Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Immigration Debate Takes to the Streets

Last week's events in Southern California mark a major turning point in the immigration debate. From half a million in the streets in Los Angeles to the virtually shutdown of San Diego County schools in just a week.

The lessons of Vietnam and Civil Rights protests have been assimilated by a group of well organized and technology savvy activists. But, the real news here is that, once again, our children have taken to the streets. It is patronizing of me to call these young men and women, children, but their youth is an issue in this debate, just as was the age of slain civil rights workers in the south or protestors at Kent State.

When our children take to the streets, the stakes go up. When millions protest, they can't be ignored. When protests are peaceful, people on both sides of the argument have to listen.

Here's what the San Diego Union Tribune says about Friday's peaceful protests.
Even the most seasoned activists were caught off guard yesterday by the numbers of young protesters who peacefully streamed into the streets of downtown San Diego to oppose immigration bills up for debate on Capitol Hill.

The protest forced other activists to cancel an event here yesterday to plan for an April 9 march in Balboa Park.

“I had no choice but to join them,” said Jesse Diaz, who helped coordinate the massive pro-immigrant march in Los Angeles last weekend.

Organized well in advance by a tech-savvy generation of politically motivated youths, the march was the largest and most civil demonstration this week, after days of arrests, school closures and contentious rallies.

As with earlier protestors, these young men and women are looking for justice and fairness.

Perhaps the start of a new brand of activism brewing among young Mexican-Americans, the protests have prompted some to draw parallels to the politics that defined a previous generation.

“The anti-war movement was started by people who were directly affected by the draft and by American over-involvement overseas,” said San Diego State University sociology professor Phillip Gay.

“You have a similar situation here,” he said. “These are children of immigrants and probably a large number of undocumented immigrants, and so this is a very personal issue for them.”

At the center of the debate is proposed changes to immigration laws, including a bill that would make it a felony for undocumented immigrants to be in this country.

Empowered by the rush of social activism and undaunted by disapproving police and school officials, nearly 2,000 county students skipped classes yesterday for the cause they have championed since Monday.

This group of social activists has the benefit of the experience of previous social movements. Movement leaders understand the power of protest, but they also understand the necessity to clearly state their case and to be seen as proponents of a rational alternative perspective to the immigrant bashing that the Republican congress thinks is playing well in the heartland.

Human rights activist Christian Ramirez, who runs the local American Friends Service Committee office, said the march was the largest he had seen in San Diego.

Ramirez said he was serving as a facilitator for the student protesters, helping to guide the crowd and working with police. He urged students to return to school and planned to work with educators to send student leaders to Washington, D.C.

“There is a lot of passion and we're hoping to channel that passion into the legislative debate,” he said.

When a Republican leader can denigrate the efforts of generations of Hispanics, whose efforts have helped build the California economy and who today are helping transform the economies of the entire Southwest, it is likely that the Republican congress has already lost the war, despite the number of battles yet to be fought.