For weeks, television and newspaper stories have featured spectacular images of masses of humanity lined up for miles, marching in support of immigrants. Hundreds of thousands of people, many of them immigrants, peacefully marched in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Phoenix and dozens of other cities across the country. Such mass demonstrations on the issue of immigration are unprecedented in U.S. history.
The first round of protests in March targeted a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. E James Sensenbrenner Jr. and passed by the House of Representatives in December. The bill would have made the mere status of being an undocumented immigrant a felony, punishable by imprisonment and deportation.
For many people, the mass marches evoked proud memories of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And there are indeed signs of a mass political movement on the horizon. The immigrants' rights marches represented true grass roots activism, organically generated by a loosely knit group of activists assisted by Spanish language radio stations. Like the 1960s, high school and university students energized the protests, with an activism and commitment not seen on campuses for a generation.
Importantly, the latest marches enjoyed a broad base of support. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles condemned the Sensenbrenner bill. Politicians, including L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich praised protesters during marches in their respective cities.
The marches unquestionably influenced the national debate over immigration. The harshest provisions of the Sensenbrenner bill now appear all but dead. The latest reform proposals on the table, although flawed in many ways, would extend benefits to many undocumented immigrants. Lawmakers will not soon forget the power and emotion of the mass marches.
But a multiracial civil rights movement will not happen on its own. Consider the lessons of an event seemingly unrelated to immigration--Hurricane Katrina. While all levels of government appeared paralyzed by ineptitude or indifference, African-Americans suffered in misery for what seemed like an eternity. Many immigrants, including Latinos and Vietnamese in the region, suffered as well. But the various groups did not work together. The African-American leadership took umbrage at the media's characterization of Blacks who fled the Gulf region as "refugees," and distanced themselves from "foreigners." New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin later expressed fears that the city would be "taken over by Mexican workers" coming to the Gulf region for jobs in the rebuilding effort. …