'Latino Giant' Awakens; Demonstrations Gaining Strength

By Juan Gonzalez, New York Daily News
March 28, 2006
Massive protests by Latino immigrants have rocked more than a dozen major U.S. cities during the past few weeks in opposition to tough new immigration bills before Congress.

Not since the civil rights movement of the 1960s have street demonstrations spread so rapidly to so many cities - and never have Latinos turned out in such astonishing numbers.

"The sleeping Latino giant has finally awakened," said Assemblyman Felix Ortiz (D-Brooklyn), who participated in several of the protests last week.

And New York City, which has been fairly quiet so far, could be next with Latino religious and immigrant leaders planning a protest march over the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday.

The largest rally until now has been in Los Angeles, where the new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, spoke Saturday to a crowd estimated by police at more than a half-million Latinos.

Organizers claimed the L.A. turnout was closer to 1 million, but no matter whom you believe, everyone agrees it was the largest demonstration California has ever seen.

That same day, more than 50,000 Latinos gathered in Denver; 20,000 marched in Phoenix and Milwaukee last week, and an estimated 100,000 filled downtown Chicago on March 10.

The protests continued yesterday, as large gatherings were held in Washington, Boston and Detroit. Thousands of high school students also staged walkouts in California and Texas.

The mushrooming movement has been fueled by a little-noticed alliance among immigrant advocates, the Catholic and Pentecostal churches, and Spanish-language radio and television.

Latino leaders are furious at the Draconian immigration reform bill that passed the Republican-controlled House in December. That bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Pete King (R-L.I.), would subject all illegal immigrants in the country to prosecution for a felony crime and to immediate deportation, and would permanently bar them from gaining legal status.

The bill would even make it a felony for family members, churches or nonprofit agencies to "assist" such an immigrant in any way.

There are so many punitive measures hidden in the Sensenbrenner-King bill, immigrant groups say, that it would spell devastation to an estimated 11 million low-wage, undocumented workers in the country, the largest number of whom are Hispanic. Under the bill's provision, for example, some 3 million U.S.-born citizen children of those immigrants could face separation from their parents.

The real battle, however, will come in the Senate, which is set to begin debate this week on its own version of immigration reform. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has vowed to produce a compromise that includes a guest worker provision heavily favored by President Bush and corporate America.

But the Republicans are deeply split on immigration.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is threatening to introduce his own version of the House bill if Specter gives up too much.

Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are pressing a version that has the most support from immigrant groups and labor unions. It would include the guest worker program and a way for those who are already in the country illegally to achieve legal status.

"People in our neighborhood are outraged by the tenor of the debate in Washington," said Bryan Pu-Folkes, executive director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment in Jackson Heights, Queens.

State Sen. Ruben Diaz (D-Bronx), who's also a Pentecostal minister, has organized religious groups from around the metropolitan area for the Saturday march that will end at the Federal Building in lower Manhattan.

"We have to send a message to Peter King and those who want to criminalize hardworking immigrants," Diaz said yesterday.

As for our city's top leader, Mayor Bloomberg, he declined to say which of the competing bills in Congress he supports, even though the final legislation will have a major impact on the city's estimated 500,000 undocumented workers.

The mayor promised yesterday to make his stand clear over the next few weeks. Maybe Saturday's march will help him clarify his position.