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Were workers, not criminals
Over half million protest anti-immigrant bill in L.A.
Marches, high school walkouts spread across U.S.
Over 500,000 people march in Los Angeles March 25 against bill passed by House of Representatives that would make it a felony to be in U.S. without proper documents.
BY NAOMI CRAINE
LOS ANGELESWere workers, not criminals, read signs carried by a sea of protesters here March 25. Working people, overwhelmingly immigrants, began arriving early in the morning for the march. Tens of thousands were still marching well into the afternoon.
It was the largest rally so far across the country to oppose HR 4437, the Sensenbrenner bill, which was passed by the House of Representatives in December. This bill makes it a felony to be in the United States without proper documents and makes it a crime for anyone to aid undocumented immigrants. Some 12 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States today, or 5 percent of the workforce.
According to police estimates more than 500,000 people poured into the streets that day here to express outrage at the billthe largest demonstration the city has ever seen. Organizers said that up to 1 million turned out.
During the month of March, hundreds of thousands of immigrants and other working people have mobilized across the country to oppose HR 4437 and other anti-immigrant measures.
The march here was widely publicized in the Spanish-language media. While contingents came from immigrant rights groups, unions, and other organizations, the vast majority of marchers were workers and young people who came on their own. Originally scheduled to go up Broadway to City Hall, the protest not
only filled that thoroughfare but moved up three adjacent streets as well.
Were fighting for all of us, said Federico Angel Simón, a farm worker originally from Mexico, who came with co-workers from the San Joaquin Valley. I hope they listen to the voice of the people in the White House.
We just want to work and advance, said Arely Díaz, a restaurant worker who was born in El Salvador, explaining why she and her family were marching for the first time.
Workers at a dental office on Broadway and 5th Street kept running to the window and yelling Sí se puede (Yes, we can) and then put signs in the window with that slogan, to show their support for the hours-long procession.
On the morning of the march in the garment shop where I work, co-workers sewed shirts for those who forgot to wear white, which organizers had asked for, said Arlene Rubinstein. One worker brought her children, another his sister and girlfriend. From the window, we saw workers from the Fashion District walking to the assembly point. We couldnt wait any longer, stopped sewing, and left.
The day before, hundreds of students walked out of Huntington Park, Garfield, Roosevelt, and Montebello high schools to oppose HR 4437. At other schools with large numbers of Latino students, the administration imposed a lock down to prevent students from leaving.
Christian Aguilar, a Bell High School student, described how teachers there tried to keep students in. Eventually a couple of hundred climbed the fence and walked to South Gate High School, where students were locked in. A lot of people joined us on the way, including mothers carrying Mexican flags, said Aguilar. We were protesting this anti-immigrant lawits not fair.
Debate on immigration reform
Rally organizersincluding immigrant rights groups, unions, and Democratic Party politicianscalled the actions to oppose the Sensenbrenner bill and promote variants such as the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, referred to as the McCain-Kennedy bill, after its sponsors, U.S. senators John McCain, a Republican, and Edward Kennedy, a Democrat.
At the rally, Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa urged participants to join McCain and Kennedy for real immigration reform. Villaraigosa told CNN after the march that the bill addresses the issue of border security and enforcing our immigration laws. He added, It also gives these 11 million people… if theyve worked here, played by the rules, an avenue for earned legalization.
The McCain-Kennedy bill would allow the government to control the inflow of a pool of laborerscalled guest workerswho have fewer protections than other workers. Under the law, undocumented workers already in the country would have to pay a fine and application fees in order to get a temporary work visa good for six years. Workers in the program would be eligible to apply for permanent residency after working as a guest worker for six years and paying a second fine. Throughout their term as guest workers, they would be required to maintain their employment, effectively tying their status to their employer.
The Sensenbrenner billofficially known as the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Actwould make it a crime to be an undocumented immigrant, or to aid or counsel them. It also projects expanding the wall that Washington is constructing along the border with Mexico.
