Sunday, April 09, 2006

Up to 100,000 Attend Mass Immigration March
Rally Long on “Dignity, Respect and Hope,” Short on Specifics

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

A massive crowd estimated at up to 100,000 people thronged the streets of San Diego Sunday afternoon, April 9, to demand “dignity, respect and hope” for America’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. The march and rally which followed it came after two weeks’ worth of protests nationwide following passage of H.R. 4437, the Sensenbrenner anti-immigration bill, in the House of Representatives. This bill would make undocumented immigration into the U.S. a felony, punishable by up to a year in federal prison followed by deportation. It would also call for fencing over 700 miles of the 1,900-mile U.S.-Mexico border, which has already been called the most thoroughly militarized border anywhere in the world between two countries technically at peace with each other.

But while the marchers were quite specific about what they didn’t want — among the signs were ones comparing H.R. 4437 to Adolf Hitler’s anti-Jewish laws and calling it a poor example of the “democracy” the U.S. wants to bring to Iraq — there weren’t many specifics as to what they did want. The very title of the action — the “March for Dignity, Respect and Hope” — fell short of an outright demand for amnesty for undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., prompting some immigration-rights activists to call their own action the day before. One rally speaker, Jim Hard of the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU), called the milder bill recommended by the Senate Judiciary Committee “a step in the right direction,” but the crowd was markedly unenthusiastic about it. Speakers urged marchers to keep monitoring the legislative process in Washington and making phone calls to their Senators and Congressmembers, but without offering much guidance on which proposals they should support or oppose.

Not that many of the marchers seemed to need much guidance. They were well aware that the massive demonstrations throughout the U.S. on this issue had already made some House Republicans, including Sensenbrenner himself, pull back from some of the nastier provisions of H.R. 4437. (He recently proposed making undocumented immigration a misdemeanor instead of a felony; it is now a civil offense, punishable by deportation but not jail time or fine.) Congressmember Susan Davis, who spoke to the crowd in English but punctuated her speech with a few bits of badly pronounced Spanish, said that Congress had begun to look at “sensible, compassionate immigration legislation” and thanked the marchers for “joining with people all over our state and country to demand something realistic and humane.”

Though the program at the rally included immigrants from such diverse countries as the Philippines and Nigeria, it wasn’t hard to tell just which country concerned most of the people who marched. Many of the marchers carried Mexican flags — a practice that’s become a flashpoint for controversy, with some pro-immigration activists arguing that it’s bad P.R. for people demanding respect from the U.S. to fly the flag of another country — and most of the rally speeches were either bilingual or in Spanish only. A few of the speeches were interpreted, but most of the speakers picked for the program were able to deliver their talks in both languages.

The Mexican influence on the program was apparent in other ways as well. The MC, Francisco Herrera from Calexico, also brought a guitar and supplied the musical entertainment himself. Many of the songs were traditional singalongs and anthems of the Chicano struggle which many members of the audience of Mexican or Central American descent recognized. Overall, the mood during all three phases of the event — the warmup before the march, the march itself and the rally — was far more festive than in the anti-Iraq war demonstrations or most other San Diego actions planned by majority-white groups. As the first marchers arrived at the rally they were greeted by the sound of a live band improvising a musical accompaniment to a tape of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech — essentially turning King, posthumously, into a rapper.

Marchers assembled at 1 p.m. at Sixth and Laurel in Balboa Park. The police presence was surprisingly light — considerably smaller than it’s been at anti-war and anti-biotechnology protests that actually drew far fewer people — though during the rally organizers announced that police had originally expected so small a turnout they tried to confine the march to the sidewalks. Instead they ended up closing off so many streets that the San Diego buses were re-routed and marchers were instructed not to use the sidewalks. The one obstacle police weren’t able to have stopped or changed for the route was the San Diego Trolley, which held up the march as it passed; organizers stopped the front part of the march so the rest of it, lagging behind the trolley, wouldn’t fall hopelessly behind.

Though some of the organizers wore orange T-shirts proclaiming themselves part of “March Security,” the real security people were a group of mostly male volunteers wearing black or brown shirts with a stylized graphic of an Aztec warrior and the word “PALABRA.” They were responsible for transmitting the often contradictory and rapidly changing directions from the police to the marchers, and also for securing the stage area at the rally and asking media people to check in at the organizers’ media desk before being permitted access to the stage area to photograph the speakers.

