Congress is the next target for immigration reform movement

Thursday, May 3, 2007
Jessica Reyes, 5, held an American flag as she participated in an immigration rights march Tuesday with her parents, Mario and Isabella, in Chicago. (Nam Y. Huh ~ Associated Press)

CHICAGO -- A day after putting aside the American flag and protest sign he carried during an immigration march in Chicago, Luis Dominguez said Wednesday he is turning his attention to looming legislative battles 600 miles away in Washington, D.C.

With immigrants and supporters rallying nationwide for a second straight year, the 62-year-old Dominguez said he believes Tuesday's display will help spur politicians to adopt immigration reform.

"I think the purpose of the march paid off," said Dominguez, who was born in Mexico and has U.S. citizenship. "Immigrants used to live in the shadows. This, like other marches, showed the people of the United States that we are here, we exist."

However, turnout was down sharply from the marches a year ago, when more than 1 million people turned out nationwide. In Chicago, where more than 400,000 swarmed the streets last year, police put initial estimates at 150,000, by far the largest turnout. In Los Angeles, where several hundred thousand turned out a year earlier, only 25,000 people were on hand for a march marred by clashes with police.

"Last year, it was easy," said Isabel Garcia, a key organizer of the May 1st Coalition in Tucson, Ariz. "Everybody was gathering -- the politicians, the radio stations across the country were promoting this march for what was called comprehensive immigration reform. That phrase has been watered down and lost."

Last year's effort was galvanized by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner's proposal calling for felony prosecution of illegal immigrants. Since then, Garcia said, there has been a major division among proponents over legislation before Congress that would give illegal immigrants six years of temporary legal status, but then require them to return home before seeking U.S. citizenship.

"A year ago, we were all against something, and it is very easy to united people against something," said Joshua Hoyt, the executive director of the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "We all know what we hate but what do we agree on? That's harder."

Some immigrants this year also skipped rallies from fear of being swept up in the recent rounds of deportations. In Fresno, Calif., rumors that federal agents had set up checkpoints kept attendance down to about 5,000, one-third of last year's crowd.

"Undocumented people don't want to leave their houses right now, let alone go to a protest," said Leonel Flores, an organizer of the Fresno event.

In Salem, Ore., organizers said they did not call for a boycott or job walkout this year. In Iowa City, Iowa, where only 80 people showed up, organizers said they simply asked people to display U.S. flags or call their lawmakers to call for immigration reform.

Eduardo Cardenas, an organizer with the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Coalition, said the impact of the rallies is "mixed" when it comes to influencing Congress and the public.

"Yesterday was a little bit of an opening, the starting point, for this summer's political push, because we have until the end of August to push ahead with immigration reform," he said. "And then after that, everything will get tied up during the presidential election."

Garcia, the Arizona organizer, said she believes the momentum remains.

"These marches are better (than a year ago) because people are more truly informed of what's going on," she said. "Let's face it. We cannot have a good democracy until we have active and informed citizens."

In Miami, where fewer than 1,000 people turned out, organizer Carlos Pereira said he was pleased nonetheless.

"We achieved our goal to create an alliance between community leaders, the church and local authorities," he said. "Now we have a more permanent alliance, across communities, with Central Americans, those from the Caribbean, civil rights groups and gay and lesbian groups," he said.

Activists said the next goal is to lobby Congress.

"People can chant and walk but if they can engage in voter registration and visit their congressional representatives it's more powerful than anything," said Jesus Rodriguez, who helped organize the Oakland, Calif., march.

Manuel Rendon, a college student who helped organize students for the Dallas march, is helping plan protests outside the offices of state and federal lawmakers who propose anti-illegal immigration measures. A group of students already went to the state capital to speak against measures targeting illegal immigrants.

"It's the biggest difference," he said. "Last year, these people were defending themselves. This time, they're going on the offensive."

Associated Press writers Greg Aamot in Minneapolis; Garance Burke in Fresno, Calif.; Anabelle Garay in Dallas; William McCall in Portland, Ore.; Arthur Rotstein in Tucson, Ariz.; Nafeesa Syeed in Des Moines, Iowa; and Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami contributed to this report.

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