March 27, 2006
Groundswell of Protests Back Illegal Immigrants
By NINA BERNSTEIN
When members of the Senate Judiciary Committee meet today to wrestle
with the fate of more than 11 million illegal immigrants living in the
United States, they can expect to do so against a backdrop of thousands
of demonstrators, including clergy members wearing handcuffs and
immigrant leaders in T-shirts that declare, "We Are America."
But if events of recent days hold true, they will be facing much more
Rallies in support of immigrants around the country have attracted
crowds that have astonished even their organizers. More than a
half-million demonstrators marched in Los Angeles on Saturday, as many
as 300,000 in Chicago on March 10, and - in between - tens of
thousands in Denver, Phoenix, Milwaukee and elsewhere.
One of the most powerful institutions behind the wave of public
protests has been the Roman Catholic Church, lending organizational
muscle to a spreading network of grass-roots coalitions. In recent
weeks, the church has unleashed an army of priests and parishioners to
push for the legalization of the nation's illegal immigrants, sending
thousands of postcards to members of Congress and thousands of
parishioners into the streets.
The demonstrations embody a surging constituency demanding that illegal
immigrants be given a path to citizenship rather than be punished with
prison terms. It is being pressed as never before by immigrants who
were long thought too fearful of deportation to risk so public a
"It's unbelievable," said Partha Banerjee, director of the New Jersey
Immigration Policy Network, who was in Washington yesterday to help
plan more nationwide protests on April 10. "People are joining in so
spontaneously, it's almost like the immigrants have risen. I would call
it a civil rights movement reborn in this country."
What has galvanized demonstrators, especially Mexicans and other Latin
Americans who predominate among illegal immigrants, is proposed
legislation - already passed by the House of Representatives - that
would make it a felony to be in the United States without proper
papers, and a federal crime to aid illegal immigrants.
But the proposed measure also shows the clout of another growing force
that elected officials have to reckon with: a groundswell of anger
against illegal immigration that is especially potent in border states
and swing-voting suburbs where the numbers and social costs of illegal
immigrants are most acutely felt.
"It's an entirely predictable example of the law of unintended
consequences," said Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois
Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, who helped organize the
Chicago rally and who said he was shocked by the size of the turnout.
"The Republican party made a decision to use illegal immigration as the
wedge issue of 2006, and the Mexican community was profoundly
Until the wave of immigration rallies, the campaign by groups demanding
stringent enforcement legislation seemed to have the upper hand in
Washington. The Judiciary Committee was deluged by faxes and e-mail
messages from organizations like NumbersUSA, which calls for a
reduction in immigration, and claims 237,000 activists nationwide, and
the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has long opposed
any form of amnesty, including a guest-worker program advocated by
Dan Stein, president of the federation, acknowledged the unexpected
outpouring of protesters, but tried to play down its political
significance. "These are a lot of people who don't vote, can't vote and
certainly aren't voting Republican if they do vote," he said.
But others, noting that foreign-born Latinos voted for President Bush
in 2004 at a 40 percent greater rate than Latinos born in the United
States, said that by pursuing the proposed legislation, Republican
leaders might have squandered the party's inroads with an emerging bloc
of voters and pushed them into the Democratic camp.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that of more than 11 million illegal
immigrants, 78 percent are from Mexico or other Latin American
countries. Many have children and other relatives who are United States
citizens. Under the House measure, family members of illegal immigrants
- as well as clergy members, social workers and lawyers - would
risk up to five years in prison if they helped an illegal immigrant
remain in the United States.
"Imagine turning more than 11 million people into criminals, and anyone
who helps them," said Angela Sanbrano, executive director of the
Central American Resource Center of Los Angeles, one of the organizers
of Saturday's rally there. "It's outrageous. We needed to send a strong
and clear message to Congress and to President Bush that the immigrant
community will not allow the criminalization of our people - and it
needed to be very strong because of the anti-immigrant environment that
we are experiencing in Congress."
Like many advocates for immigrants, Ms. Sanbrano said the protesters
would prefer that Congress passed no immigration legislation rather
than criminalizing those who are here without documents or creating a
guest-worker program that would require millions to go home.
In a telephone briefing sponsored last week by the National Immigration
Forum, the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez Jr., president of the National
Hispanic Association of Evangelicals, warned that elected officials
would pay a price for being on the wrong side of the legislative
"We are talking to the politicians telling them that the Hispanic
community will not forget," he said. "I know there are pure hearts that
want to protect our border and protect our country, but at the same
time the Hispanic community cannot deny the fact that many have taken
advantage of an important and legitimate issue in order to manifest
their racist and discriminatory spirit against the Hispanic community."
Seventy of the nation's 197 Catholic dioceses have formally committed
to the immigration campaign since the United States Catholic Conference
of Bishops began the effort last year, and church officials are
recruiting the rest.
Meanwhile, priests and deacons have been working side by side with
immigrant communities and local immigrant activist groups.
Leo Anchondo, who directs the immigrant campaign for the bishops'
conference, said that he was not surprised by the size of the protests
because immigration advocacy groups had been working hard to build a
powerful campaign. "We hadn't seen efforts to organize these
communities before," Mr. Anchondo said. "It's certainly a testament to
the fact that people are very scared of what seems to be driving this
anti-immigrant legislation, to the point that they are coming out to
make sure they speak and are heard."
Last night in downtown Los Angeles, Fabricio Fierros, 18, the
American-born son of mushroom-pickers who came to the United States
illegally from Mexico, joined about 5,000 Mexican farmworkers gathered
for a Mass celebrating the birthday of Cesar Chavez.
"It's not fair to workers here to just kick them out without giving
them a legal way to be here," Mr. Fierros said, "To be treated as
criminals after all the work they did isn't fair."
John M. Broder and Rachel L. Swarns contributed reporting for this
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