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Activists Hope to Harness Tide of Protest

Immigrant advocates aim to build on L.A.'s `Great March' with a Costa Mesa rally today. But creating a lasting movement won't be easy.

April 01, 2006|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

For activist Angelica Salas, the "Great March of March 25" was a defining moment in the nation's long struggle for immigrant rights. Never before had so many immigrants and their supporters so powerfully projected their voices and pressed their demands in the public square, she said.

"What we're doing is building a movement that will transform America," said Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

But Armando Navarro, a longtime Latino activist and chairman of the UC Riverside ethnic studies department, is less optimistic.

Despite the enormous energy rallied in 1994 against Proposition 187, which would have cut benefits to illegal immigrants but was later overturned by the courts, activists failed to stop subsequent state initiatives against bilingual education and affirmative action.

"At this point, it's a transitory phenomenon," Navarro said. "If this administration passes a semblance of immigration reform, most of the fervor will dissipate very quickly, because people will go back to watching their novelas on TV and playing soccer on weekends."

As march organizers scramble to maintain their momentum with new actions, a pressing question is how to make March 25 a transformational moment rather than a transitory one. Even if Congress passes immigration reform legislation, they say, battles remain against what they see as militarization of the border, unjust detention procedures and other civil rights concerns.

Which way the forces will tip is, according to some historians, simply not knowable yet.

"As exciting and compelling as it all is, it may mark the high-water mark of early 21st century immigrant activism -- or it may be the start of something new," said William Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. "I just don't think we know."

One test of the movement's staying power may come today, when organizers plan to rally in Costa Mesa. Protesters oppose policies of Costa Mesa and the Orange County Sheriff's Department to cooperate with federal authorities in arresting and deporting illegal immigrants.

Immigrant advocates vow to avoid the mistakes of the past and build their forces into a lasting civil rights movement. But they face myriad challenges.

Already, their unlikely coalition of immigrants, civil rights advocates and labor, religious and business groups showed cracks this week when John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, denounced the Senate Judiciary Committee's proposed guest worker program. The proposal would offer visas to at least 400,000 foreign workers a year.

"Guest workers programs are a bad idea and harm all workers," Sweeney said in a statement that supported proposals to give undocumented workers already here a path to citizenship.

"They cast workers into a perennial second-class status and ... encourage employers to turn good jobs into temporary jobs at reduced wages and diminished working conditions," he said.

The coalition must also ease tensions between those who support student protesters and those alarmed that continued walkouts could jeopardize grades and exacerbate high Latino dropout rates. In recent days, an estimated 40,000 students throughout Southern California have walked out of classes.

Some activists fear that media images of students snarling traffic, tussling with police and waving the Mexican flag could set back some of the political gains of March 25 and project an image of a movement sliding into chaos.

The tensions were apparent this week at a meeting of about 100 march supporters in Riverside. When one adult activist proposed that all students march on one day only, another sharply reprimanded him for trying to control and contain them.

"Do not dictate to them when they walk out," said Maria Anna Gonzales of the National Alliance for Human Rights.

And when some parents urged others to show up at the next student walkout, Moreno Valley resident Rudy Gonzalez told the crowd he had advised his own teenage son to stay in school.

"We're really concerned about the education of Latino children," Gonzalez said. "If they don't make it in school, they won't have good jobs. I'm all for walkouts, but why not do them on weekends?"

To build a lasting movement, many activists also say they need to broaden their base beyond Latinos and more actively reach out to blacks, whites and Asians. Just as the 1960s civil rights movement started with blacks and then brought in multicultural supporters, the immigrant rights effort needs similar outreach, many say.

A smattering of other ethnic organizations supported the March 25 march, including Korean and South Asian groups whose communities are still predominantly made up of immigrants and their offspring. But Latino activists say much more needs to be done.

Salas of the immigrant rights coalition said the next major Los Angeles action would explicitly focus on a multicultural message.

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