Looking back, moving ahead

Times Staff Writer

Nearly one year after a massive Los Angeles protest march electrified the immigrant rights movement, the original organizers gathered again at the downtown spot where they hatched their plans: the historic adobe church known as La Placita.

There was the fiery priest, the activist mothers, the Riverside graduate student. They were joined by about 50 others in a candlelight procession, featuring a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, to pray for migrants still suffering hardships.

Compared with the masses that surged into the streets March 25 last year, the procession snaking down Main Street earlier this week was tiny. But the activists proclaimed the legacy of last year’s march enormous.


“There’s no doubt that the march changed everything,” said Jesse Diaz Jr., a UC Riverside graduate student who was one of the 2005 march’s planners. “It engraved in the minds of the people the power they have.”

As activists prepare to commemorate the march’s one-year anniversary with two events Sunday -- one at the Los Angeles Sports Arena and the other at the downtown Federal Building -- many believe that time has proved its enduring impact.

They argue that the march helped attain the pro-immigrant movement’s immediate goal of stopping House legislation known as HR-4377 that would have imposed tough enforcement measures, including criminalizing illegal migrants and those who aid them. Instead, the Senate passed a competing alternative of broad reform, including legalization for illegal migrants, more foreign workers and more family visas. A conference committee failed to approve a bill.

This week, two House lawmakers also embraced a comprehensive approach, introducing their chamber’s first bill in many years to offer legalization to most of the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

“Without the rallies, we would have ended up with the harshest immigration bill in our lifetime,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the Washington-based National Immigration Forum. “They changed the whole political calculus on the issue, mobilized people who came out for the election and made immigration a defining issue for the fastest-growing group of voters in the country.”

The forces the marches unleashed have stayed focused on immigration reform and civic participation, helping spur tens of thousands more Latinos to register to vote and apply for citizenship in the last year.

Los Angeles deejay Eddie Sotelo, better known to listeners as El Piolin or Tweety Bird, played a key role in promoting last year’s march with his popular Spanish-language radio show. He is optimistic about Congress’ ability to pass comprehensive immigration reform but said it is up to pro-immigrant groups to keep the issue at the forefront.

“We have to keep the movement peaceful and stick together like we did last year,” said Sotelo, who launched a campaign this week to collect 1 million letters in support of reforms that he said he would personally deliver to members of Congress after a cross-country tour later this year.

Many activists believe that newly energized Latino voters helped Democrats regain control of Congress in November by throwing out Republican incumbents in such places as Texas. But an analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., found that most of the contested races that tipped Congress occurred in areas without large Latino populations.

Ira Mehlman of the Federation of American Immigration Reform said the marches and the waving of foreign flags alienated many Americans and strengthened their desire for tough enforcement measures.

Public opinion polls have generally shown broad concern about illegal immigration, backing for a border fence with Mexico and other enforcement measures -- but also support for legalization and guest worker programs.

One Latino Republican source, who supports legalization and other reform measures, said the marches were “extraordinarily unhelpful” because they unleashed anti-immigrant sentiment and stiffened hawks in his party to hold out for a tough enforcement line. That pushed otherwise “reasonable” Republicans to take hard-line immigration positions and lose the Latino vote and last year’s election, he said.

Within the immigrant rights movement as well, the marches provoked some fighting. They set off power struggles and ego clashes, as people jockeyed to claim credit and position themselves as leaders. Coalitions splintered, strategies diverged.

The most noticeable tensions today remain between some local grass-roots groups and national organizations based in Washington. Organizations such as the National Immigration Forum and National Council of La Raza supported the Senate compromise bill last year offering partial legalization and a guest worker program, while many local groups denounced that position as a betrayal of immigrant interests.

Many grass-roots activists say they will settle for nothing less than full legalization of most undocumented immigrants and a program that gives new foreign workers equal wages and working conditions as Americans, along with a pathway to citizenship.

In addition, many local activists want to turn up the “street heat” with mass mobilizations, but some national organizations fear alienating the public and embarrassing the new Democratic majority in Congress, according to Nativo Lopez of the Mexican American Political Assn. in Los Angeles.

Others said it may be that some kind of political compromise is the best the movement can hope for.

“One of the really key questions for all of the players is: At what point is something better than nothing?” said Roberto Suro, executive director of the Pew Hispanic Center. “When you’ve got divided government, there are very few instances where one side gets everything it wants.”

For many of the original La Placita activists, however, purism still takes precedence over realpolitik. After all, their vision of a massive Los Angeles march was initially dismissed as unrealistic, they say.

“Our position is that nothing is better than something bad,” said Diaz, the Riverside activist.

“The goal of the movement is full legalization for all undocumented immigrants. That’s it. There’s no compromise,” he said. “And if the politicians are not supporting us, we’ll hold them accountable.”

About 10,000 people are expected Sunday at the Los Angeles Forum from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for a teach-in about immigration reform and civic participation. The event will feature Latino entertainers, faith leaders, community activists and elected officials, including L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and video addresses by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

At 3:30 p.m., Cardinal Roger M. Mahony will celebrate a Mass for immigrant and labor rights at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Another group will gather at La Placita, officially called Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church, about 11 a.m. and head to the Federal Building across the freeway to protest immigration raids.

Times staff writer Francisco Vara-Orta contributed to this report.