CHICAGO — Hundreds of thousands of immigrant rights activists and supporters marched through downtown here May 1, demanding an end to raids and deportations, and calling for comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 12 million undocumented workers. Other May Day and immigrant rights actions took place in dozens of cities across the country.
“The movement is alive and kicking,” said Jorge Mujica, one of the organizers of Chicago’s march. Police here said the turnout was over 150,000, 30 times more than organizers had expected, but many say that calculation was way too low. Mujica estimated that anywhere from 250,000-300,000 participated.
Mujica told the World the movement has diversified this year, trying out new tactics including lobbying efforts, petitions and other ways of getting the message across to see what works.
As evidence of the movement’s growing political clout, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley delivered a notably passionate speech to the crowd at Grant Park, saying the city welcomes immigrants.
Addressing the Bush administration, he demanded, “Will you please stop dividing our families?” He continued, “Our nation is one of compassion and understanding and we have to understand this country was built by immigrants past, present and future. It’s not a Democrat message, it’s not a Republican message. It’s the people’s message that we want common-sense immigration reform.” The mayor, not known as a supporter of progressive activism, told the crowd to remain strong and raise their flags, adding, “Stand up. Be not afraid of those who oppose us.”
People of all colors and ages representing countries like Poland, Russia, Mexico, Ireland and the U.S. marched side by side waving American flags, with large banners and colorful signs. In Spanish, groups shouted, “Bush, listen, the people are in the struggle.”
Many believe the immense outpouring was in large part due to a midday raid that took place April 24 at the Little Village Discount Mall in the heart of one of the city’s largest Mexican American communities. Immigration and FBI agents armed with rifles and dressed in bulletproof vests closed off exists to the plaza, locked down the mall and stopped about 150 shoppers and workers. They arrested 12 people, calling them suspects in a fraudulent ID operation.
An immigrant mother from Mexico who asked not to be identified marched with her two U.S.-born toddlers in strollers, along with 11 other family members and friends. She called the raid an intimidation stunt. The way immigration officials, with their guns, rounded up women and children is similar to how people are treated in Iraq during a war, she said.
“It’s an injustice that women and children are being treated this way.” She said she was marching for Elvira Arellano, now in sanctuary here fighting deportation, and immigrant mothers like her. She called Arellano a great example of a mother fighting for the rights of her U.S.-born child. “We are good people. This fight is not easy, but it is also not impossible,” she said.
Seemi Choudry, 18, a Muslim student from Lisle, west of Chicago, marched with 47 other youth from her group, the Inner City Muslim Action Network. She told the World she is frustrated with the immigration system and called the recent Chicago raid “completely atrocious.” She said, “It was public humiliation no human being should endure. Immigrants are being marginalized. They should be able to live here free from worries. When one part of humanity is suffering then we are all suffering.”
Aireale Rodgers, also 18, an African American student from Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, said she was marching to let her congressman know it’s time for comprehensive immigration reform.
“I’m here to represent the families of my friends,” she told the World. African Americans and immigrant communities have all been fighting for the same basic rights since slavery, she said. “Everyone deserves dignity and respect.”
Hundreds of workers representing their unions also marched, including Mexican American Jorge Ramirez with the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters, Local 80. Wearing a hardhat and carrying a U.S. flag in one hand and a pro-immigrant-worker sign in the other, he said, “I’m here as a Latino representing all minorities who are a strong foundation lifting up our nation. We are literally building America.”
Ramirez said he was at the march for the many people out there who are undocumented and not part of a union, and for his parents who are originally from Jalisco, Mexico.
Looking to what comes next, Mujica said, “Congress has to act now and cannot wait for a Democratic president in 2009.” The immigrant population is only getting bigger each year, he added. “Democrats need a non-negotiable approach” with their Republican counterparts, said Mujica. This is not a national or homeland security issue; there were no terrorists or criminals marching on May Day, just workers, he said.