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Immigration activists ponder how to maintain the momentum

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

For activist Angelica Salas, the “Great March of March 25″ was a defining moment in the nation’s long struggle for immigrant rights. Never before have so many immigrants and their supporters so powerfully projected their voices and pressed their demands in the public square, she said.”What we’re doing is building a movement that will transform America,” said Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.But Armando Navarro, a longtime Latino activist and University of California, Riverside ethnic studies department chair, is less optimistic. Despite the enormous energy rallied in 1994 against California Proposition 187, which cut benefits to illegal immigrants but later was overturned by the courts, activists failed to stop subsequent state initiatives against bilingual education and affirmative action.”At this point, it’s a transitory phenomenon,” Navarro said. “If this administration passes a semblance of immigration reform, most of the fervor will dissipate very quickly, because people will go back to watching their novellas on TV and playing soccer on weekends.”As march organizers scramble to maintain their momentum with new actions, a pressing question is how to make March 25 a transformational moment rather than a transitory one. Even if Congress passes immigration reform legislation, they say, battles remain against what they see as militarization of the border, unjust detention procedures and other civil-rights concerns.Which way the forces will tip, some historians say, is simply too soon to tell.”As exciting and compelling as it all is, it may mark the high-water mark of early 21st century immigrant activism – or it may be the start of something new,” said William Deverell, director of the Huntington-University of Southern California Institute on California and the West. “I just don’t think we know.”Immigrant advocates vow to avoid the mistakes of the past and build their forces into a lasting civil-rights movement. But they face myriad challenges.Their unlikely coalition of immigrants, civil-rights advocates, labor, religious and business groups showed cracks last week when John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, blasted the Senate Judiciary Committee’s proposed guest worker program. The proposal would offer visas to at least 400,000 foreign workers a year.”Guest worker programs are a bad idea and harm all workers,” Sweeney said in a statement, which supported proposals to give undocumented workers already here a path to citizenship. “They cast workers into a perennial second-class status, and … encourage employers to turn good jobs into temporary jobs at reduced wages and diminished working conditions.”The coalition must also ease tensions between people who support student protesters and those alarmed that continued walkouts could jeopardize grades and exacerbate high Latino dropout rates. In recent days, an estimated 40,000 students throughout Southern California have walked out of classes.Some activists fear that media images of students snarling traffic, tussling with police and brandishing the Mexican flag could set back some of the political gains of March 25 and project an image of a movement sliding into chaos.To build a lasting movement, many activists also say they need to broaden their base beyond Latinos and more actively reach out to blacks, whites and Asians. Just as the 1960s civil-rights movement started with blacks and then brought in multicultural supporters, the immigrant rights effort needs similar outreach, many say.One lasting gain from the Prop. 187 battle, Salas and others said, was record numbers of Latinos registering to vote – and helping Democrats regain political control of the state.Angela Sanbrano of the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles said her group has begun planning a get-out-the-vote drive in 20 voting precincts heavily populated with immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and other Central American countries.Navarro, of UC Riverside, said the loosely allied individuals and groups also needed better organization, leadership and an overarching vision to harness the energy of March 25 into a drive for lasting gains in wages, working conditions and education for the nation’s most vulnerable – both immigrants and the native-born.”We understand that marching is not a solution, but that we need to organize in a strategic way,” said Hilda Delgado of Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union, one of 125 local and national organizations that recently banded together to fight for immigration reform. Many activists are optimistic that they can succeed. Recalling the words of a fellow March 25 marcher, Sanbrano said:”This is like a river. No one can stop it.”


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