Immigrants at crossroads
Stakes are high for legalization campaign
By Oscar Avila and Michael Martinez
Tribune staff reporters
Published May 1, 2006
Days before a massive immigrant rights rally in Grant Park, organizers of the snowballing social movement were racing to firm up plans: They had to consult with Chicago police brass on Monday’s route. They were unsure which congressmen would attend.
And they had one more order of business. “Come on!” a woman pleaded from the back of the Pilsen community center, where they had gathered. “We have one T-shirt left! Five dollars! One more, and we reach our goal!”
The objective Monday is more ambitious: a march of at least 300,000 people to the downtown park to voice support for legalizing the majority of the nation’s more than 11 million undocumented immigrants. The march will coincide with events from Phoenix to Pittsburgh, a follow-up to a massive March 10 rally in Chicago.
Two months ago, few could have predicted that the grassroots Chicago network, which literally passes the hat for donations at meetings, would place its stamp on national politics and have the state’s political VIPs jockeying for space on its dais.
Now organizers find themselves at a crossroads. After proving that they can create a “Kodak moment,” as one California activist put it, the largely Mexican-American leadership must try to become a durable, long-term movement with a constituency that reaches beyond Latinos and toward the large segment of Americans concerned about illegal immigration.
Planners must decide how to raise money and whether they should become more militant, organizers say. They also need to plot other forms of activism and determine if they need a unifying leader.
At stake is more than a moment in history. Advocates contend the birth of a movement is at hand, one that could span years and would address broader reforms: education, housing, a living wage, accountability on policing, and English-language training.
Pilsen resident Claudia Lucero, 32, represents the heart of the movement. After migrating from Mexico at 17, she is now vice president of Durango Unido, a group of immigrants from that Mexican state. She also has helped mobilize fellow students at the University of Illinois at Chicago via e-mails and text messages.
At the Pilsen meeting, Lucero looked around at the Mexican face of the movement, leaders unknown to most of Chicago. On a dais flanked by Mexican and U.S. flags, organizers gave final instructions in Spanish. “This is amazing,” she said, “but we need to grow this.”
Nearly everyone agrees that the catalyst for dozens of marches around the country was a bill passed in December by the U.S. House of Representatives. The measure would raise illegal immigration to felony status and extend a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, a barrier that many immigrants abhor.
In less than a month, Chicago activists put together the March 10 rally, which drew at least 100,000 participants downtown.
Unlike U.S. grassroots movements that rely on Internet blogs and chat rooms, the committee behind the Chicago marches relies on an existing network that had already influenced politics in Mexico.
Mexico’s three major political parties have outposts in Chicago that include experienced and passionate activists. The three parties had already worked together to register expatriate voters for Mexico’s presidential election in July. The Illinois branch of the Democratic Revolutionary Party has 5,000 names on its roster, members who are used to holding news conferences and keeping tabs on legislation.
Even more vital are the 275 immigrant associations in the Chicago area that represent Mexicans from a certain hometown or state. The hometown associations typically meet once a month and provided a ready-made way to disseminate information. While some have only a few dozen members, the largest groups number about 2,000.
Through these associations, the factory workers, roofers and waitresses who represent the Mexican grass roots have helped plan events, even modest ones such as banquets or picnics.
A way to reach suburbs
The associations also provide a way to reach the suburbs because immigrants cluster in certain communities. Newcomers from the Mexican town of Tepehuanes, for example, typically flock to Melrose Park.
With Spanish-language radio stations filling in the blanks for immigrants unconnected to clubs and the Internet, the movement has become a bona fide phenomenon among Latinos.
“It’s like a tree that begins bearing fruit,” said Jose Artemio Arreola, a key march organizer and executive with a federation of immigrants from the state of Michoacan. “In this case, it bore fruit like an explosion.”
March organizers say they are proud that they have mobilized so many without financial or organizational support from the Latino groups most well-known by the mainstream media and politicians, such as the National Council of La Raza and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).
In fact, organizers grew defensive when Washington-based groups suggested organizing follow-up events. They mocked the relatively low turnout at a LULAC event last month in Cicero.
“After bringing 300,000 people into the streets, we are not going to take orders from these `organizations,'” said Jorge Mujica, a journalist and march organizer. “Look how many people LULAC brought out? They looked ridiculous. That’s what the LULACs of the world mean to this movement.”
Like the 1960s civil-rights movement, immigrant organizers nationwide are increasingly at odds over how militant they should be.
