WASHINGTON, D.C. — From Lafayette Park, in front of the White House, you could see them approaching from afar, trooping down 16th Street toward the Mall, a vast throng of immigrants, dressed chiefly in white, waving and draped in more American flags than anyone had seen since George M. Cohan shuffled off Broadway nearly 80 years ago. The White House itself wasn’t exactly bristling with fortifications. There was a line of police motorcycles where 16th Street dead-ended at the park, but only a handful of cops, none in riot gear. Karl Rove had doubtless already quantified the number of Latino voters whom Republicans had outraged this year. The authorities, like the marchers themselves, were on their best behavior.

Indeed, the immigrants who came out for Monday’s rally, most of them first-time demonstrators, seemed to understand the dynamics of public opinion a lot better than many white and black progressives who have been marching for 40 years. “I’ve been to 10 zillion marches,” said Susan Meehan, a veteran Quaker anti-war protester who wore a sign around her neck that said “Mayflower Descendant,” “and this is the first one with people shouting ‘USA! USA!’ and with so many American flags.”

When they had finally all assembled on the Mall — the janitors and laborers and cooks, the students and the professionals, the thousands of knee-high little kids running joyously around on this new, unnamed holiday — they were a tableau of red, white and blue stretching farther than anyone could clearly see, toward a horizon framed by the great presidential memorials. Like the protesters who had come to the Mall in the summer of 1963, they demanded full citizenship and the right to vote in the country whose most thankless jobs they performed on a daily basis. (“The giant wasn’t sleeping,” one sign read, “it was working overtime.”) Like the protesters of ’63, and like no group the capital has seen since, they constituted a powerful moral statement — and, less immediately, a powerful political one, too.

What began in Los Angeles several weeks ago — the emergence into sunlight of an immigrant population that had been compelled to live in shadows — has now swept eastward, reaching not just the capital but virtually every major American city as well as the small slaughterhouse towns of the South and the prairie states. Considering that over the past half-century, the chief contributions that L.A. has made to national politics have been Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, this new message from the Left Coast — equality and legalization for America’s immigrants — marks a distinct turn upward.

The marches began, of course, in righteous rage at the immigration bill that House Republicans passed in December, a piece of demagogic mischief that would criminalize all 12 million of the nation’s undocumented immigrants. Then, early last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee, to general astonishment, passed a bill that created a clear path to legalization for the undocumenteds and enabled immigrant students to attend public colleges in their new home states at the same tuition rates as native-born students — as well as beefing up border security (but not mandating the construction of a great wall).

Then Bill Frist went to work, melding many of the phobias of the nativist right with the Judiciary Committee’s distinctly unphobic handiwork. The result was an unworkable and incomprehensible mess. Immigrants who’d been here for five years or more could stay and get legal status, if they could produce their employment records (not the easiest thing to do if you worked for an off-the-books contractor), utility bills (try doing that when you shared a two-room apartment with 10 other guys) and the like. Immigrants here for two to five years would have to report to a border checkpoint and produce kindred documentation, whereupon the INS would — so the theory goes — speed their re-entry. Immigrants here for less than two years would simply have to leave.

In the real world, the effect of such legislation would be to encourage millions of undocumented immigrants to stay underground.

Yet this was the piece of legislation that was hurtling to conference with the House, which would bring in its own incomparably worse legislation. Not surprisingly, as the Senate bill deteriorated by the minute late last week, the immigrant-advocate groups that had championed the Judiciary Committee’s bill were constantly re-evaluating their support. Up-to-date information was hard to come by, and disagreements among longtime allies became the order of the day. By week’s end, the AFL-CIO and the two unions that had done the most to champion the immigrants’ cause — the Service Employees International Union and UNITE-HERE — each had a different position.

AT MONDAY’S RALLY, many of the leading organizers expressed, offstage, their quiet thanks to Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid for pulling the plug on what was becoming a disastrous bill. With polling now showing that a clear majority of Americans support the creation of a clear path to legalization for most immigrants, and with increasing confidence that they can mobilize even more immigrants in the weeks and months ahead, the immigrant advocates sense that momentum is on their side. “The movement has not crested yet,” one told me as the rally on the Mall wound down. “We’d be crazy to take a deal just now.”

The advocates’ strategy is straightforward. Continue to stage events that show the undocumented hordes to be the hard-working Americans they actually are. Force increasingly fearful Republican legislators to choose between Latinos and their growing number of supporters, and the nativist Republican base. If the Republicans can’t choose — and they probably can’t — wait for the next Congress, which looks more likely every day to be controlled by the Democrats. Campaign for the Democrats this fall.

With each passing week, the movement for immigrant rights seems to grow both larger and smarter. That alone sets it apart, alas, from most recent progressive movements. Long may it, and its American flags, wave.

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