500,000 Pack Streets to Protest Immigration Bills

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500,000 Pack Streets to Protest Immigration Bills

News article

By: Teresa Watanabe and Hector Becerra

Date: March 26, 2006

Source: Los Angeles Times. latimes.com. March 26, 2006. 〈http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/latimes/access/〉 (accessed June 15, 2006).

About the Author: Teresa Watanabe and Hector Becerra are reporters for the Los Angeles Times, a daily newspaper published in Los Angeles, California. The article is taken from the online version of the newspaper.


In the early months of 2006, mass demonstrations were held across the United States in protest of the immigration bill that had been passed by the House of Representatives in December 2005. The rally held in Los Angeles in March was one of the largest, reflecting the sizeable immigrant community and numerous immigrant advocacy groups located in this area.

The House bill was passed in response to concern about increasing levels of immigration, especially undocumented immigration, to the United States. Its main provisions included the proposal that illegal entry or illegal presence in the United States should be made a felony, and that any attempt to assist a person to enter or remain in the United States illegally should also be made a felony. It proposed steep increases in the penalties for undocumented entry, and for the assistance or employment of undocumented migrants, and recommended that a fence should be constructed along 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. Under the House bill, there would be no route to legal residence or to U.S. citizenship for any undocumented immigrants.

Protest against the House bill came not only from immigrants and immigrant support groups but from the church, charities and other organizations that provide humanitarian aid to undocumented migrants. Although the proposal to make assistance to undocumented migrants a felony was primarily directed at people smugglers and those who deliberately employ or provide a safe harbor for undocumented migrants within the United States, these groups were concerned that they would also be liable for penalties and imprisonment for providing assistance to immigrants. Immigrants and their supporters also stressed the important role that immigrants play in the U.S. economy.

The mass mobilization of opposition to the House bill across ethnic groups, as well as the involvement of the Catholic church in the protests, raised the political sensitivity of immigration reform. In recent years, immigrant votes, particularly from the Latin-American community, have become increasingly influential in U.S. politics and helped to shape immigration policy. For example, the Democrats capitalized heavily on promoting their party to the Hispanic community in the 1996, 1998 and 2000 elections, and on campaigning against the tough immigration reforms being proposed by the Republicans. In addition, the business community is generally opposed to tougher immigration laws, which would make it more difficult for employers to recruit immigrants to unfilled vacancies. By the mid-2000s, conflicts had emerged both within and between the main political parties regarding the future of immigration reform. The most pressing issue had become the problem of undocumented migration, and how to deal with this while retaining the political support of the business community and major immigrant groups.


A crowd estimated by police at more than 500,000 boisterously marched in Los Angeles on Saturday to protest federal legislation that would crack down on undocumented immigrants, penalize those who help them and build a security wall along the U.S. southern border.

Spirited but peaceful marchers—ordinary immigrants alongside labor, religious and civil rights groups—stretched more than twenty blocks along Spring Street, Broadway and Main Street to City Hall, tooting kazoos, waving American flags and chanting, "Sí se puede!" (Yes we can!).

Attendance at the demonstration far surpassed the number of people who protested against the Vietnam War and Proposition 187, a 1994 state initiative that sought to deny public benefits to undocumented migrants but was struck down by the courts. Police said there were no arrests or injuries except for a few cases of exhaustion.

At a time when Congress prepares to crack down further on illegal immigration and self-appointed militias patrol the U.S. border to stem the flow, Saturday's rally represented a massive response, part of what immigration advocates are calling an unprecedented effort to mobilize immigrants and their supporters nationwide.

It coincides with an initiative on the part of the Roman Catholic Church, spearheaded by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, to defy a House bill that would make aiding undocumented immigrants a felony. And it signals the burgeoning political clout of Latinos, especially in California.

"There has never been this kind of mobilization in the immigrant community ever," said Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "They have kicked the sleeping giant. It's the beginning of a massive immigrant civil rights struggle."

The demonstrators, many wearing white shirts to symbolize peace, included both longtime residents and the newly arrived, bound by a desire for a better life.

