A year ago today, half a million or more people marched up Broadway in downtown Los Angeles and surrounded City Hall in a vast sea of humanity. Dressed in white, the multitude held aloft flags, banners and placards protesting a bill in the House that would have criminalized illegal immigrants and anyone who aids them. It was a massive, historic, astonishing event. Eddie “El Piolin” Sotelo, whose nationally syndicated radio program was credited with mobilizing his audience to hit the streets, proudly roared to the crowds from a podium at City Hall that their march constituted the “start of a new era.”
But did it really?
Months after the demonstrations of March 25, April 10 and May 1 — called the largest the city had ever seen — the immigrant-rights momentum gradually sputtered and withered away. The movement had splintered; the marches grew depressingly smaller, and it became increasingly clear that Congress would not pass an immigration reform package in 2006. Or ever.
By fall, writers everywhere, including this one, felt compelled to pen somber “requiems” for the immigrant-rights movement, bemoaning a missed opportunity to fundamentally shift federal policy and maybe even all of American society. The movement, we declared, was dead.
But we were wrong. Yes, the marches themselves may not have directly changed federal policy. But in our bloated expectations after such monumental days, we failed to notice that the marches did have a huge effect on the way immigrants see themselves and the way L.A. — and this nation — sees immigrants.
Early on the morning of March 25, when I hopped on a bus headed downtown and found it jammed with people in white, there was no way anyone could have reasonably predicted the magnitude of the gran marcha, its sense of purpose or its truly electric spirit. Those of us who were there can now see the beginnings of something bigger. For although the march was called in protest, it played out as a triumphant celebration of the essential dignity of being an immigrant in the modern United States.
That energy hasn’t gone away. Walk along Broadway or Van Nuys Boulevard or Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, and you can feel it. Latin American immigrants now live and work proudly in L.A., newly aware that they are a formidable political and cultural force in Southern California.
Changes are noticeable everywhere. The Spanish-language media, itself still shocked by its ability to activate millions, has forcefully embraced advocacy-style journalism, aggressively going after anti-immigrant sentiments in the political sphere. The English-language media sometimes follow its lead.
The immigrant-rights cause is now popping up in previously unexpected circles: the Southern Poverty Law Center, some sectors of the evangelical movement, even black churches such as New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga.
It’s a reflection of the country’s mood. A Republican National Committee datasheet released last year, two months after the first march in L.A., cited several polls that found a majority of the respondents, including most of the Republicans, viewed immigrants favorably and wished to see comprehensive reform that would allow workers already here to earn citizenship.
The acceptance and absorption of immigrants into U.S. society has been transformed from a matter of debate to a matter of inevitability. This can be credited to the power of a simple visual message. The marches produced endless streams of photographs that communicated a sense of jubilant optimism — in many ways, they couldn’t have been more American. With those images, immigrants became real people in the public consciousness.
And despite the naysayers, the marches in fact had practical results. The bill being protested, HR 4437, effectively died in the wave of generally positive reaction to the demonstrations. Today, it is unlikely any immigration reform proposal that is primarily punitive in nature would reach the president’s desk, even in an election year.
This is not to say that the myopia and internal contradictions of current immigration policy have stopped creating setbacks or needless victims. A proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is inflaming passions on both sides of the debate and needlessly straining relations with our neighbors to the south. Families continue to be torn apart by immigration enforcement raids, which some argue increased after the heightened visibility of immigrants during the marches.
Even so, American society is adapting, regardless of the slow-going reform efforts in Washington. Media companies large and small keep building or adding Spanish-language sister publications to reach recent immigrants, and more bilingual broadcast networks, such as LATV and Mun2, for their rapidly assimilating children.
Bank of America’s widely discussed program offering credit cards to undocumented workers is just one example of many that proves the U.S. economy is smartly responding to the realities posed by large populations of illegal workers in our midst.
Washington may be dragging its feet, and the 2008 presidential election may make those matters worse. But for the rest of us, with each dollar traded, each friendship or romance made across national and linguistic lines, immigration reform has already happened. Not as a piece of a paper but as a way of looking at our communities and our future.