In normal times, they say their job is difficult enough: educating a shadow population of illegal immigrants about their rights.
Today, advocates for immigrants face a more daunting task: defending new arrivals--particularly those who break the law to enter the country--before an angry public.
"It's very easy when you see images of people streaming across the border to dehumanize, to think that these are just folks violating the law," said Anchelo Ancheta, the son of Filipino immigrants and director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "It's important to remember that they're people, regardless of how they entered this country."
The coalition is made up of dozens of groups, ranging from the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese to the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union. It is among pro-immigrant organizations fighting what they call immigrant-bashing.
They are up against politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, and restrictionist groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform that are seeking to cut off tax-funded programs for illegal immigrants and their U.S.-citizen children and drastically scale back or altogether shut down further legal immigration.
And they are up against opinion polls that show negative attitudes toward immigrants, even among other immigrants. Their mission also is tough because non-voting immigrants lack the political clout to strike back through the ballot box.
Immigrant rights activists have largely waged their counteroffensive through street protests. "No Human Being Is Illegal" and "We Are the Foundation for the U.S. Economy" proclaimed signs at a recent rally targeting Gov. Pete Wilson, whose proposals include denying citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.
"We are here to prove that the immigrant community gives more to this community than it takes away," said Marta Arevalo of the Central American Refugee Center. "We want to be part of the American dream."
Among the most powerful figures to step forward in defense of immigrants has been Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who recently blasted politicians, segments of the media and members of the public for exploiting anti-immigrant feelings.
"Our faith tradition calls us not to follow the lead of those who fan the flames of intolerance," Mahony said. "Instead, we must raise our voices against this trend and create a climate of mutual respect and dignity. . . . Our progress and well-being are directly linked to the ongoing contributions of immigrants," particularly in Los Angeles.
Pro-immigrant activists want to dispel what they call myths about immigrants, such as claims that newcomers drain public services. On the whole, they contend, illegal immigrants contribute more to the community than they take from it.
The advocates say scapegoating of immigrants has the effect of encouraging intolerance against anyone who looks or sounds foreign. "What bothers me is that when people say illegal, they only think Latin American people," said Ricardo Parada, a Salvadoran immigrant.
Some pro-immigrant groups threaten to lead campaigns to deny financial and political support to politicians sponsoring anti-immigrant measures. They are stepping up efforts to aid hundreds of thousands of former illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens after gaining amnesty under a 1986 federal law.
Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, said that as more immigrants become citizens and "integrate into community activities . . . the less fear and ignorance there is."
The immigration debate has brought about an odd bedfellows coalition. Population growth control groups have joined the Federation for American Immigration Reform in advocating immigration cutbacks, and immigrant rights groups have received help from the National Organization for Women. NOW opposed a bill--ultimately signed into law by Wilson--that denies drivers licenses to illegal immigrants, contending that it would put many women in greater danger by taking them out of cars and putting them onto public transit.
In Sacramento, the defense of immigrants is being taken up by the New California Coalition, a broad-based group whose members include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Consumers Union.
The other side argues that illegal immigrants cannot be defended because they are lawbreakers by the very act of U.S. entry. The credo of the Orange County-based Coalition for Immigration Reform includes the statement: "Facts and figures repeatedly (prove) that illegal aliens, first committing a criminal act by violating our borders and then bringing their values and culture into our midst, are major contributors to our mounting financial burdens and moral and social degradation."
Advocates for illegal immigrants say they do not excuse illegal entry. The activists say they seek to ensure that illegal immigrants--once here--are treated humanely, said Claudia Martinez, Sacramento lobbyist for MALDEF. "If you talk about people breaking the law, let's talk about employers who exploit them (illegal immigrants)."
Advocates for immigrants say that the deterrent to illegal immigration is not denial of education or health care, as some have suggested, but stronger enforcement of labor laws.
"The primary lure for undocumented immigrants is jobs, and as long as you can maintain a sub-minium wage, under-the-table kind of economy for a lot of these workers, they're still going to come in here," Ancheta said.
Some Latino legislators in Sacramento have advocated seizing assets of companies that employ illegal immigrants. But MALDEF attorneys have expressed concern that such a measure would lead employers to discriminate against minorities.
Unlike their chief adversary--the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which is dedicated exclusively to immigration reform--pro-immigration forces such as MALDEF and Hermandad Mexicana Nacional must fit in the defense of immigrants with other responsibilities, such as providing educational or legal services to immigrants.
The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, for example, receives $400,000 a year--much of it from foundations such as the Ford Foundation and James Irvine Foundation--to provide a wide range of services, such as educating day laborers on their rights and responsibilities, lobbying at City Hall in support of legalized street vending and advising nannies about their right to a minimum wage.
Immigrant rights activists say another solution to illegal immigration is "realistic" immigration policies.
"When you put Mexicans on a 12-year waiting list, right there you are defining your own illegal population," said Peter Schey of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law. "That person doesn't wait in a slum for 12 years to join a relative up here.
"Unless we are willing to install a Berlin Wall around the U.S.," Schey said, "people will continue to come here. As a practical matter, the only option we have is whether to control them and put them into the system versus have no control and leave them in this shadow world."