Some California organizers pushed the idea of a one-day general strike for the Monday event while Illinois organizers said they would not back the tactic at this time. Most cities have adopted the more moderate Chicago position.
Armando Elenes, a United Farm Workers organizer in California’s Central Valley, said he thinks the late Cesar Chavez, founder of the UFW, would have backed the general strike. Elenes said he hopes the split doesn’t hurt the movement in the long-term.
“Different people are going to participate in their own way and as they see fit,” he said. “But the important thing is that they participate.”
Christian Ramirez, a San Diego community organizer, said he thinks part of the movement’s strength is that it has been so loose-knit, with strong voices scattered nationwide. Now comes the next step, he said.
“The only way we can capture the energy of this very interesting process is to provide a unifying factor and an organization that is willing to take the different groups together,” he said.
But who will that be?
“That is the question that everybody is asking,” Ramirez said. “I think there are different currents. There is a vacuum of leadership, and everyone recognized that.”
Some Latinos, meanwhile, fear being labeled with a political stance that doesn’t represent their beliefs. Last week, a group of Latinos that includes former government officials announced the formation of a group called “You Don’t Speak For Me.”
`Isn’t it appalling?’
“Isn’t it appalling to see people who are lawbreakers … demanding amnesty?” said Olga Robles, a group member and former councilwoman from Douglas, Ariz. “People think because the people are coming from Mexico, I have to look the other way. No. This is my country, and I have allegiance to my country and one flag, which is the American flag.”
Chicago march organizers admit they worry critics will view them as a Mexican movement. That’s why they are working to make their base more diverse by including the 50 percent of the area’s immigrants who don’t hail from Latin America.
The planning meetings in Pilsen have been almost entirely in Spanish. But in a creative and sophisticated adjustment, immigrants from Ireland, Cambodia and elsewhere can receive instant English translations through special headsets.
After sitting out the first march, dozens of Korean immigrants will bus in Monday from their senior center. The call has gone out through Polish newspapers and radios. The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago will provide buses from mosques and Islamic schools.
Still, Abdul Malik Mujahid, chairman of the Muslim council, which backs the call for legalization, said he does not yet feel it is his place to offer suggestions to march organizers.
“The Latinos are the leaders,” Mujahid said. “Our role is definitely supportive and secondary.”
With the movement so in flux, organizers say they are approaching Monday with a sense of exhilaration and anxiety. Unlike the aftermath of the first march, what happens Tuesday and beyond will shape their legacy, more so than bringing the masses out into the streets.
“We need to be very careful,” said Marcia Soto, a march organizer and president of CONFEMEX, a Chicago group. “For us, the challenge is that all of this doesn’t end with us saying, `Ah, remember those marches? Wasn’t that lovely?'”
Immigration rally schedule
10 a.m. — Two feeder marches will head toward Union Park, where a larger crowd will assemble to begin its march to Grant Park. The feeder marches will start at Milwaukee and Ashland Avenues on the North Side and Ashland Avenue and 19th Street on the South Side.
10:45 a.m. — At Union Park, scheduled speakers include U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and state Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago).
12 p.m. — Marchers will leave Union Park and head to Grant Park. Their route: east on Randolph Street to Haymarket Square, south on Desplaines Street, east on Jackson Boulevard, south on Columbus Drive, ending at Lower Hutchinson Field near Balbo Drive.
2 p.m. — Rally begins at Lower Hutchinson Field. Scheduled speakers include U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and state Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Chicago).
4 p.m. — Interfaith prayer service begins at Lower Hutchinson Field. Scheduled speakers include Cardinal Francis George.
4:30 p.m. — Rally scheduled to end.
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Immigration events planned in suburbs
4 p.m.: Immigrant Rights March
March will begin at Lords Park (corner of Franklin and Grand Boulevards) and ends at Old Elgin Library (270 N. Grove Ave.)
3 p.m.: Immigrant Rights March
March will begin at Sacred Heart Catholic Church (corner of Fulton and State Streets) and end at McCullough Park (adjacent to Prisco Center, corner of Lake Street and Illinois Avenue.)
9:30 a.m.: Rally for Immigrant Families
The rally will be held at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, 205 E. Jackson St.
3 p.m.: Rally for Immigrant Rights
The rally will be at Albright Field, 50th Street, Cermak Road.
Sources: March 10 Committee, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Cicero.