The U.S. ruling class has been surprised at the confidence and depth of the outpouring among immigrant workers, outraged and insulted by this proposal to criminalize them. These included mobilizations over the last few days of at least 50,000 in Denver; 20,000 in Phoenix; 10,000 in Milwaukee; 6,000 in Charlotte, North Carolina; 6,000 in Houston, and rallies that drew hundreds in many other cities. In Georgia, organizers report that as many as 80,000 people participated in the Day of Dignity economic boycott March 24, refusing to go to work or spend money. More than 100,000 took off work to join a weekday demonstration in Chicago on March 10. (See chart.)
On March 27, in the middle of this outpouring of opposition, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved with a 12-6 vote new immigration legislation, which it sent to the full Senate for debate. The panel voted to eliminate the provisions of the Sensenbrenner bill that would criminalize undocumented immigrants and those who help them in any way. This bill, which is backed by the committees chairman, Republican Arlen Specter, is similar to the McCain-Kennedy proposal.
It would allow undocumented immigrants already here to apply for permanent residence and citizenship after overcoming many hurdles during an 11-year period. Those who have entered the United States as of the end of 2004 would be allowed to work for six years under a temporary worker program after paying a $1,000 fine and passing a criminal background check. Anyone who remains unemployed for more than 60 days would be forced to leave the country. Those who make it through this period would be able to apply for permanent residence after paying another $1,000 fine and any back taxes they owe, and show proficiency in English. They could then apply for citizenship five years later.
An additional 400,000 visas would be offered each year to those living in other countries for temporary jobs that employers say U.S.-born workers dont want. In addition, the bill calls for another special guest worker program for some 1.5 million farm workers over the next five years.
The bill would beef up border patrols, adding up to 14,000 immigration cops the next half decade to the existing force of 11,300. It would also speed up deportations.
This bill also dropped the provision for building a 700-mile-long fence across the entire border with Mexico, which President Bush has publicly opposed. A proposal by Republican senators Jon Kyl of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas that would require guest workers to return home before applying for permanent residence was not included in the bill.
The March 29 New York Times reported that immigration authorities had sent a letter to the United Food and Commercial Workers March 17 announcing discontinuation of sting operations that use health and safety programs to round up undocumented workers.
Discussion, protests continue
At American Apparel, a large garment factory in downtown Los Angeles, the mood was jubilant on the Monday after the march. People held up the newspaper Hoy with pictures of the demonstration and the banner headline !Sí se pudo! (Yes we could.)
Martín Alvarez said, This will go down as a historic date. It made me feel wonderful to see so many Hispanics united fighting for our rights as immigrants.
There were more than a million there and if they dont stop the attacks there will be other bigger marches, added Andrés Rodríguez. And there was a whole contingent of Koreans there too.
Ledia Rosales said her daughter Zuri carried a sign that had a picture of the Honduran flag with the words Cien porciento Latina (100 percent Latina). Another marcher liked it so much she offered to buy it for $5.
Laura Diezmo said this was the first march she had ever attended. It made me feel strong. I could feel the force of all those Latinos. I really liked the chant Sí se puede, and I was happy to see quite a few white folks and Afro-Americans supporting the march. Some workers in the buildings downtown put up signs saying no to HR 4437.
Protests are continuing. Several thousand people, many of them farm workers from throughout California, rallied downtown March 26 in an action called by the United Farm Workers to commemorate César Chávez and oppose anti-immigrant legislation.
Nearly 40,000 students walked out of their classes in more than 50 schools throughout Southern California March 27, denouncing HR 4437. Students marched in various areas, in some cases blocking traffic, and about 2,000 rallied at City Hall. Mayor Villaraigosa addressed the students, saying he supported their cause but they should go back to school. His appeal had little success.
More mobilizations are planned. A national day of action has been called for April 10 in cities across the country.
Wendy Lyons contributed to this article.
Click here to see the cities where most of the largest immigrant rights protests have been held so far.
Immigrant workers affect their destiny