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THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE

Activists Nationwide Planned Rallies

Groups decided that Monday's events were the next step after successful local protests.

April 11, 2006|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

After staging a series of rallies in cities across the country last month, activists pushing for immigrant rights knew they could organize locally.

But they believed that a bigger, bolder effort was needed to push Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

So on March 16 and 17, hundreds of immigrant-rights activists meeting in Chicago decided to hold Monday's "National Day of Action," said one participant, Angelica Salas of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

"It became clear that we've been very effective about sending out messages at the local level, but we realized the next thing we had to do was ramp up pressure nationally," said Kim Propeack, of the Washington-based National Capitol Immigration Coalition.

Planning for Monday was underway well before the massive March 25 rally in Los Angeles.

The idea was to produce a massive show of support for legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants, expanding guest worker programs and reducing waiting lines for visas.

Monday's turnout exceeded organizers' expectations in some places. Rallies and vigils occurred in more than 140 cities, drawing hundreds of thousands of people -- including twice as many as expected in Washington, D.C., said Avril Smith, a spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union.

One of the main national coordinators was the New American Opportunity Campaign, a Washington-based coalition of immigrant rights groups founded in 2004 to press for comprehensive immigration reform. The campaign has helped mobilize and organize local activists, supplying them with talking points and principles of reform -- for instance, the idea that legislation must include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, as well as protect workers, enhance security and unite families through reduced waiting times for visas.

In planning Monday's actions, organizers deliberately selected a day during a congressional recess so that elected officials would be in their home districts to witness them, Propeack said. She added that the period also coincided with the Christian Holy Week, which some organizers thought would help them project a moral message about immigration reform.

Once the date was selected, more than 300 groups across the country held conference calls to coordinate their activities. But the planning, funding and promotion of the actual events was done locally, organizers said.

In Los Angeles, umbrella groups representing 125 community, labor, religious, ethnic and immigrant rights organizations met weekly to develop a multicultural program, featuring speakers of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds. The idea of a procession stopping at several locations was designed to tie into the Stations of the Cross, a Lenten ritual for Christians to meditate on Jesus' journey to crucifixion.

Promoters relied heavily on the Internet and the media -- particularly Spanish-language outlets -- to spread the word. Salas and others said Spanish-language radio disc jockeys gave airtime to promoters, as they did in helping draw a crowd that police estimated at 500,000 to the March 25 rally in Los Angeles -- which helped galvanize the national reform movement.

"The events have truly been organized at a local, grass-roots level," Smith said. "The folks on the ground locally have just run with it."

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