Arbelica Lazo, forty, illegally emigrated from El Salvador two decades ago but said she now owns two businesses and pays $7,000 in income taxes each year.

Jose Alberto Salvador, thirty-three, came here illegally four months ago to find work to support the wife and five children he left behind. In his native Guatemala, he said, what little work he could find paid $10 a day.

"As much as we need this country, we love this country," Salvador said, waving both the American and Guatemalan flags. "This country gives us opportunities we don't get at home."

On Monday, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to resume work on a comprehensive immigration reform proposal. The Senate committee's version includes elements of various bills, including a guest worker program and a path to legalization for the nation's 10 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants proposed by Sens. John McCain (Republican-Arizona) and Edward M. Kennedy (Democrat-Massachusetts.)

In addition, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Republican-Tennessee.) has introduced a bill that would strengthen border security, crack down on employers of illegal immigrants and increase the number of visas for workers. Frist has said he would take his bill to the floor Tuesday if the committee does not finish its work Monday.

Ultimately, the House and Senate bills must be reconciled before a law can be passed.

President Bush has advocated a guest worker program and attracted significant Latino support for his views.

In his Saturday radio address, Bush urged all sides of the emotional debate to tone down their rhetoric, calling for a balanced approach between more secure borders and more temporary foreign workers.

Largely in response to the debate in Washington, hundreds of thousands of people in recent weeks have staged marches in more than a dozen cities calling for immigration reform.

In Denver, police said Saturday that more than 50,000 people gathered downtown at Civic Center Park next to the Capitol to urge the state Senate to reject a resolution supporting a ballot issue that would deny many government services to illegal immigrants in Colorado.

Hundreds rallied in Reno, the Associated Press reported.

On Friday, tens of thousands of people were estimated to have staged school walkouts, marches and work stoppages in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Atlanta and other cities.

In addition, several cities, including Los Angeles, have passed resolutions opposing the House legislation. At least one city, Maywood, declared itself a "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants.

Despite the significant opposition to the crackdown on illegal immigrants shown by the turnout in recent rallies, a recent Zogby poll found sixty-two percent of Americans surveyed wanted more restrictive immigration policies, and a Field Poll last month found that the majority of California voters surveyed believed illegal immigration was hurting the state.

"Polling has consistently shown that Americans don't want guest workers or amnesty," said Caroline Espinosa, spokeswoman for NumbersUSA, a Washington-based immigration control group that says its e-mail list of one million and 140,000-member roster of activists have more than doubled in the last year.

Espinosa said current levels of both legal and illegal immigration would push the U.S. population to 420 million by 2050, "leading to a tremendously negative impact on the quality of life in the United States."

According to a U.S. Census Bureau survey a year ago, the nation's 35.2 million immigrants—legal and illegal—represent a record number. California led the country with nearly 10 million, constituting twenty-eight percent of the state's population overall and one-third of its work force.

The swelling number of immigrants has clearly influenced the political calculus of those involved in the issue, including political and religious groups. The Republican Party, for instance, is split among those who want tougher restrictions, those who fear alienating the Latino vote and business owners who are pressing for more laborers—mostly Latin Americans—to fill blue-collar jobs in construction, cleaning, gardening and other industries.

Some Republicans fear that pushing too hard against illegal immigrants could backfire nationally, as with Proposition 187. Strong Republican support of that measure helped spur record numbers of California Latinos to become U.S. citizens and register to vote. Those voters subsequently helped the Democrats regain political control in the state.

"There is no doubt Proposition 187 had a devastating impact on the [California] Republican Party," said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political consultant. "Now the Republicans in Congress better beware: If they come across as too shrill, with a racist tone, all of a sudden you're going to see Republicans in cities with a high Latino population start losing their seats."

The effects of the nation's growing Latino presence also are evident in religious communities. This week, for instance, the president of the 30-million-member National Assn. of Evangelicals is scheduled to issue a statement supporting immigration reform, including a guest worker program. It will be in concert with the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, conference president.

