New York’s much-touted gorgeous mosaic finally took to the streets Monday. Galvanized by the immigration and border-control measures proposed in Congress, tens of thousands of legal and illegal immigrants converged on City Hall in lower Manhattan, swamping a half-mile stretch of Broadway from Park Place to Canal Street.
Organizers estimated the crowds at 125,000, more than twice the number of demonstrators who marched over Brooklyn Bridge on April 1 to rally for immigrant rights.
While that march drew mostly Latinos, Monday’s protest was striking in its diversity. The streets downtown were a United Nations of Central and South Americans, Caribbeans, Filipinos, Koreas, Somalians, Senegalese, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and a smattering of Europeans–all rallying to the cry for “legalization not criminalization!”
Many carried flags from their native countries twinned with American flags, and signs like “We are American!” and “Immigrant values are family values.”
Though the numbers in New York did not match the 500,000 who swamped downtown Dallas on Sunday, let alone the million that organizers say rallied in Los Angeles on March 25, what was significant about the New York demo was the range of immigrant groups on the streets.
Some have wondered why New York was slow to join in. Elsewhere, huge protests broke out on March 25 over a House bill to build a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border and to impose felony penalties on undocumented workers and anyone who knowingly aids them. Anger over that bill, H.R. 4437, has sparked continued walkouts in high schools across California and work stoppages in Georgia. (In Ontario, California, an eighth-grader shot himself after his principal reportedly told him he could go to jail for his role in organizing protests at his school.)
Many in New York said they were afraid to protest, especially after 9-11. Some Muslim and South Asian immigrants traveled to permitted rallying points at the Brooklyn Bridge and Washington Square Park in small groups for fear of being targeted en route. “There is a lot of harassment and law enforcement in our neighborhoods,” says Bobby Khan, a Pakistani organizer with the Coney Island Avenue Project. “It has increased again since the London bombings. There’s a lot of intimidation–the community is scared. But people see now that that this is the time to rise.”
Organizers here also say New York’s very diversity, along with its legacy as a haven for immigrants, made it tougher to bring out the troops. “Los Angeles has a much more homogenous base of immigrants than New York,” notes Aarti Shahani of Families for Freedom, a Brooklyn-based group that formed to fight the deportation of immigrants after 9-11.
By contrast many immigrants here are legal, so they are not directly affected by measures seeking to either oust undocumented workers or round them up into “guest-worker” programs. Nor has the backlash against immigrants reached anything near the pitch it has in Georgia, where a proposed state law would deny state services to adults living in the U.S. illegally and impose a 5 percent surcharge on wire transfers from illegal immigrants.
But immigrant rights activists argue that the so-called compromise bill scrapped in the Senate last Friday would have diminished all American’s civil rights. Among its provisions were measures that would expand the grounds for deportation of both Green Card holders and undocumented people; legalize the indefinite detentions; authorize New York City police to enforce federal immigration laws; and allow Department of Homeland Security agents to expel suspected foreigners without hearings.
It also would have set up a national database to check the names and Social Security numbers of all employees–citizens and noncitizen alike.
At Monday’s rally, speakers hammered at the theme that an attack on “illegals” is a threat to the founding principles of American democracy. “America has always had an open door to all people from around the world,” said city comptroller Bill Thompson, the son of Caribbeans. “And now they’re trying to close the door. We have to stand together–immigrants and the descendents of immigrants.
“New York is a better city because of you,” he told the crowd.
Later, Roger Toussaint, head of the Transit Workers Union, showed up fresh from State Supreme Court, where a judge slapped him with a fine and a jail sentence of 10 days for his role in the December transit strike. He railed at the inequities of free trade and American military interventions abroad. “We are a government that creates immigrants by the millions and then oppresses them,” said Toussaint, who hails from Trinidad. “If you have tyranny and oppression abroad, no wall is going to stop them from coming. It will just make it easier to abuse and oppress them.”
Buoyed by the turnouts in New York and elsewhere, and the growing support of unions and church groups, activists are now framing the immigrant cause as the new Civil Rights movement.
Activists say they aren’t waiting for politicians to come to the table. There’s a grassroots call for a nationwide May 1 strike of work stoppages, boycotts, and school walkouts across the country.
“I think the only way we’re going to get amnesty is if we show them they need us,” says Patricio Gaete, a limo driver from Chile, who says he still lacks papers even after 17 years of working in the U.S. “We are the base of the economy. We cook for them, drive them to work, take care of their kids, do their laundry. The only way it’s going to change is if we hit them in their pockets.”