Pro-immigrant groups across the country are preparing to stage a series of marches May 1, pressing the White House and the Homeland Security Department to halt immigration raids and move forward on comprehensive immigration reform.
"Change is in the air," Juan Jose Gutierrez, director of the Los Angeles-based Latino Movement USA, promises.
This year marks the third grass-roots-organized May Day event with two unique factors:
— The marches are being guided by a national coordinating committee — The First Parliament of Mexican Migrant Leaders Living in the U.S.A.
— This is the first time that the marches will be held during a presidential election year.
Pro-immigrant groups from throughout the United States met in Mexico City in November to form the First Parliament of Mexican Migrant Leaders Living in the U.S.A. Attracting minimal press attention, they formed the first national coordinating committee for the May Day marches. The initiating body consists of 46 members representing 23 states.
"The idea is that every single state and territory in the Union where we have Latinos living and working should have representation," says Gutierrez.
National political analysts have been in open agreement for months that the outcome of the 2008 presidential election will depend heavily on the Latino and immigrant vote.
Where the experts part ways is in assessing the impact national demonstrations will have on other voters. Even among Latinos, opinions range widely.
National Council of La Raza President Janet Murguia handles the subject with cautious concern.
"Marches visually demonstrate to each of us that we are not alone, but this year there is only one march that will truly empower our community and demonstrate our clout. Our next march must be to the voting booth this November."
Elena Rios, president of the National Hispanic Medical Association, counters, "If the marches are anything like they have been in the last few years, where more of our community are showing their pride and commitment to their fellow Latinos, whether they’re documented or not, I think it’s fantastic. I hope it gets media attention — and more than just Univision and Telemundo. I hope we get on CNN and mainstream English media talking about the importance of the Latino vote in this election year. It will have an impact."
Former Chicago Sun-Times columnist Esther Cepeda has doubts: "The marches have become unproductive. They cause a yawn among news editors and reporters and create a backlash from anti-Hispanic forces. I don’t think the mass demonstrations get people who otherwise aren’t energized about the upcoming presidential elections to go out and get registered to vote. Is there even enough time left? There certainly isn’t to get citizenship."
Gutierrez bristles at those who insist that immigration reform can’t happen in an election year.
"They say everyone should wait until sometime after the November elections. I disagree. Nothing can hurt the pro-immigration-rights movement more than doing nothing."
He offers as evidence: "Never before have the candidates had to deal with the issue of immigration in a very direct way."
Jose Garza of Dallas, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens’ National Housing Commission, notes, "We need to take whatever action is necessary to get this Congress, the future Congress and the future president to really deal with the issues of the immigrant worker. What we are asking for is fairness and equity. When it’s time to mobilize, we can do it correctly."
The turnout of marchers has decreased nationally since 2.5 million participated in 2006.
Gutierrez blames "the lack of nerve on the part of significant members of the Spanish-speaking media who have helped persuade the community not to continue to participate in the mobilization."
But, he contends, "that slogan, ‘Hoy marchamos, manana votamos’ — ‘Today we march, tomorrow we vote’ — has crystallized the movement. People are beginning to feel their power, both when we take to the streets and when we go to the ballot box."
— Emily C. Ruiz is a reporter with Hispanic Link News Service in Washington.