent organizing to get Obama elected now demanded patience and calm from immigrant rights activists. The movement had to give Obama time to show his appreciation for the role that immigrants had played in electing him, they insisted.

But the terror was growing for immigrant families, and not only because of the increasing pace of anti-immigrant laws and ordinances imposed by Republicans at the local level. In his very first year in office, Obama was already showing that he would become the Deporter-in-Chief, as he is commonly known among activists today.

"The number of deportations each year more than tripled during the Bush era--and has kept going up since then," in the activist community today." wrote Dan Froomkin in the Huffington Post. "During fiscal year 2009, the first fiscal year of the Obama era, 387,790 immigrants were deported--almost 100,000 more during than the last full fiscal year of the Bush presidency."

THIS DIDN'T happen without a fight. Obama's toughened enforcement policies and the Democrats' inaction on reform were met by radicalized immigrant youth "coming out" as undocumented immigrants in public actions, even at the risk of deportation. A campaign in Chicago to stop student Rigo Padilla from being deported grew into the Immigrant Youth Justice League--similar formations emerged elsewhere in the country.

What followed from here were reruns of the same script--with the right demanding ever-tougher enforcement policies, and the Democrats conceding ground to the right, while holding out the promise of limited "reform" some time in the future.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez introduced a better proposal than the undocumented had been presented with previously--its provisions for legalization were less draconian than previous legislation, and it recognized the role that immigrant workers played in the economy and society. But it made unnecessary concessions to the right, including turning the E-verify system into law.

Even so, the Democratic Party leadership rejected Gutierrez's proposal and threw its weight behind another "compromise" put forward by two senators, Democrat Chuck Schumer and Republican Lindsey Graham. Liberal and labor groups created the Reform Immigration for America coalition that organized the 200,000-strong March for America in Washington, D.C., in support of the bill.

As compromised as the Schumer-Graham proposal was, that was still the carrot. The stick came in Arizona, in the form of the SB 1070 law, which criminalized immigrants without papers statewide. In words, Obama criticized the law championed by a Republican government--in actions, he sent 1,200 National Guard troops to the border to deal with a so-called crisis fabricated by the right to push its anti-immigrant hysteria.

Though it has been mostly blocked in the courts, the Arizona law was another step forward for the right--it helped them block further "reform" efforts. With the wind at their backs, why would the right accept a "path to legalization" for undocumented workers, whoever restricted, if they could clearly get enforcement without reform?

A frightened Lindsey Graham smelled death--the bill's and that of his political career--and gave up on CIR efforts. The Democrats were left with a "reform" proposal that they could claim to have put forward, in order to motivate Latinos to vote, but that had no chance of becoming law.

The promised window for passing immigration legislation was closing--and the hopes of immigrant families with it. In November 2010, Republicans won a huge victory in congressional elections, taking back control of the House of Representatives and ending the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

After that, the three-legged stool of comprehensive immigration reform--enforcement and border security, labor and guest worker programs, and status regularization for undocumented workers--was never really a possibility, but would still be brandished by both Republicans and Democrats for purely electoral purposes.

To be sure, the second leg is still a goal sought by Corporate America, but the tough-on-immigration stance of the right has won out against all proposals and dragged the entire debate on the subject to the right.

DURING 2011, Obama and the Democrats tried to sell the economic benefits and moral imperatives of immigration reform, while pointing out how safe Obama's border and enforcement policies had made the country. Once again, the right won the debate--deportations continued at a record pace, anti-immigrant rhetoric about "anchor babies" was commonplace in the media, and proposals for severely restricted legal status for some of the undocumented were further away from becoming law than ever.

But immigrant youth once again made their anger felt. Undocumented young people--calling themselves "Dreamers" after an legislative proposal called the Dream Act that would have given legal status to young people who entered the country illegally with their parents--organized sit-ins at the offices of lawmakers and made appearances at campaign stops.

Under pressure to do something to head off the protests--and looking for a way to embarrass the Republicans as well--Obama implemented the basic elements of the Dream Act by executive action. Under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, ICE was supposed to stop deporting "deserving" youth who entered the U.S. with their parents.

This was an important victory, achieved by the mobilization of undocumented youth. But Obama also made sure to use his executive action to motivate Latinos to vote Democratic--along with more promises that CIR would be a legislative priority if he was re-elected.

In June 2013, the Senate approved the latest "compromise" plan--this one negotiated and put forward by the Gang of Eight, which included four Democratic and four Republican senators--on immigration, named the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act.

Like previous proposals, this legislation included increased border enforcement and labor policies cherished by big business, along with an even more restricted process for selective legalization.

But even as the Senate was voting for the bill, everyone knew the Republican-controlled House of Representatives would reject it. The Gang of Eight's initiative never even got to a vote in the House.

Nothing much has moved legislatively since then, especially after the Democrats suffered another trouncing in the 2014 midterm elections. In November 2014, Obama announced another executive action: the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability, or DAPA, that would benefit up to 5 million of undocumented workers. Since, the plan has been stalled in the courts.

But at the same time, Obama was earning his new dishonor of being the Deporter-in-Chief. The number of people deported during his time in office is well over 2 million--more than George W. Bush sent across the border during his presidency and, incredibly, more than all the presidents of the 20th century deported.

During 2014 and 2015, a humanitarian crisis developed along the U.S.-Mexico border when tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors and mothers with small children tried to enter the U.S. seeking refuge from violence and poverty in Central America.

Under pressure from the right, Obama decided to stop the longstanding practice of classifying immigrants fleeing violence and persecution as refugees. He crowned the immigration legacy of his administration at the beginning of this year by ordering a new series of raids on the homes of these refugees, in preparation for deportation.

Obama's transformation from claimed champion of immigrants to Deporter-in-Chief was complete. While promising to stop the worst anti-immigrant policies of the Republican Right, Obama has implemented a program that has inflicted suffering and fear on millions of people.

This is the record that people must remember as another election approaches. Instead of focusing, as the Democrats want us to, on the dangers of the right, let's look what made the immigrant right movement strong during the moment of the mega-marches and after, and what made it weak.

We shouldn't imitate the concessions and compromises that only produced worsening conditions. Instead, we should be inspired by the mass demonstrations, the workers' strikes and the courageous direct action of youth from when the sleeping giant awoke.

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