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Marching Orders

WHO’S READY FOR ANOTHER big immigrant-rights’ march?

President Bush made his immigration-reform speech this week amid a growing sense that the struggle to reform the law and absorb millions of undocumented people and their cultures is far from over.

“What maybe we need to do is hit the streets once again,” said Alejandro Stephens, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 660, at the local’s Koreatown offices after watching the president speak from the Oval Office. Others repeated the line, an instinctual response to a speech that attempted to dance down the middle of the debate — to the dissatisfaction of just about everyone.

Bush used dissonant rhetoric on immigrants, at times characterizing their migration north as a “sneak across” the border to fill low-skill, low-wage jobs in welcoming sectors of the U.S. economy, and to bring “crime to our communities.” And, in high Orwellian fashion, the president declared that the militarization of the border (he promised up to 6,000 National Guardsmen on the boundary with Mexico) was, somehow, not the militarization of the border. At the same time, Bush, perhaps acknowledging that he’s no stranger to Mexican flag–waving and the political effectiveness of cute phrases in mangled Spanish, said that the country will “honor the heritage of all who come here.”

Finally, he employed the obligatory patriotic military anecdote as a closer. Bush told the story of a noncitizen U.S. Marine, an honorable and presumably illegal immigrant from Mexico, who was injured in Iraq and wanted two things in life: to get a promotion for his buddy who rescued him, and to become a U.S. citizen. Bush said the Marine’s first name was Guadalupe, as in the Virgen de Guadalupe, the so-called Empress of the Americas, an icon so powerful in the Pan-American consciousness that even males are named after her.

The particulars of Bush’s immigration proposals are ultimately secondary to the political effects, failed or realized. Bush’s anxious base, looking for some kind of nativist reassurance in the face of a browning America, hated it. Immigrant advocates saw it as a sign that Washington apparently didn’t get the message of March 25, April 11 and May 1. So while the specter of more marches remains — and who doesn’t like a good, boisterous march these days? — advocates began focusing this week on more immediate goals: old-fashioned lobbying.

A diverse coalition of immigrant advocates flew to Washington on Tuesday for Lobby Day. Meetings were scheduled with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Congressman David Dreier, a Los Angeles Republican, hardly the most immigrant-friendly representative in the California delegation.

The situation, after all, remains urgent. On Monday, the San Bernardino City Council failed to pass a Save Our State–backed measure that would have made it illegal for illegal immigrants to rent apartments in their city — this in a country where illegal immigrants can buy homes and own property. And in Arizona, burdened to the point of breakdown by an unceasing flow of migrants marching north through the murderous Sonoran Desert, the Maricopa County sheriff said he would form an immigrant-hunting posse to patrol the border. During a news conference in Avondale, Arizona, freshly recruited members of the posse posed in combat-style gear and black ski masks and sunglasses. Here in L.A., U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities announced triumphantly on Tuesday that a one-year investigation of 7,000 employee records at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power netted a total of eight unauthorized workers, most of whom had initially entered the country legally but had overstayed their visas. The workers were facing deportation proceedings, said ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice.

RELIGIOUS LEADERS MET WITH REPORTERS at Visitation Catholic Church in Westchester before flying to Washington to hustle their position on the highly unpopular Congress. “We speak a moral message, the message that all people are children of God, and we need to treat each other as we would like members of our family to be treated,” said the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, a Lutheran pastor, as Spanish- and Korean-language press buzzed around her.

While Salvatierra and others worked the halls of Washington, advocates staying behind in L.A. were building plans for “Democracy Centers,” places to stage call-ins to lawmakers on Capitol Hill. They also planned voter-registration drives, recalling signs seen throughout the marches: “Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote.”

There’s historical precedence for such efforts in California, always an exporter of political trends. After voters here passed the anti-illegal-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994, Latino voter rolls swelled, resulting in punishing losses for the state Republican Party. “He’s pandering for votes, and we’re going to give him votes,” Javier Gonzalez, political director for SEIU Local 1877, said of Bush. “They’re running the risk of creating a national Proposition 187 backlash. It would be a big mistake, but it wouldn’t be the first time.”

Meanwhile, the divide between the two major immigrant-rights coalitions was aired widely this week after the Washington Post ran a front-page story in which one L.A. organizer from the March 25 Coalition openly talked smack about organizers from the We Are America Coalition.

Jesse Diaz, an organizer of day laborers in Pomona, attacked union, church and immigrant-advocate leaders. He criticized them for what he called compromising the movement’s principles by signaling support for certain proposals moving around the Senate, and for staying in hotels while in Washington and not at friends’ houses like he does. Diaz, also a graduate student at UC Riverside, is a controversial figure in the still-nascent immigrant-rights movement for his hard-line positions and tactics. Diaz backtracked on Tuesday and said that his comments were taken out of context.

“It’s more like a cleavage, not a division. We’re still on the same path,” he said.