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Immigrants’ voice reaches the Hill

As immigrant legislation was heard Monday on Capitol Hill, a grass-roots movement of immigrant churchgoers, union members, businessmen, media personalities and laborers was hoping to use the power of their numbers to move the debate.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

On Feb. 1, Arturo Hernandez went to his church on the east side of Los Angeles and watched the first PowerPoint presentation of his life. The illegal immigrant from a Mexican village on the Sea of Cortez learned about a bill that had passed the House that would turn him -- and the church that helps his family with child care, his employers in the tony Brentwood section of Los Angeles and the hospitals that treat his family -- into felons.

In subsequent weeks, Hernandez listened to public service announcements on L.A.'s Spanish-language radio stations in which disc jockeys and other celebrities said they wanted him and others like him to let the Senate, which is meeting this week to hammer out its own legislation, know what they think about the proposal. At the same time, his church, the hotel worker's union that represents his wife and the leadership of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles continued to tell him the legislation was, in the words of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony who spoke against the proposed law on March 1 -- Ash Wednesday -- a "blameful, vicious" bill.

On Saturday, Hernandez, his wife, Gloria, and their three children marched in the first protest of their lives -- along with more than 500,000 other demonstrators -- through downtown Los Angeles. "I have lived for 15 years in America," said the 34-year-old gardener. "All that time I have lived with my head down, you know. On Saturday, all these people were telling me to put my head up."

As the immigrant legislation was heard Monday on Capitol Hill, a grass-roots movement of immigrant churchgoers, union members, businessmen, media personalities and laborers was hoping to use the power of their numbers to move the debate. Some in the loosely knit coalition speak of the dawning of new civil rights movement, drawing parallels with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Chicano labor activist Cesar Chavez.

While opponents of illegal immigration have been organizing and even launching their own border patrols for some time, the immigrants themselves have been silent. But the turnout at rallies and demonstrations in recent weeks shows a deepening activism.

Almost three-quarters of a million people in more than 10 cities have marched against the proposed bill. On March 10, about 100,000 marched in Chicago. Crowds have also massed in Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Denver and Phoenix. And protests continued Monday when thousands of students skipped class in California, Texas and other states and demonstrators marched on a federal building in Detroit. Organizers said they were gearing up for a nationwide demonstration April 10.

The message of marchers was, "We are good people who want to contribute to this nation," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which helped organize the Los Angeles march. "More than anything people were saying, 'This is who we are. Most of the time we're invisible to society, but this is who we are. We're not criminals. We're families. We're mothers, we're fathers, we're workers.' "

In Los Angeles, a city that is 47 percent Hispanic, the march was a blunt reminder of Latino power in this city -- illegal or legal. Busboys, gardeners, maids, textile workers, delivery boys, taco truck operators, firefighters, politicians (including Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa), union chiefs and thousands more coursed down Broadway in the heart of L.A.'s downtown predominantly Hispanic shopping district.

Memories of Cesar Chavez
Churches have been at the center of the movement to fight efforts to criminalize aid to illegal immigrants. Mahony's message for Lent announced that archdiocesan priests and pastoral workers would defy the government and continue offering services to people in the country illegally if such efforts are outlawed. Similar statements came from the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez Jr., president of the National Hispanic Association of Evangelicals, which is usually associated with conservative causes.

Rodriguez called the recent marches the result of "the greatest mobilization since the days of Cesar Chavez."

"We have businessmen, Christians, non-Christians, Catholics and evangelicals," he said. "We engaged the number one institution in the Hispanic family -- the church. We contacted pastors in parishes, and we worked through local Spanish radio and television. We said, 'Look if we don't speak up now, it's going to be too late.' "

Rodriguez cautioned members of the Republican Party who back the tough House bill. "More and more Hispanics are voting, and more and more are voting conservatively," he said. "But if we are abandoned by the Republicans on this issue, it will nullify the possibility of a Republican winning national office."

In Los Angeles, radio personalities, who normally engage in cutthroat competition, worked together to inform people about the upcoming march, said David Haymore, vice president and general manager of Spanish Broadcasting System in Los Angeles, which runs two of the most popular Spanish-language radio stations in the city. Haymore said that eight days before the march the program directors and on-air personalities of the major Spanish-language stations here met and "agreed to leave egos at the door, not promote the stations" and make the case on the air for "people to show their unity by marching in downtown L.A."

‘This country is made by immigrants’
During the next seven days, stations aired conference calls that featured disc jockeys from competing stations discussing the immigration bills and the Senate's upcoming debate.

"The community needs to see us together so they can understand the message that united we are much more powerful," said the host of the city's most popular Spanish morning radio show, Renan Almendarez Coello, better known as "El Cucuy," a character out of a Mexican folktale. "We have to be united to demonstrate to the world that this country is made by immigrants."

Hispanic marchers have dominated the protests. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that that 78 percent of the 11 million illegal immigrants are from Mexico or other Latin American countries. However, other ethnic groups, including the Irish, have joined the debate. In Los Angeles, the campaigning by the Spanish-language media was mirrored by Radio Seoul, the 24-hour Korean-language station in the city, which aired similar spots exhorting this city's 1 million Koreans to take to the streets.

"We estimate about one in five Koreans in America is illegal," said Dae Joong Yoon, executive director of the Korean Resource Center in Los Angeles. "So we all have these people in our families. We know about their struggles. They are working hard."