Yearly Immigration Marches Take On May Day Urgency

By: From CBS News, Posted by Ralph Hipp
By: From CBS News, Posted by Ralph Hipp


LOS ANGELES (CBS News) -- Demonstrators demanded an overhaul of immigration laws Wednesday in an annual, nationwide ritual that carried a special sense of urgency as Congress considers sweeping legislation that would bring many of the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally out of the shadows.

Thousands joined May Day rallies in dozens of cities from Concord, N.H., to Bozeman, Mont. In Salem, Ore., Gov. John Kitzhaber was cheered by about 2,000 people on the Capitol steps as he signed a bill to allow people living in Oregon without proof of legal status to obtain drivers licenses.

In Vermont, more than 1,000 people assembled on the Montpelier Statehouse lawn. And in New York, thousands of demonstrators marched in downtown Manhattan waving banners and banging on drums in a scene reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street's heyday.

The May Day crowds were lively but paled in comparison to the massive demonstrations of 2006 and 2007, during the last serious attempt to introduce major changes to the U.S. immigration system. Despite the large turnouts six years ago, many advocates of looser immigration laws felt they were outmaneuvered by opponents who flooded congressional offices with phone calls and faxes at the behest of conservative talk-radio hosts.

Now, immigrant advocacy groups are focusing heavily on contacting members of Congress, using social media and other technology to target specific lawmakers. Reform Immigration for America, a network of groups, claims more than 1.2 million subscribers, including recipients of text messages and Facebook followers.

Many of Wednesday's rallies featured speakers with a personal stake in the debate. Naykary Silva, a 26-year-old Mexican woman in the country illegally, joined about 200 people who marched in Denver's spring snow, hoping for legislation that would ensure medical care for her 3-year-old autistic son.

"If you want to do something, you do it no matter what," Silva said. "There's still more work to do."

Police in New York restrained several demonstrators, but the marches were peaceful. In downtown Seattle, demonstrators gathered under heavy police presence, one year after some protesters broke windows and set fires. Thousands joined a march after a rally there supporting immigrant rights and labor.

Gabriel Villalobos, a Spanish-language talk radio host in Phoenix, said many of his callers believe it is the wrong time for marches, fearful that that any unrest could sour public opinion. Those callers advocate instead for a low-key approach of calling members of Congress.

"The mood is much calmer," said Villalobos, who thinks the marches are still an important show of political force.

In Los Angeles, a band playing salsa classics from the back of a truck led a march up Broadway. Demonstrators waved American flags and signs with messages such as "Stop deportations."

"I've held the same job for six years, but I don't have papers," said Mario Vasquez, a supermarket butcher who brought his two Chihuahuas. "Immigration reform would help me and my family and for everybody here."

In downtown Chicago, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin told thousands of demonstrators that America had a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to change immigration laws.

"We need to seize that opportunity," said the Illinois Democrat, who is part of a bipartisan group of eight senators who introduced the legislation last month.

May Day rallies began in the United States in 2000 during a labor dispute with a restaurant in Los Angeles that drew several hundred demonstrators, said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Crowds grew each year until the House of Representatives passed a tough bill against illegal immigration, sparking a wave of enormous, angry protests from coast to coast in 2006.

The rallies, which coincide with Labor Day in many countries outside the U.S., often have big showings from labor leaders and elected officials.

Demonstrators marched in countries around the world, with fury in Europe over austerity measures and rage in Asia over relentlessly low pay, the rising cost of living and hideous working conditions that have left hundreds dead in recent months alone.

The New York crowd was a varied bunch of labor groups, immigrant activists and demonstrators unaffiliated with any specific cause. Among them was 26-year-old Becky Wartell, who was carrying a tall puppet of the Statue of Liberty.

"Every May Day, more groups that have historically considered themselves separate from one another come together," she said.

In Brea, a Los Angeles suburb, a small group opposed to the legislation stood on a freeway bridge waving signs at motorists. One read, "No Amnesty."

Tens of thousands of people are expected to rally in dozens of cities from New York to Bozeman, Mont., on Wednesday in what has become an annual cry for easing the nation's immigration laws.

The rallies carry a special sense of urgency this year, two weeks after a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would bring many of the estimated 11 million living in the U.S. illegally out of the shadows.

"The invisible become visible on May 1," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which is organizing what was expected to be the nation's largest rally.

The May Day crowds were not expected to approach the massive demonstrations of 2006 and 2007, during the last serious attempt to introduce major changes to the U.S. immigration system. Despite the large turnouts, many advocates of looser immigration laws felt they were outmaneuvered by opponents who flooded congressional offices with phone calls and faxes at the behest of conservative talk-radio hosts.

Now, immigrant advocacy groups are focusing heavily on calling and writing members of Congress, sometimes targeting specific lawmakers at key moments in the debate. Reform Immigration for America, a network of groups, claims more than 1.2 million subscribers, including recipients of text messages and Facebook followers.

Even conservatives are split on the best approach to immigration. Some Republicans shun the idea of a single, encompassing bill, especially one that would contain a path to citizenship, still viewed by some as amnesty. Instead, they prefer to unite around consensus issues like border security, temporary workers and workplace enforcement.

A text-message blast during a key vote in 2010 on legislation to provide legal status to many who came to the country as children resulted in 75,000 phone calls to members of Congress in two days, said Jeff Parcher, communications director for the Center for Community Change, which works on technology-driven advocacy for the network of groups.

A phone blitz targeting Republican U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch produced 100 calls a day to the Utah lawmaker's office last week, Parcher said. After Hatch was quoted Sunday in The Salt Lake Tribune saying immigration reform couldn't wait, a message went out to call his office with thanks.

Organizers are also reaching out by email and old-fashioned phone banks.

"The general rule is you keep people on the platform they're used to," Parcher said. "If they're on Facebook, we'll ask them to post something to Congress members' pages."

Gabriel Villalobos, a Spanish-language talk radio host in Phoenix, said many of his callers believe it is the wrong time for marches, fearful that that any unrest could sour public opinion on immigration reform. Those callers advocate instead for a low-key approach of calling members of Congress.

"The mood is much calmer," said Villalobos, who thinks the marches are still an important show of political force.


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