The march attracted so many people and took so long to travel the route — down Sixth Avenue to Broadway, down to Pacific Highway and over to the San Diego County Administrative Building, where the rally took place — that marchers were still coming in half an hour after the rally started. For some reason, organizers held their rally at the front of the County building, rather than the back where most demonstrations on the site have taken place. This meant a highly scrunched crowd spilling out onto Cedar Street — and a long time during which police had to keep Pacific Highway closed because people were standing on the street listening to the program.

The rally speakers ranged from elected officials — Congressmembers Davis and Bob Filner and Oceanside City Councilmember Ester Sanchez — to quite a few ministers and others from communities of faith. Union organizers were also present on the platform, and there were personal testimonials from immigrants who talked about the sacrifices their parents had made for them.

“I am an immigrant,” said Sister Mary Moreno Richardson. “My father came from Mexico. He came to the United States as an accountant who could not speak English, leaving behind my mother, who was pregnant with me, and brother. After a year waiting in Tijuana we joined him in San Francisco. He worked two jobs, went to school at night, and eventually built up his own business. After five years we became legal residents. My older brother served in the Navy in Viet Nam. My younger brother is a deputy chief in the fire department in Sunnyvale. This is our country, and the ideal of people providing for their families is best exemplified by the sacrifices made by immigrants.”

“If you look at a map, you see this is Las Americas,” said Councilmember Sanchez. “Somos todos Americanos. My family is from Zacatecas. My mother came first to Tijuana and then to the U.S. My mother worked in a rubber factory for 20 years. She used to come home black, her whole body covered in rubber dust, but with just one year of education she worked and helped put me through law school. Now I am a lawyer and a City Councilmember in Oceanside.”

Sanchez hammered home the point many of the speakers were making: that the stories of America’s current immigrants, documented and undocumented, are exactly the kind of ideal pursuing-the-American-dream stories most conservatives celebrate when they happen to anybody else. “We all know America is a nation of immigrants,” she said. “We believe in hard work and welcome immigrants from all over the world. We believe in one United States, and that people who come to our country to work and be part of the American dream should be welcomed. We cannot allow people in Congress to divide this nation. We must fight, stand up and say now is the time for action.”

“I’m a Nigerian citizen and a resident alien in the U.S. in the process of getting my citizenship,” said Akinfosile. “I have to support and speak out for other ethnic groups not represented here. My father stowed away on a ship from Lagos [the Nigerian capital] to England. This country is made up of immigrants. … My faith directs me to be here. We are to care for the widow and the alien in our midst. We are supposed to love our neighbors. If someone gets sick in Tijuana or loses a child, it affects us too. We’re no different.”

Akinfosile said the opponents of so-called “illegal” immigration “are trying to incorporate fear into this discussion. Undocumented immigrants are not the problem. The system is the problem. Let’s stop pointing the finger at the wrong people. Our strength lies in our unity. Stay together and hang in there. Do this for your own kids. The U.S. belongs to all of us. We believe in God, we have faith and are trying to do better by our own families. What’s ‘illegal’ about that?”

Congressmember Filner — who recalled taking part in marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and César Chávez in the 1960’s and said “this march is as beautiful as any of these” — took up the same theme as Akinfosile: that undocumented immigrants are being used as scapegoats for the failures of the federal government and the current administration and Congress. “We have a war in Iraq that costs $1 billion every three days, and they needed a scapegoat, so they blamed our problems on immigrants,” he said. “Forty million immigrants lack access to health care, and they blame it on immigrants. They can’t educate all our kids and they blame that on immigrants.”

Some of the most intense moments of the program were entirely unscripted. At one point a mother took the stage because she had lost her three-year-old daughter — and broke down in tears as she tried to describe what the child looked like and asked anyone who had seen her to bring her forward. (Eventually the girl was found.) The scheduled program was long, and the official schedule promised an after-program that would have stretched the proceedings even further, but most of the people who’d done the march were gone by the time the final announced speakers took the stage.