Activists Hope to Harness Tide of Protest
For activist Angelica Salas, the “Great March of March 25" was a defining moment in the nation’s long struggle for immigrant rights. Never before had so many immigrants and their supporters so powerfully projected their voices and pressed their demands in the public square, she said.
“What we’re doing is building a movement that will transform America,” said Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
But Armando Navarro, a longtime Latino activist and chairman of the UC Riverside ethnic studies department, is less optimistic.
Despite the enormous energy rallied in 1994 against Proposition 187, which would have cut benefits to illegal immigrants but was later overturned by the courts, activists failed to stop subsequent state initiatives against bilingual education and affirmative action.
“At this point, it’s a transitory phenomenon,” Navarro said. “If this administration passes a semblance of immigration reform, most of the fervor will dissipate very quickly, because people will go back to watching their novelas on TV and playing soccer on weekends.”
As march organizers scramble to maintain their momentum with new actions, a pressing question is how to make March 25 a transformational moment rather than a transitory one. Even if Congress passes immigration reform legislation, they say, battles remain against what they see as militarization of the border, unjust detention procedures and other civil rights concerns.
Which way the forces will tip is, according to some historians, simply not knowable yet.
“As exciting and compelling as it all is, it may mark the high-water mark of early 21st century immigrant activism -- or it may be the start of something new,” said William Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. “I just don’t think we know.”
One test of the movement’s staying power may come today, when organizers plan to rally in Costa Mesa. Protesters oppose policies of Costa Mesa and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to cooperate with federal authorities in arresting and deporting illegal immigrants.
Immigrant advocates vow to avoid the mistakes of the past and build their forces into a lasting civil rights movement. But they face myriad challenges.
Already, their unlikely coalition of immigrants, civil rights advocates and labor, religious and business groups showed cracks this week when John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, denounced the Senate Judiciary Committee’s proposed guest worker program. The proposal would offer visas to at least 400,000 foreign workers a year.
“Guest workers programs are a bad idea and harm all workers,” Sweeney said in a statement that supported proposals to give undocumented workers already here a path to citizenship.
“They cast workers into a perennial second-class status and ... encourage employers to turn good jobs into temporary jobs at reduced wages and diminished working conditions,” he said.
The coalition must also ease tensions between those who support student protesters and those alarmed that continued walkouts could jeopardize grades and exacerbate high Latino dropout rates. In recent days, an estimated 40,000 students throughout Southern California have walked out of classes.
Some activists fear that media images of students snarling traffic, tussling with police and waving the Mexican flag could set back some of the political gains of March 25 and project an image of a movement sliding into chaos.
The tensions were apparent this week at a meeting of about 100 march supporters in Riverside. When one adult activist proposed that all students march on one day only, another sharply reprimanded him for trying to control and contain them.
“Do not dictate to them when they walk out,” said Maria Anna Gonzales of the National Alliance for Human Rights.
And when some parents urged others to show up at the next student walkout, Moreno Valley resident Rudy Gonzalez told the crowd he had advised his own teenage son to stay in school.
“We’re really concerned about the education of Latino children,” Gonzalez said. “If they don’t make it in school, they won’t have good jobs. I’m all for walkouts, but why not do them on weekends?”
To build a lasting movement, many activists also say they need to broaden their base beyond Latinos and more actively reach out to blacks, whites and Asians. Just as the 1960s civil rights movement started with blacks and then brought in multicultural supporters, the immigrant rights effort needs similar outreach, many say.
A smattering of other ethnic organizations supported the March 25 march, including Korean and South Asian groups whose communities are still predominantly made up of immigrants and their offspring. But Latino activists say much more needs to be done.
Salas of the immigrant rights coalition said the next major Los Angeles action would explicitly focus on a multicultural message.
Organizers are planning a candlelight vigil the evening of April 10 featuring a procession from Our Lady Queen of Angels Church near Olvera Street to the Federal Building on Los Angeles Street, possibly weaving through Chinatown and Little Tokyo.
The procession, part of a planned nationwide slate of actions dubbed “Day of Unity,” would make seven stops featuring speakers of diverse ethnic backgrounds sharing their immigrant journeys, Salas said.
“We need to go beyond the Latino community as the face of immigrants and be purposely inclusive, with Asian and African communities and connect to the native-born community of blacks as well,” Salas said.
Various activists are also planning a May 1 “Day of Action.” Some are calling for a boycott of schools, jobs and consumer activity, while others are encouraging workers to ask for time off and are negotiating with the Los Angeles Unified School District to release students early so they can participate.
Activists are also sending delegations to Latin America to win international support and renewing drives to encourage more immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship and register to vote.
One lasting gain from the Proposition 187 battle, Salas and others said, was record numbers of Latinos registering to vote -- and helping Democrats regain political control of the state.
Angela Sanbrano of the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles said her group has begun planning a get-out-the-vote drive in the 20 voting precincts in the Pico-Union district, heavily populated with immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and other Central American countries.
“Whoever votes against the interests of immigrants, we’re going to vote them out,” Sanbrano vowed.
Navarro of UC Riverside said the loosely allied individuals and groups need better organization, leadership and an overarching vision to harness the energy of March 25 into a drive for lasting gains in wages, working conditions and education for the nation’s most vulnerable -- both immigrants and the native-born.
“We understand that marching is not a solution but that we need to organize in a strategic way,” said Hilda Delgado of Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union, one of 125 local and national organizations that recently banded together to fight for immigration reform.
Many activists are optimistic that they can succeed. Recalling the words of a fellow March 25 marcher, Sanbrano said:
“This is like a river. No one can stop it.”