As I waited in the bus for the rest of our riders to come trickling in, two middle-aged, men, Ricardo and José, slowly walked in, clearly fatigued after the pre-march rally, immigrant rights march, four-hour rally and long hike to the stadium where hundreds of buses were parked. As they stumbled in José asked “and now what do we tell Obama”? “Nothing more for now”, responded an exhausted Ricardo as he plopped on his bus seat. “We have already spoken with our bodies”.
Four years ago when I started researching the immigrant rights movement in Chicago, a march of this magnitude in DC was barely imaginable. I was one of a group of scholars at the University of Illinois at Chicago who were closely studying the megamarches in Chicago while observing from afar the multitude of marches in cities large and small throughout the country. Spurred by by a loose coalition of organizations, churches, religious groups and unions in light of the collective fear of a bill that would have criminalized immigrants and those who supported them, the megamarches were a sign of Latino political potential, albeit ones that relied primarily on the strengths of each home base. The kind of national organization and coordination of grassroots efforts that a megamarch on DC would have required still seemed quite distant. Moreover, after an immigration reform bill introduced in the Senate failed in the summer of 2007, some feared that perhaps the Latino muscle shown would be hard to revive. The marches continued, but dwindled significantly in numbers in 2008 and 2009.
However, interpreting this decline in the number of marchers as a decline of the immigrant rights movement would be a serious mistake. Post-2006 activism and advocacy continued in many forms. Throughout the country new community organizations proliferated in many major cities but also were created for the first time in small cities, suburbs and villages that had great immigrant demographic growth but low preexisting levels of organization. For example, last year, in the Chicago metro area, PASO, the West Suburban Action project, was founded, bringing together two large churches and several suburbs to organize for immigrant rights among other issues. Barely four months ago, a group of undocumented youth created the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) , born out of an arduous and ultimately successful campaign to prevent the deportation of a local college student. Eleven days before the DC march, the IYJL staged its first major action, a march and rally. Stating that they were undocumented and unafraid, eight undocumented youth publicly came out of the shadows, telling their painful stories of what it means to grow up undocumented in the US, emphasizing their need to speak for themselves about their lack of freedom and opportunity in the only country they consider their home.
Meanwhile, older organizations continued their steady work. Centro Sin Fronteras continued to focus on the family separation issue, working closely with other organizations, churches and politicians to support the national Familias Unidas Campaign, in which famiiles spoke of the pain of their separations to thousands of members of religious congregations in twenty cities. Umbrella organizations, such as the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights,(ICIRR) launched immigration reform advocacy campaigns for immigration directed at state-level and national politicians, supported legal and political work to protect people facing deportation as well as detained immigrants, and played a key role in the coordination of the national campaign for reform. Churches and religious groups and coalitions continued and strengthened their support, and Evangelical advocacy for immigrant rights was solidified in the National Evangelical Association’s resolution in support of immigration reform in October of last year. Churches of different denominations have used humanitarian and faith-based reasons to support their position, emphasizing the biblical passages that stress the importance of welcoming the stranger.
All this organizing work, old and new, has not only led to a growing awareness of the issue, but to the increasing commitment of a wider pool of supporters, and to the channeling of fear and frustration into a shared goal of legalization. It has propelled not only the increased participation of the undocumented and their families, but of many legal immigrants, native born descendants of immigrants and citizens who express their solidarity by relying on a broad range of rationales including faith-based, workers rights, human rights and civil rights claims.
This was the case with many of the riders in my bus, organized by a Catholic church with a primarily Latino parish. While there were a few undocumented riders, several of the people I interviewed were legal immigrants over 55 that had migrated more than 3 decades ago. One Mexican rider told me she got on the bus because she had been provided with an opportunity when she migrated and that she had to help create opportunities for those who came later. My Guatemalan bus seat neighbor told me she was riding because she felt that she to do something to help end all the suffering. While many of the older riders were quite late in returning to the bus and barely able to catch their breath, they were exhilarated. Once couple stated that this was the most wonderful, unimaginable experience they had ever lived.
The reality of this heterogeneous support shows how some news stories that report tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants marching simply don’t get it right. It was not the case in Chicago in 2006, when a survey conducted by our UIC group found that more than 60% of the marchers were citizens, and it did not appear to be the case in Sunday’s march in DC, which hosted a very diverse crowd. In fact, a great part of the movement’s effectiveness lies in its ability to cross boundaries, joining undocumented and legal residents, immigrants and native born, young and old Latinos of different national and class origins, Latinos, Asians, Africans, Asian Americans, African Americans and whites.
As I witnessed the rally of close to 200,000 people carrying flags and signs amidst a backdrop of dances, drums, pop music and mariachis, I encountered many familiar faces , including members of PASO and IYJL, each of them four buses strong. I also saw activists from Centro Sin Fronteras, ICIRR, unions, workers coalitions and inter-faith organizations. But I also ran into many other groups that I do not know that are based in other states, including several groups of youth carrying Dream Act signs and families with children denouncing family separation. They are Chicago’s mirror organizations from California, New York, Georgia, Texas and several other states. While I had always made the intellectual argument that Chicago was not unique, it was only in that moment when I fully understood that Chicago is but one vivid example of an organizing process that is happening everywhere in the country, a process that had made this previously unimaginable and now undeniable march on Washington possible.
It is no longer possible to deny or ignore the popular power of a people who marched massively once again, four years after the Spring 2006 marches, not to stop a bill out of fear, but to help create one. However, this time the march was not the result of a loose coalition, but of consistent and concerted organizing efforts that ranged from the work of the grassroots, as community members held dances and other fundraisers to send as many people as possible to the march, to those of the “grasstops,” as policy advocates use the political capital of the march to engage in advocacy efforts designed to pressure congressional representatives to support comprehensive immigration reform. Gone are the days when activists debated whether to march or lobby for reform. Now, the plan is to engage in both, as complimentarily and effectively as possible.
I believed Ricardo when he said that at that moment they had said it all with their bodies. But I also left the bus with the certainty that he will fundraise, strategize, plan, march and get on the bus again if necessary. And with the knowledge that behind every Ricardo that gets on the bus, there are dozens who may not be able to go, but will help raise funds to get him there. Like the riders in my bus, the movement is mature, but not exhausted. It is experienced, tireless and determined. There is a clear understanding not only of the goal but of the gigantic, yet not insurmountable struggle that lies ahead, as a potential bill could enter a polarized partisan environment too soon after a bitter battle over health care reform and too close to mid-term elections. Nevertheless, even as their limbs are still recovering, hundreds of thousands of people will continue to clamor for immigration reform with their bodies, their minds and their hearts. The stakes are too high now to look back. Like the youth who are coming out of the shadows, immigrant rights advocates are also unafraid. And they have no plans of giving up.
~ Amalia Pallares, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Political Science and Latino American and Latin Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is co-editor (with Nilda Flores-Gonzalez) of the book “Marcha: Latino Chicago and the Immigrant Rights Movement” (forthcoming, May 2010).