By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
NO ONE EXPECTED A MILLION PEOPLE to show up in Los Angeles for the last “big” immigrant-rights rally a couple weekends ago, at the closing of the National Latino Congreso. A few thousand maybe, but a few hundred? Or less?
Or, as we saw, hardly anyone at all.
On the dusty expanse of the Cornfields near Chinatown on September 9, just a smattering of people stood and listened to speakers and bands. Everyone in attendance seemed somehow directly connected to advocacy organizations, churches or friendly media outlets. “I think the momentum was lost a little bit; a lot of it was very spontaneous,” said Aquilina Soriano, executive director of the Pilipino Workers’ Center in Los Angeles, in a concession, if not an understatement, that many other organizers have been repeating for weeks.
But, Soriano added, “Before there was the marches, they didn’t talk about any kind of amnesty or legalization program. It was only after March 25 — that’s when they started talking about it.”
True enough and, yes, a worthy success. But the signs of defeat are everywhere. Not even Eddie “El Piolín” Sotelo, the morning DJ credited with triumphantly generating the 500,000-plus turnout on March 25 in downtown L.A., could muster more than a few thousand people at the same spot for a march over the Labor Day weekend. The marchers called for a moratorium on immigration raids and the breaking up of families. Days later, back in Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill, as promised, that authorizes 700 miles of double fences along the U.S.-Mexico border, a virtual death wish for migrants who have already proven themselves determined to risk their lives to reach jobs in the U.S.
Given the setbacks, is it now safe to declare the immigrant-rights movement officially deceased?
“Translating from the numbers who were in the rallies into voting power, that takes preparation to do it right, it takes organizing into the right kinds of events,” explained Maria Elena Durazo, executive director of the L.A. County Federation of Labor. “I’m not making excuses, I’m just trying to say there’s a lot more behind this.” The surge in the number of Latino voters after California’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in the 1990s did not magically materialize right after voters passed the measure, Durazo said. “It wasn’t within two months, I guarantee you.”
Indeed. But in the spring marches, leaders like Durazo were leading fierce chants of “Hoy marchamos, mañana votamos” (“Today we march, tomorrow we vote”). With only seven weeks left before the November election, and even less time left for new registrations, advocates have all but failed to fulfill the call. The Associated Press, reporting from several cities that were sites of massive marches in the spring, said the demonstrations did not produce significant increases in voter registration among Latinos and new citizens. Instead, it started appearing as though “the giant” had gone back to sleep.
“What the marches did was just at least neutralize [Congress],” offered Alvaro Huerta, communications director for CHIRLA (the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles). “Right now we don’t really have a counterproposal.”
Whatever reasoning or excuse is settled upon for the flat-out fizzling, the reality is the immigrant-rights movement has morphed. It’s moved away — whether by default or design remains unclear — from a mobilization-based, show-of-force type of movement to a fragmented, multipronged effort that is measuring success by incremental victories and setbacks. This inevitably means the movement now contains boards of directors, internal squabbles, corporate sponsorships of big events, goodie bags and lobbying trips.
In other words, it’s starting to look like the environmental movement, the gay-rights movement and the labor movement.
You got this sense at a late-August general-membership meeting of CHIRLA, in a stuffy, windowless conference room on Third Street near MacArthur Park. A few dozen Spanish-dominant immigrants and their children sat through a three-hour meeting filled with field reports from organizers working on various projects. During a breakout session, immigrants wrote down their border-crossing experiences on a sheet of paper, and later, a selection was shared with the whole group. Many tears were shed. Earlier, in a leadership-training workshop, members named their historical leadership role models before concluding that they themselves were leaders in the movement, every man, woman and child.
“What are we going to do? Wait for a Gandhi? Wait for a Martin Luther King? There’s no time. The anti-immigrant forces are already preparing a new HR 4437,” said one member, referring to the draconian anti-immigrant House bill that sparked the spring marches.
“And we have to do it with love,” an elderly woman interjected. “When we do it with love, it will come out better, and we’re going to win!”
It was a brassy challenge to the doubters, naysayers and outright haters who have been dogging the movement since the beginning. While the immigrant-rights agenda has danced artfully and successfully around the political land mines attached to its efforts — foreign flags at marches, the “cutting in line” argument, perceived racial tensions —skeptics persist.
IN L.A., THE IMMIGRANT-RIGHTS movement did not, as some openly and secretly wished, bust open a rift between the city’s established blacks and new Latinos. Black newspapers across the city covered the marches comprehensively, including columns and op-eds that discussed immigrants’ contributions to the economy and recalled the civil-rights movement. Fringe protests notwithstanding (think Ted Hayes, the dreadlocked, homeless black Republican), African-American leaders have consistently been present at rallies, roundtables and hearings, in addition to local Asian and Asian-American leaders. In Alabama, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the standard-bearer of black civil rights in the Deep South, has taken up the legal fight for migrant workers cheated out of payment during the Katrina reconstruction. At the CHIRLA meeting in August, the members present, all recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America, cited Martin Luther King Jr., “el líder de los afroamericanos,” as their primary role model.
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