Immigration bill spurs Latino community to action

April 09, 2006|By JULIE SCHARPER | JULIE SCHARPER,SUN STAFF

When Jessenia Sosa founded the Latin Pride club at Patterson High School last fall, she imagined hosting a few dances and social events. Little did the 18-year-old senior know that by April, club members would be planning not just a dance contest but their second trip to a major immigration rally in Washington.

Two busloads of students from Patterson will join tens of thousands of people at the Washington Monument tomorrow afternoon to protest legislation in Congress that would make it a felony to be in the country illegally or to give nonemergency aid to such people. Organizers predict that up to 200,000 people will attend the Washington rally, making it the largest of the more than 100 protests planned for cities nationwide on that day.

As partisan dispute last week shelved a Senate compromise that would have created a way for illegal immigrants to gain legal status or become citizens, Baltimore activists met in classrooms, church halls and living rooms to plan for tomorrow's protest.

At Patterson, students wrote, "We're not terrorists" and "Bush escucha, estamos en la lucha" ("Listen, Bush, we're in the battle") on colorful posterboards. The Latin Pride leaders made plans to transport 70 students to Washington on the first day of spring break.

Across the state, Latinos, many politically active for the first time, have mobilized to fight legislation that they fear will lead to deportations of friends and family.

Although the legislation would affect immigrants from all countries, Latinos - who comprise the majority of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants - have emerged as the most vocal opponents of the measure, said Jaime Contreras, president of the National Capital Immigration Coalition, the group that is planning the event.

"A lot of illegal immigrants didn't know what rights they have," said Johns Hopkins University sophomore Topacio Cruz, who is organizing a group to attend the rally. "They've been realizing that they can stand up and say something."

Along with roommate Paola Tinta and 40 other Hopkins students, Cruz attended a Washington immigration rights rally March 7 that drew a crowd of 40,000. A similar rally in Los Angeles attracted more than 500,000 protesters.

"It was surprising for me at the first rally to see mobs of people coming out of the Metro because Latinos are not known for being political," said Tinta, president of the university's chapter of the Latinas Promoviendo Communidad sorority.

In recent months, Latinos have awakened politically because of perceived threats to the traditionally close Latino family, Tinta said. They fear that tougher immigration laws could separate illegal immigrants from their U.S.-born children, she said.

Of the 12 Latino Pride members who gathered in a Patterson classroom Friday morning, only three were born in the U.S. and most had undocumented family members.

Some said that immigrants, desperate to escape poverty in their home countries, would find ways to skirt tougher rules.

"I know people who have been deported, but they come back," said sophomore Jessica Calle, 15. "They came here for a reason - to support their families."

"Our parents came to secure our future," said senior Elsy Rivera, 19. For a decade, Rivera's mother worked in Baltimore and sent money back to El Salvador to support her daughter and the rest of their family. Rivera joined her mother in the U.S. four years ago.

Many religious leaders oppose a bill proposed by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican, not only because it would separate families but because it would make it a crime to aid illegal immigrants.

"It touches the very heart of our being as Christians," said the Rev. Robert Wojtek, pastor of St. Michael and St. Patrick parish in Fells Point. "Either you put into practice who you are and what you believe, or you just throw the towel in."

Wojtek, who estimated that 90 percent of his congregation is Latino, said that welcoming strangers is a Biblical tradition.

Three buses will depart St. Patrick's for the rally, Wojtek said. Four other area Catholic churches are sending buses. At least 20 buses will carry people from Baltimore to Washington, said Eliza Leighton, a legal advocate with CASA of Maryland Inc. an organization that serves as an advocate for Latinos. Across the state, CASA is arranging for 50 buses to ferry protesters to the monument.

The protest will begin with a 3 p.m. march from Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park to the Washington Monument, Contreras said. About 4:30 p.m., Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, will speak, along with labor leaders and students.

Latino radio and television stations, nonprofit groups and churches are promoting the event, Contreras said. Young activists are also using the Internet to spread the message. Tinta has promoted the rally through e-mail, listservs and facebook.com.

Patterson students said that the rally inspires them to think of their future - many will be eligible to vote for the first time this year - and also of the nation's past.

Meeting under handmade posters celebrating the cultures of Peru, Mexico and Bolivia, the Patterson students said that immigration restrictions contradict what they have learned in history classes about this nation's attitude toward newcomers.

"This country is made of immigrants," said Patterson sophomore Marbel Munoz, 15. "They're pulling out their own roots."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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