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Immigration reform in spotlight with marches across the U.S. this weekend

Immigration reform in spotlight with marches across the U.S. this weekend

MIAMI — Immigrants and their allies will march this weekend on Taylorville, Ill., in time for the annual chili fest. They’ll take a break from harvesting spuds to demonstrate in Boise, Idaho, and they’ll hold candles until dawn along the banks of Lake Hollingsworth near Orlando, Fla.

In more than 150 cities around the country, they will gather to remind the nation that despite the feuds in Congress over the debt ceiling and health care – despite the government shutdown – they are still here and still demanding immigration reform.

Alan Diaz, AP
Claudio Galaz, of Chile, right, and Francis Tume, of Peru, left, prepare signs Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, in Miami.
Alan Diaz, AP
Immigration reform activists prepare signs for the march next weekend, Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, in Miami.

Alan Diaz, AP
Cecilia Chaar, of Argentina, Esther Merida, of Honduras, center, and Grace Toapanta, right, of Colombia, work the phones for the march next weekend, Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, in Miami.

Organizers are pitching Saturday as a “National Day of Dignity and Respect” and the beginning of an “escalation to bring immigration reform across the finish line this year.” Their weekend is the prelude to a rally and free concert Tuesday on the National Mall in Washington, where they hope to draw tens of thousands.

The chances they get anything through Congress before the year’s end, though, are splinter th in. If House Republicans are willing to make a deal on anything with Democrats, it’s likely to be about the budget, not immigration.

But Tampa-based activist Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez said Saturday’s events are as much about sending a message to average Americans and to the immigrants themselves as they are about spurring action in Congress.

“It’s about seeing us in our communities, not just as a number: 11 million undocumented,” he said. “And it’s about immigrants seeing that there are other immigrants out there, and that we are active members of our democracy,” he added. “A lot of people feel isolated, and when you see all these marchers, that gives you hope and the energy to join them.”

Sousa-Rodriguez knows about feeling isolated. He thought his situation was unique until the 2006 pro-immigrant marches, when he realized thousands of other immigrant youths were, like him, in the country illegally.

Sousa-Rodriguez, who works with the national LGBT gras sroots group GetEQUAL, said Saturday’s mobilization is also about showing the support the immigrant movement has earned from religious leaders, labor and civil rights organizations and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

The Alliance for Citizenship, a broad national coalition of organizations that includes the AFL-CIO, the ACLU, the YWCA and the Southern Poverty Law Center, is driving the mobilization.

In Washington, the shutdown aside, House Democrats unveiled an immigration bill Wednesday proposing an extended path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants illegally present, along with heightened border security. But immigration reform has been on the backburner since before the budget standoff. Many rank-and-file in the House’s Republican majority are disinclined to deal with the contentious issue of whether those in country without proper papers should be given such a path.

Tellingly, the organizers who came up with “Day of Dignity and Respect” found a somewhat vague, yet much more inclusive, name for the mobilization than anything linked to passage of a specific bill.

Saturday’s biggest rallies will likely be in the usual places, across California, in Chicago, Arizona and New York. In Los Angeles, organizers predict about 20,000 will march along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In New York, they’ll cross the Brooklyn Bridge. But more than 100 events will take place in towns and cities with far less visible immigrant communities.

In Boise, activist Fernando Mejia is organizing farm workers who will hold their mobilization Sunday because potato harvesting season is starting up anew and onion crops need to be picked into the weekend.

In Lakeland, Florida, midway between Tampa and Orlando, immigrants and their supporters will hold an overnight prayer vigil from 8 p.m. till 10:00 a.m. along the lake.

Professor Tom Shields, lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell said stagi ng events in small towns across the country sends a message that immigration is not just an inside the Beltway concern. “It’s not just in California and Texas. You have these others states that are having this experience…. this population is living right next door to us.”

Shields likened the potential impact of the marches to the early March 2010 immigration demonstrations in Washington that drew thousands of youths just as lawmakers were on the cusp of approving the nation’s historic health care overhaul.

“That same day, 100 protesters against the Affordable Care Act stood outside the Capitol. And of course, the next day the press led with the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “But to the students who went down there, it felt like a galvanizing moment. They had not seen so many people gathered before. They felt like their personal struggles were now connected to larger issues.”

The result: more volunteers, more media attention back home and last but not lea st, more funding.

That’s not to say the weekend mobilizations don’t have specific targets.

In Arizona, activists are calling out Gov. Jan Brewer. She recently issued executive orders to bar immigrants who have received deferred action – those granted temporary federal permission to live and work in the U.S. – from getting drivers licenses.

In Illinois, immigrants will march 30 miles to the city of Taylorville – in time for that heartland town’s annual Chili fest. Their goal: to get the attention of U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican from Taylorville who initially seemed open to comprehensive reform with a path to citizenship.

In Arkansas, activists are targeting U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, a conservative Republican who has opposed a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally, as well as their U.S.-born children. Organizers plan to march on his hometown of Rogers, where he was once mayor. Coordinator Mireya Reith, also a member of the State B oard of Education, noted Arkansas is among the top five states with the fastest-growing immigrant population but that many eligible immigrants don’t become citizens, or if they do, they don’t vote.

She said her organization has been working to double the Latino and Asian vote in the state, and she views Saturday as a prime occasion for outreach, especially with the 2014 election a year away.

Whether Congress is willing to act, she says she’s already seen a change on the ground in Rogers.

Case in point: “Back when Wolmak was mayor, we never would have been able to do this,” she said.

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