Rodriguez, whose Sacramento-based group serves the nation's 18 million evangelical Christian Latinos, said it took "a lot of persuasion" to broker the joint statement with Ted Haggard, president of the evangelicals group. Rodriguez said he warned the group that failure to support comprehensive immigration reform would have long-term political repercussions.

Latino evangelical Christians voted for Bush at a forty percent higher rate than Latinos overall, he said, but they would probably turn away from conservative candidates and causes without support on immigration.

"I had to do a lot of asking: Will Hispanics ever vote for conservative candidates again, or partner with white evangelicals if they were silent while our brothers and sisters and cousins were being sent out of the county on buses?" Rodriguez said.

Churches were just one force behind Saturday's rally.

Several immigrant advocates said that the ethnic media were a significant factor in drawing crowds. News outlets repeatedly publicized it and even exhorted marchers to wear white shirts. Churches announced the rally too. Although a police spokeswoman estimated the crowd at 500,000 based on helicopter surveillance, rally organizers said it was closer to one million.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa briefly addressed the rally.

"We cannot criminalize people who are working, people who are contributing to our economy and contributing to the nation," Villaraigosa said.

In contrast to demonstrations twelve years ago against Proposition 187, Saturday's rally featured more American flags than those from any other country. Flag vendors were soon overwhelmed by demonstrators holding out dollar bills.

Father Michael Kennedy, a longtime immigrant advocate and pastor of Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights, said that past demonstrations were more heavily Mexican or Mexican American, but the House bill had rallied protesters across religious, national and ethnic lines.

One was Korean immigrant Dae Joong Yoon, executive director of the Korean Resource Center in Los Angeles. Yoon said the Korean community was more inflamed over the House bill than Proposition 187 because it would penalize not only undocumented immigrants but also businesses that hired them and anyone who helped them.

He said the Korean-language media has intensified coverage of the House bill in recent weeks.

"The Korean community is shocked and outraged over this inhumane legislation," Yoon said. "Everybody would be affected by it."


In May 2006, the U.S. Senate passed an alternative immigration bill, which was also designed to address the problem of undocumented immigration, while acknowledging the key role that immigrant workers play in the U.S. economy, and the need for a plan to deal with the millions of undocumented migrant workers already in the country. The bill was intended to address the concerns of pro-immigrant groups as well as those in favor of tougher policies on undocumented migration.

This bill proposed a guest worker program, under which immigrants already in the United States and those from overseas would be able to apply for unfilled vacancies. If successful, they would be granted a three-year temporary residence permit, renewable once, and would subsequently be allowed to apply for permanent residence through normal immigration channels. Those undocumented migrants who had been in the United States for more than five years would be allowed to stay and to gain legal status, after payment of fines and unpaid taxes, while those who had been in the United States for more than two years would be required to return to the border and submit an application to return. All undocumented migrants who had been in the United States for less than two years would be required to leave the country. In order to help prevent further undocumented migration, particularly from Mexico, the Senate bill supported the building of a fence along the Mexico-United States border, and proposed increased funding for more Border Control agents and for increased detention facilities for those undocumented migrants who were apprehended within the country.

Although the Senate bill received support across party lines, many Republicans and some Democrats remained fiercely opposed to any legislation that would reward the illegal act of undocumented migration with legalization of status. Since any bill has to be passed by both houses before it can become law, it will be necessary to achieve a compromise, which has majority support in both Houses. In the meantime, both parties face the risk of alienating key segments of the electorate on the immigration issue in an important mid-term election year.



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Cornelius, Wayne A. "Controlling 'unwanted' immigration: lessons from the United States, 1993–2004." Annual Review of Sociology. 21, 1995.

Espenshade, Thomas J. "Unauthorized Immigration to the United States." Annual Review of Sociology. 21, 1995.

Jonas, S., and C. Tactaquin. "Latino Immigrants Rights in the Shadow of the National Security State: Responses to Domestic Preemptive Strikes." Social Justice. 31, 2004.

Web sites

Los Angeles Times. "latimes.com." March 26, 2006 〈http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/latimes/access/〉 (accessed June 15, 2006).