Marches just first step, say planners

LOS ANGELES – They’ve rallied, they’ve marched, they’ve boycotted. So now what?

In the aftermath of “A Day Without Immigrants,” the urgent question immigrants and their supporters face is how to translate the passion of the streets into lasting political gains.

“We need to take this critical mass and organize it. Marching is not enough,” said Armando Navarro, coordinator of a Southern California umbrella organization that helped plan Monday’s march and boycott. “We need to harness this power.”

In coming months, immigrant rights supporters say, they will shift their energy into making a difference at the polls through registering voters, helping legal immigrants become citizens and getting out the vote in June primary elections around the nation.

“This is only the beginning,” said Hilda Delgado of Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union in Los Angeles. “Now we have to reroute all of the energy and momentum and start registering to vote to send a clear message (for immigration reform) to the Senate and House in Washington.”

Organizers have their work cut out for them. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, only 39 percent of the nation’s 41 million Hispanics are eligible to vote – compared with 76 percent for whites and 65 percent for blacks. And fewer than half of the 16 million eligible Hispanic voters actually voted in the 2004 general election.

Pew center director Roberto Suro said Hispanics must now convince the broader public that legislation expanding guest worker programs and offering undocumented immigrants a chance to become citizens would be good for the nation.

That message, however, will be fought by immigration control advocates, who say the past two months of marches and rallies have drawn new recruits to their cause of cracking down on illegal immigration.

Since the March 25 Los Angeles march startled the nation by drawing 500,000 people into the streets, the Phoenix-based Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, which monitors the nation’s borders, has seen significantly increases in volunteers, fundraising and Web site traffic, spokeswoman Connie Hair said.

She said 400 new volunteers joined the group in the first week after the L.A. march, compared with a normal weekly flow of about 135. An Internet appeal for support to begin building fences on private land along the U.S.-Mexico border raised $150,000 in a week. The group’s Web traffic has quadrupled to 36,000 hits per day, she said.

“(The marches) have focused the American people’s attention on people marching in the streets and waving Mexican flags … who may not be grateful for the taxpayer-subsidized benefits they’re getting and who are jumping in line ahead of those who are doing it legally,” Hair said. “There is a quiet rage building.”

Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, director of immigration studies at New York University, said he believes any consolidation of local groups won’t happen until leaders see what comes out of Congress.

A bill that passed the House would make illegal immigrants vulnerable to felony charges, while a Senate bill would allow immigrants who have been in the U.S. longer than five years to apply for citizenship. The Senate may resume debate on an immigration bill as early as next week.

“Clearly the ball now is in the court of the political class,” Suarez-Orozco said. “But in the long run, the elephant in the room is how (the marches) will be translated into political muscle.”

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