Immigrant movement's next front: voting


They grabbed the nation's attention with huge demonstrations, hundreds of thousands strong. They earned recognition from President Bush, whose prime-time speech this week bolstered hopes for a path to U.S. citizenship for many of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants.

Now, regional leaders of the nation's emerging immigrant-rights movement say they are poised to extend their fight beyond the current immigration debate in Congress and drive home their message to Washington the old-fashioned way: by voting.

In what has been dubbed "Democracy Summer," a coalition of immigrant advocates, labor unions and Spanish-language radio personalities aim to register 1 million voters by Election Day.

Calling itself the We Are America Alliance, the group is appealing to legal immigrants who are eligible to become naturalized citizens, U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants and people of all ethnicities and political views who sympathize with immigrants.

Lobbying effort

The coalition will lobby lawmakers in Washington today, culminating in a rally that organizers estimate will be smaller than previous ones but tailored to political action.

As organizers try to shape a movement, they face numerous challenges, including the lack of a core leader and an expanding message recited in multiple tongues.

The immediate goal of pro-immigration groups is to pressure Congress to adopt measures that would provide a path to citizenship, speed up the process for legal immigrants to obtain visas for family members abroad and ensure border enforcement that respects human rights.

With politicians focused on the fall elections, it remains unclear what might be approved. The House passed a measure in December that would make illegal immigration a felony and build a 700-mile fence along the border with Mexico.

The Senate is moving toward passage by the end of the month of what immigrant advocates consider a more moderate compromise.

Middle ground

Advocates say Bush's televised speech illustrates the way he is treading on ambiguous middle ground.

"There were certainly eloquent passages, but overall I think he was trying to be everything to everybody," said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change in Washington and a member of the We Are America Alliance. Bhargava said he was encouraged by Bush's support for a path to citizenship for illegal residents but that without details, the words were feel-good rhetoric.

"The real test is going to be, is he going to use political capital to back the right-wing House members away from their radical position," Bhargava said. "I didn't see evidence of that. I saw efforts to pander to some of their worst instincts."

Jaime Contreras, president of the National Capital Immigration Coalition, which represents groups in Maryland, Washington and Virginia, said Bush's plan to send up to 6,000 National Guard troops to help control the border with Mexico would increase tensions between the two nations.

Still, Contreras said he was encouraged, even surprised, by some of Bush's remarks. "He seemed to realize that the people who are here are real human beings who want to work and take care of their families," he said.

Contreras said he is hopeful that Congress will find a legislative solution on immigration but pessimistic enough that he thinks there is a need to plant the seeds of activism on such issues as immigrant rights, Latino civil rights and, eventually, workers' rights and the plight of the poor.

`Worker rights'

"When you are talking about immigrant rights, you are naturally talking about worker rights," said Contreras, who as a teenager came to the United States illegally from El Salvador and is now a U.S. citizen.

Contreras' organizing tactics stemmed from his day job as a Washington union leader. "I don't buy that poor people aren't supportive of immigrant rights," he said. "We have to work together to be effective."

That will mean tackling the complaint that immigrants take Americans' jobs, a refrain from those pushing to restrict illegal immigration, said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights.

Contreras thinks his group has learned lessons since organizing its first Washington demonstration in March. The coalition is offering more education and encouraging greater participation from Asian and African immigrants. Organizers hope to move beyond Latino groups, who dominated most of the large rallies.

Most of all, Contreras wants advocates across the country to send a single message, avoiding the experience of May 1, when some pressed for an immigrant work stoppage and others warned against it.

Some veterans of social justice movements say that successful activism rarely manages to achieve complete unity.

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