CHICAGO – Immigration activists and civil rights leaders are gearing up for rallies and marches in cities across the nation, hoping to revive the stagnant immigration debate in time for the presidential election.
Activists predict turnout for the more than 200 events planned Thursday from Seattle to Miami will be far less than in years past. But they say efforts demanding comprehensive immigration legislation — including pathways to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S. — have extended beyond the streets.
"While the breadth of activities will be significant, most eyes are turned toward the November election," said Rich Stolz, a coordinator with Fair Immigration Reform Movement, which oversees activist groups across the country. "We've been calling on the candidates to prioritize immigration."
The scope of the pro-immigrant rights movement has seen significant change in just two years time.
More than 1 million people nationwide marched in the name of immigrant rights in 2006. Fueled by a blitz of coverage in churches and Spanish language media, many united to fight a bill that proposed making it a felony for all illegal immigrants to live in the United States.
With no single piece of legislation to rally around in 2007, numbers shrank and the message branched off. Marchers demanded an end to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, respect for the undocumented and worker unity, among other things. Efforts in Los Angeles quickly went sour when police cleared MacArthur Park by whacking protesters and journalists with batons and firing "non-lethal" projectiles.
Organizers say this year's efforts are focused less on protests and more on voter registration and setting an agenda for the next president. At least two major national organizations that traditionally have rallied large numbers of immigrants on May 1, National Council of La Raza and Service Employees International Union, have purposely put less energy into the marches.
"In 2006 we said: 'Today we march. Tomorrow we vote.' This is tomorrow," said Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the SEIU. "Mass mobilizations ensure that people go to the polls. There's this whole culture of participation that's been created in the community."
Still, activists acknowledge an uphill battle.
Immigration reform hasn't resonated with voters in primary elections who overwhelmingly list the economy as their top concern. Immigration legislation has stalled and been defeated in the Senate. Presidential candidates have not extensively addressed the contentious issue.
"Folks are staying away from the immigration debate, it's a touchy subject," said Luis Gutierrez, executive director of Chicago-based Latinos Progresando. "Some don't want to talk about it, unless it's 'build a fence."
Democratic presidential rivals Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton supported a 2006 bill, sponsored by Republican candidate John McCain, that offered illegal immigrants legal status on conditions such as learning English. All three also have supported a border fence.
Community leaders say fear of raids and mistrust of authorities also might lead to lower turnouts Thursday.
"With all these raids that are going on, what are we supposed to do? Write President Bush and just say these things shouldn't happen?" said Juan Jose Gutierrez, president of Los Angeles-based Latino Movement USA. "It's important to allow people to blow off steam, to get back their hope. People have been in a state of intimidation and fear."
Activists point to massive voter registration drives of new immigrants and a newly inspired generation of young immigrant activists as small successes.
In Miami, marchers will demonstrate through the city's Little Haiti neighborhood to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services headquarters.
Immigrant advocates in Seattle expect between 5,000 and 8,000 people to turn out for a rally and are encouraging Latinos to boycott purchasing major items.
Rallies are also planned in Los Angeles and Houston, among other cities.
In Chicago, up to 50,000 are expected at a downtown march and rally. Organizers say they have extended their message to include unity among different races and, for the first time, gay rights activists. Representatives from the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr.'s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and the Nation of Islam are expected to attend events Thursday.
"In the past, most of the marches you've seen mostly Latino, mostly immigrant or descendants of immigrants," said Emma Lozano, head of the Chicago-based Centro Sin Fronteras. "We want to make an effort (at unity). We need to come together."