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Organizers See "New Civil Rights Movement" in Immigration Protests

SAN FRANCISCO - The past three weeks' nationwide protests against proposed immigration reforms considered anti-immigrant mark the rise of a new American civil rights movement, say protest groups. Protesters' ultimate impact on the immigration debate remains to be seen. Mass protests leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq failed to dissuade legislators from giving President George W. Bush authority to take the nation to war, after all. Even so, protest organizers said their efforts played a large part in persuading the Senate Judiciary Committee to approve a more immigrant-friendly bill Monday than the one put forward previously by the House of Representatives.

Partha Banerjee, executive director of the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network, said the ongoing protests can have a greater impact yet because, like the struggle for civil rights in the mid-1900s, they represent the interests of not just one minority but all migrant groups. ''This is so effective because this is really a new civil rights movement reborn in this country,'' Banerjee told OneWorld. ''Remember, back in the 50s, the huge civil rights movement in this country was primarily about the blacks, but also about other minorities.'' ''This is not just about the immigrants,'' she added. ''It's about human and civil rights, it's about all marginalized, under-privileged people in the United States.''

Last December, the House of Representatives passed the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, legislation that critics said would slam the hopes of immigrant rights advocates and the country's 11 million-odd undocumented workers. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a much more immigrant-friendly version of the legislation Monday. Before the Senate panel voted, more than 500,000 protesters took to the streets of Los Angeles, 300,000 rose up in Chicago, and thousands more marched, went on work-and-spending strikes, or even hunger strike across the country, according to Banerjee and other protest organizers.

While most of those involved in the larger outpourings appeared to be Latino, their views resonate with large majorities of legal immigrants, according to a nationwide survey conducted by private pollsters and released Tuesday by California-based New America Media (NAM), an association of more than 700 ethnic newspapers and broadcast outlets. Pollsters canvassed a representative sample of 800 of the 26 million U.S. residents who have gained legal entry and found that most strongly opposed Congressional proposals to criminalize and deport undocumented immigrants and authorize walls and other barriers to be built along the U.S.-Mexican border. Members of all immigrant communities also voiced alarm over what they termed growing anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the country, according to the survey co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund.

Banerjee said immigrants also had found strong allies among church and labor groups. Some of these, she added, worked closely with her organization to assemble some 200 clergy from various denominations, and more than one thousand community leaders, on Capitol Hill Monday to voice their support for immigrant rights. In her view, that pressure should be credited with helping Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Panel to blunt the House of Representatives' assault on migrants. Some Republicans have criticized the strident House proposals, saying these could prove disastrous to the party's hopes of building support among Latino voters. The legislation that the Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed on Monday would legalize undocumented immigrants if they pay their back taxes, learn English, and follow a number of other requirements. It also would offer a guest-worker program that could allow up to 400,000 immigrants per year to enter the United States legally. In contrast, the House proposal would make it a felony to enter the United States illegally and would erect a 700-mile fence along the border with Mexico.

The full Senate is expected to debate the measure adopted by the judiciary panel over the next couple of weeks. Even if it passes, the bill will need to be reconciled with the House legislation before being sent on for Bush to sign into law. Activists anticipate safe passage of the Senate bill but are bracing for real battle when the House of Representatives, which they describe as home to a number of virulent anti-immigration legislators, weighs compromise. ''We are really hopeful that some comprehensive solutions will come out of the Senate and we are going to keep pressure up,'' said Marissa Graciosa, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which helped organize the Chicago protest last weekend. Graciosa said her organization wanted to ensure the legislation ultimately adopted provides ''a path to citizenship'' for undocumented immigrants so that ''people who work hard are rewarded.'' Commenting on the size of protests so far, Graciosa said the movement benefited from a diverse base of organizers. ''There were over 100 organizations that were working on this,'' she said, referring to the Chicago demonstration. ''The Spanish language deejays were really helpful in telling people that H.R. 4437 [the House immigration measure] is a horrible bill and that unless we get in the streets and tell them about it, that kind of anti-immigration policy could become reality.''

In Los Angeles, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877, a janitor's union, provided security for the protests and coordinated around one hundred buses that dropped off protesters from around the country.
© 2006 ###