Immigrant advocates hope to find their stride

The reform movement increasingly embraces behind-the-scenes work.

Published May 1, 2007

Last spring, hundreds of thousands of people who never considered themselves activists took to the streets to fight for legal status for illegal immigrants.

Organizers hoped the huge turnouts at the marches, which took many by surprise, would be the catalyst needed to create a movement influential enough to result in legislative change.

But in the last year, the huge headline-grabbing rallies have given way to behind-the-scenes activities: voter drives, letter-writing campaigns, town hall meetings.

Marches taking place today across the United States including in Tampa, Orlando and Miami - the first major ones in a year - are not expected to produce the kind of attendance and attention they did last year.

"People question whether the fact that engagement this year is not as visible as last year means people are not interested, " said Clarissa Martinez, campaign manager for the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. "To me ... it's just taking place in different forms."

Last weekend, the Florida Immigrant Coalition held training sessions in Plant City to teach students how to become organizers. Later this month, Voices for Justice will hold a citizenship drive in Indian River County.

And every week this spring, immigrant advocates from across the United States, including Florida, have traveled to the nation's capital to lobby members of Congress to embrace a proposal that would put millions of illegal immigrants on a path toward citizenship.

"The immigrant community is using different tactics, " said Flavia Jimenez, an immigrant policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza. "It's more sophisticated. The momentum has shifted."

While some agree the shift is part of the natural maturing of a still-young movement, others argue that it's a sign that organizers have not been able to maintain momentum.

"That is still much an open question, " said Louis DeSipio, who teaches Latino-Chicano Studies at the University of California at Irvine. "The marches had the short term effect they wanted to have. ... The question is whether they can channel that same energy and tap the same people to use popular pressure to ensure there is a legalization provision."

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In many ways, the movement's conversion reflects changes in Washington and across the nation.

Those spurred to action last year were reacting to a Republican proposal in Congress that would have led to severe criminal penalties for illegal immigrants.

This year, the newly Democrat-controlled Congress has no such proposal. In fact, it's more likely to pass a bill that would include some kind of a citizenship provision.

"The marches were really a reaction to what they felt was an attack, and we don't have that kind of attack this year," said Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Other things have changed, too.

High-profile immigration raids at businesses around the country have frightened immigrants from coming out publicly.

"We decided not to march, " said Luis Ibarra, whose group Inmigrantes Latinos Unidos de la Florida helped organize a march of at least 75, 000 people in Fort Myers in April 2006. "Our people are afraid. The fear they have is that they will be deported and lose the good they have accomplished in this country."

Those who oppose proposals with a path to citizenship say immigrant advocates lost momentum after they suffered a backlash last year.

Many Americans resented immigrant advocates marching with flags from other nations and "A Day Without an Immigrant" in which many workers stayed home from work.

In March 2006, an estimated 500, 000 immigrant advocates marched in Los Angeles. Last month, a similar march attracted just 10, 000.

"The wind went out of their sails, " said Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies. "They've been deflated."

Armando Navarro, a professor at the University of California at Riverside who helped organize marches last year, said divisions in leadership began to develop last May, with some wanting work stoppage and others wanting only marches.

As a result, he said, the movement has not developed a cohesive vision beyond defeating last year's bill.

"The movement has not held up, " said Navarro, who is writing a book on the subject. "It was crisis oriented. We did not look into the future strategically."

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Activists on both sides agree that unlike other movements - including the civil rights movement, which was already mature when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - this large-scale, national campaign is still struggling to find its way.

Immigrant advocates say their goal now is to attract support from mainstream Americans through education and to pressure federal lawmakers to pass immigrant-friendly proposals through grass roots lobbying.

That translates to increasing membership in their organizations and possibly even encouraging like-minded people to run for office.

In the last year, Florida's umbrella group for immigrant advocates has flourished.

The Florida Immigrant Coalition, based in Miami, had 60 smaller organizations. Now it has 80 and holds a telephone conference every Monday.

After the marches, members of various groups flocked to Palm Bay in Brevard County and Avon Park in Highlands County, where city councils had threatened to pass a pair of measures against illegal immigrants.

"After the marches we had to battle two anti-immigrant ordinances," said Maria Rodriguez, director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition. "From that, there were new leaders, new organizations, new energy."

Joe Wright, a dairy farmer who sympathized with immigrant activists, spoke against the Avon Park ordinance. The experience prompted him to run for City Council. He won.

This spring, members of the Florida Immigrant Coalition from Plant City, Apopka, Fort Pierce, Homestead, Mulberry and Miami went to Washington to urge lawmakers to legalize undocumented immigrants.

"We've never seen as many local activists come to Washington to pressure lawmakers for comprehensive immigration reform, " said Frank Sharry, executive director for the National Immigration Forum. "There are so many groups coming in for lobby visits, we can't keep them straight."

Advocates say the introduction of a bill in the House recently led 70, 000 people to call members of Congress to voice their support.

"We are asking them that our people receive just immigration reform, " said Ibarra, the Fort Myers march organizer.

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at akumar@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0576. Jose Cardenas can be reached at jcardenas@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4224.


IF YOU GO: Immigration rally
The immigration rally in Tampa will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. today on Dale Mabry Highway near Raymond James Stadium. It was organized by the Plant City-based Immigrants United for Freedom to coincide with rallies planned across the country.