Contingents of workers, students, and others from across the United States poured into the capital for the rally, which grew to well over 100,000.
The first to arrive on the National Mall were hundreds of workers from Florida. Other contingents came from throughout the South, including Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina, where many immigrants work in construction, as meat packers, or in poultry plants.
More than 120 buses came from the Chicago area, including a lively contingent of four buses organized by the newly formed Immigrant Youth Justice League, made up of students from area colleges, many of whom are undocumented. Hundreds of these youth had marched in Chicago March 10 behind a big banner proclaiming, Undocumented and unafraid.
Two hundred buses came from all over New York City. Contingents came from Iowa, Michigan, Delaware, Ohio, Maryland, and Virginia. People flew in or drove from California.
Labor unionsincluding Workers United, Laborers International Union, United Food and Commercial Workers, United Farm Workers, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)brought contingents. People came with their churches, schools, youth groups, and community organizations.
While the event was predominantly Latino, immigrant workers from countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean also placed their stamp on the action. For many, it was their first protest.
Hundreds of organizations and individuals endorsed the rally coalition, called March for America, including immigrant rights groups, the AFL-CIO, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the unions listed above, several members of Congress, and dozens and dozens of local and statewide committees.
Prior to the march, some rally organizers pointed out that the Barack Obama administration in 2009, its first year in office, carried out the highest number of deportations in U.S. history.
As the March 21 rally gained rapid momentum, Obama held highly publicized meetings March 11 with both representatives of some immigrant rights groups, and with senators Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham, who subsequently announced they are sponsoring a new immigration bill. (See article on this page.)
Rally organizers downplayed the bills attacks on immigrants and workers rights, portraying it as a program to bring undocumented immigrants forward and get them on a path to full U.S. citizenship, as a March for America press release put it.
Obama addressed the rally via a video and promised to be your partner as we work to fix our broken immigration system. The president has endorsed the Schumer-Graham proposal.
Other speakers included Cardinal Roger Mahony, Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles; Benjamin Jealous, executive director of the NAACP; and Andrew Stern, president of the SEIU.
Many rally participants carried the coalitions signs saying, Obama: Dont forget your promises and also waved the American flags they were handed by rally organizers. But they also waved their Mexican, Salvadoran, and other flags of national origin. Many said that for them, immigration reform meant legalization and the right of workers and their families to live, work, and go to school in the United States without the threat of deportation hanging over them.
Need amnesty to fight on shop floor
A poultry worker from Delaware, who asked that his name not be used, came on a bus with 47 coworkers. He described the conditions in the plant. Even though we have the union, theres constant pressure. We need amnesty so we can fight better against the abuses, he said.
Hundreds of workers came from Georgia, many carrying signs against the 287(g) program, which allows local and state police to act as immigration cops. Getting rid of 287 is important to us, explained Marisol Perez. In Georgia, you cant get a drivers license without papers. Then they stop you for a traffic violation and next thing you know, youre being deported.
A construction worker named Arturo from Gwinnett County, Georgia, described workers changing jobs and moving children to new schools frequently to evade the police. When he heard the Schumer-Graham proposal requires workers to state they committed a crime by entering the United States illegally, he said, Were not guilty of anything! Im not guilty because my country is poor!
Zoé Colón organized a busload of workers from Mamaroneck, New York. She explained that they had recently won a lawsuit to prevent police harassment of day laborers and had opened a workers center. Were here to raise our voices because we need legalization, or at least a pathway to it, Colón said.
Many contingents of students dotted the rally. Carrying signs proclaiming, Si se puede (Yes we can), more than 100 students from St. Dominics-Romeoville High School in Bolingbrook, Illinois, marched.
We just found out about the protest three days ago, said Gisella Tavarez. But we organized to get 21 students here from Binghamton, New York. Tavarez and Danisha Florentino are both leaders of the Latin American Student Organization at the state university there. We did a forum on campus to discuss the issues and encourage people to come, Florentino added.
Some of the students at the march carried signs supporting the Dream Act, a bill to make it possible for some students without papers to attend college or enlist in the armed forces and eventually receive legal residence papers. Francisco Chevalier, a student from Gainesville State College in Georgia, carried a sign supporting the Dream Act. But really what I think is that everyone should get amnesty, he said.
A significant number of U.S.-born participants were African American. Etessa Quick came with her husband James. He trims loins at the Smithfield packinghouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina. I grew up in Mississippi in the 60s, she said. I remember having to get off the sidewalk and turn my face away when a white person passed. Both my uncle and my mothers cousin were lynched. Now I have three grandkids. One is part-Latino, one is part-white, and one is part-Indian. Thats why I think this march is important.
Stanley Salazar, a laid-off construction worker from Kensington, Maryland, said, Its not just one or two things, its the whole system. People thought Obama would be different because hes Black, but nothings changed. Now we can see that its not only a problem of racism, but the whole system itself that needs to be changed.
Following the rally, there was a long and spirited march by many thousands returning to buses parked at RFK Stadium three miles away. As the marchers left the Capitol area and entered Black, working-class neighborhoods, residents came out to welcome them and some joined in the chants of Sí se puede.
In California March 21 actions for immigrant rights drew 3,000 in San Jose and 500 in Oxnard. Two hundred people rallied in Houston.
Cindy Jaquith contributed to this article.
Legalize all undocumented!
Schumer-Graham bill is attack on workers rights
California farm workers march for legalization
Hundreds at actions buy Workers Power book
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