Smaller crowd of marchers aims for bigger role in politics

  • Protesters gather with a quilt made of the flags from many nations in Union Park before the start of an immigration march and protest today in Chicago.

    Protesters gather with a quilt made of the flags from many nations in Union Park before the start of an immigration march and protest today in Chicago. Associated Press

Published: 5/1/200 12:08 AM | Updated: 5/1/200 1:39 PM

The crowd of marchers that stepped off before noon in Chicago today to draw attention to immigrant rights was significantly smaller than the hundreds of thousands who thronged the city two years ago, but organizers and marchers said their energy is more focused.

Bearing messages that focused primarily on issues of solidarity and human justice, from 5,000 to 10,000 demonstrators took to the streets, most of them representing various immigrant groups, labor organizations, churches and large numbers of Latinos.

Activists said they've already proven they can mobilize. Now, they aim to show their new political muscle.

Throughout the area of Washington Boulevard and Ashland Avenue, where the march began, demonstrators carried signs that urged better health care, economic justice and an end to immigration raids, while organizers passed out voter registration information, fliers on citizenship seminars and other materials aimed at increasing the marchers' political influence..

"It we don't make our voice heard to the electorate, then there's no point," said Ricardo Serrano, outreach coordinator of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights for the Northwest suburbs, prior to the march. "We're trying to move away from, 'just come and march and this is the one thing you do this year for immigration reform.' "

Marcher Cindy Brito, of Addison, a senior at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said she, too, wanted action that would last beyond one day.

"My main reason for being here here is to expose students to the political process," she said. "Students who come and march, they stay political."

Hoisting a gigantic sign that said "Stop the Raids and Deportations," Jorge Guzman acknowledged that the two buses that brought him and others from Waukegan to the demonstration this year was a far cry from the 12 needed last year. But he said, he remains committed to the cause.

"Some people were too afraid to come, but we're still here letting people know that we're still fighting." Guzman said.

Serrano said members of his group will be on hand today to register eligible voters and to help eligible residents move toward citizenship. Immigration advocates, unions, churches, anti-war demonstrators and other activists have planned a march that will step off at Washington Boulevard and Ashland Avenue in Chicago and end at Federal Plaza.

The march marks the two-year anniversary of the 2006 May 1 demonstration. The rally placed a giant spotlight on the issue of immigration reform, as throngs of immigrants and advocates across the country -- including an estimated 400,000 in Chicago alone -- took to the streets to protest pending legislation that would have made it a felony for immigrants to come to the United States illegally.

"Those marches back in spring 2006 took everybody by surprise, and one of the reasons it took them by surprise is because even in the academic world, there was little attention paid to immigrant political behavior," said Sergio Wals, a doctoral candidate at University of Illinois concentrating on the political participation of Latino immigrants.

In 2007, the 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.

This year, with immigration reform stalled, the economy flagging and the element of surprise gone, organizers are fighting an uphill battle to duplicate the splash made in 2006 -- or even 2007.

"I think the march (today) will be even smaller than last time because immigration is not a front-page story anymore," said University of Illinois Chicago economics Professor Barry Chiswick, an expert in immigration reform. "The front-page story is that immigration is not a front-page story anymore."

Immigration reform won't advance until a new president or congress is seated -- and perhaps not even then, Chiswick said.

"Who knows if that's going to be a topic high on their agenda?" Chiswick said. "The pressing issues the new administration is going to have to confront are the economy writ large, the housing and mortgage crisis, health care -- and those are just the domestic issues."

Immigrant advocates say the candidates' silence on the issue of immigration makes this year's march more important than ever.

"We have to put pressure on the politicians," said Jorge Mujica, a key organizer of this year's march and the original 2006 May Day march. "If everyone starts talking about immigration again after May Day, that's a success for us."

But Mujica emphasized that raising awareness isn't enough.

"This is about getting really strong and sending out messages and demands," Mujica said. "We might not vote Democratic this year if people don't get together and respond to us. We have to do more than just march and give political capital to one group."

To achieve those ends, organizers must overcome the impression among some activists that the marches haven't led to any real gains.

"I've heard different comments over the years, 'What good is it to march?" said Rita Gonzalez, an Addison resident running for the DuPage County Board and a member of Immigrant Solidarity DuPage. "But we need to show that unity and power comes in numbers."

Other immigrants worry -- and opponents of illegal immigration confirm -- that the marches fortify the opposition.

"The rallies lend support to our cause," said Rick Biesda, director of the Chicago Minuteman Project. "We started getting more membership after that first march. Nobody really paid attention to the problem until they came out in force. Large numbers like that were really intimidating."

Wals, of University of Illinois, acknowledged that the danger of these types of marches is political polarization. But, he added, the polarization is rooted in misunderstanding.

"In Latin America, as opposed to the U.S., taking to the streets in peaceful demonstration is a far more widespread practice," he said.

Politicians should view these rallies as an opportunity to integrate the marchers into the political fabric of America, he said.

Northwestern University sociology professor Maryjane Osa, whose expertise is in social movements, called this year a "big window of opportunity" for marchers.

"There's going to be a new administration next year, so there are a lot of reasons they want to be organizing an impressive turnout this year," she said.

• Daily Herald news services contributed to this report.