US immigrants mobilizing for major 'action'
Events are planned Monday in 90 cities to show immigrant strength - Latino and other.
In Los Angeles, Eun Sook Lee will march on behalf of Korean illegal immigrants, at least 50,000, living in southern California. On Boston Common, Punam Rogers will join other Indian émigrés, as well as business clients and students from China, Germany, and Britain. In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Ivalier Duvra will take to the streets to draw attention to Haitian newcomers who he says need refugee status.
Coming on the heels of demonstrations in several larger cities, a National Day of Action on Immigrant Rights Monday is expected to involve people in some 90 US municipalities, well above organizers' goal of 10. Described as the biggest social movement of Hispanics since the United Farm Workers of Cesar Chavez, the plans for protests, vigils, and marches include a less-visible tier of people stirred to action over American immigration policy: non-Latinos.
"If you watch TV and read the papers, you would think this [immigration reform] is primarily an issue only for Latinos or only illegals or only poor immigrants. [Monday] will show differently," predicts Abdul Malik Mujahid, a Chicago-based Islamic cleric who says 7,000 Muslims will march there Monday to protest the "climate of fear" since 9/11. "Latino organizers have done a big favor not just to themselves but to all other immigrants, as well as America itself, by standing up and saying this country's immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed. Now the rest of us must join in."
The national day of action seems to have expanded exponentially with the organizing power of the Internet. Besides demonstrations, speeches, processions, and assorted performances (from drumming to skits), groups are planning work-walkouts, product boycotts, fasting, and other measures.
Smaller cities where events are planned include Bakersfield, Calif.; Fort Myers, Fla.; Hays, Kan.; and Oxford, Ohio, and include groups as diverse as Ukrainians, Palestinians, Irish, labor, and antiwar coalitions.
"No one could have anticipated this kind of involvement even as little as six months ago," says organizer Rich Stolz of Fair Immigration Reform Movement, one of the organizing coalitions for National Action Day. "Once it got announced, it spread nationally, regionally, locally through groups which have been building relationships for years. They know this is the moment to do something unprecedented."
Organizers originally designed a broad platform they hoped would attract a wide array of immigrants - Pacific Islanders, Southeast Asians, Europeans, Africans, and Pakistanis. The specific objection is legislation, approved by the US House in December, that makes it a felony (rather than a civil offense) to be in the US illegally. But organizers are also asking for something: worker protections, civil rights measures, family reunification, and immigration reform that defines "a path to citizenship for current undocumented and future immigrants to the US."
"This is America's civil rights battle for the 21st century," says Chung-Wha Hong of the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella organization for about 150 groups in New York State that work with immigrants and refugees. Immigrants are anticipating a duel between the House and the Senate over immigration-reform language, she says, but Monday's actions are really about "whether or not America will continue to be what it has always been - a nation of immigrants.
Anger has been building among immigrants for decades, Ms. Hong says, but it has intensified over the past decade, as immigrants felt targeted by welfare reform, what they see as a civil-rights rollback, and, most recently, anti- terror laws. Post-9/11 crackdowns, legislation denying social services to illegals in California, and Minutemen border operations have roused immigrants, legal and not. "Immigrants have been feeling like targets for all that is wrong and want to stand up and show how they contribute to the diversity and richness of America," she says.
L.A.'s Ms. Lee says her major concern is law-enforcement sweeps through Korea-town, which have created a climate of fear in the immigrant community. Boston's Ms. Rogers says her priority is visa procedures for foreigners who come to America to study, which she says need to encourage the world's best and brightest to stay in America. Mr. Duvra says US refugee policy needs an overhaul.
While organizers say a big turnout and a broad diversity at Monday's events will send a signal to politicians in Washington wrangling over immigration reform, others see possible down sides.
"Each time immigrants have these giant rallies, the more they infuriate the rest of the American population with the idea that those who break the law get to march and somehow be rewarded," says Ira Mehlman, L.A. spokesman for Federation for American Immigration Reform. "We have seen in France what happens when you try to bring in millions of people ... in many cases who are hostile. We saw there that it didn't work, and it won't work here."
Others note that it is not likely so many participating groups will be able to agree later, when it's time to iron out the details in whatever legislation emerges. The Iraq antiwar movement and the antiglobalization movement are cases in point, they say.
"There are a lot of fringe groups tagging along on this to get exposure and legitimacy and to network," says Britt Minshall, a 16-year career law enforcer and now a pastor at United Church of Christ. "Once the main goal is accomplished, they begin to fight and hurt the cause they apparently came together for."
Activists themselves have some concerns. "I worry a bit over whether these events will be able to remain be peaceful," says Rogers. And demonstrators who carry the flags of their home countries may leave a bad taste in the mouths of Americans, she says. Such was the case in recent demonstrations in Washington.