ORLANDO FL – Over 100 immigrants, workers, and students gathered on lake Eola in downtown Orlando recently to call for changes in United States immigration policy. The focus of the march was to call for an expedited, easier path towards citizenship and to protest what the marchers considered to be discriminatory and harsh measures being taken by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division. Under the hot Floridan sun, the assembled crowd were treated to a host of speakers assembled by organizers from the Farmworker Association of Florida, who spoke to the assembly in a combination of English, Spanish, and Creole.
The speakers ranged from religious figures, union members, immigrants, to community members. Some of the speakers present were farmworker leader Tirso Moreno of the Farmworker Association of Florida, Bishop Thomas Wenski of the Orlando Catholic Diocese, John Barriales of Orlando Peace and Justice, Joyce Hamilton Henry of the Central Florida ACLU, Bill Smiley of the Lake County Chamber of Commerce, and Victor Torres of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.
Topics ranged from the strong desire of immigrant peoples to become an acknowledged and respected part of American society, to the aggressive actions of ICE a branch of the department of Homeland Security formed under former President George W. Bush. Speakers reinforced concerns being echoed nationwide about that department’s indiscriminate arrests based on discriminatory assessments made by officers, workplace raids conducted without warrants, indefinite detention, and extralegal exportation.
Another topic discussed by the speakers was that of a piece of legislation currently being debated in the US legislature known as the DREAM act. The DREAM act would allow a path to citizenship to an estimated 65,000 students who were brought to the US as children, in exchange for two years of higher education or military service. A young lady identified to the crowd as Elizabeth, a potential candidate for such a program, spoke of the hardships she inherits from being brought to the USA, being unable to work while having to pay twice the tuition compared to other Florida residents. She reminded the assembled crowd that, “…we were raised here, we are Americans.”
The march was short and peaceful, around Lake Eola with virtually no interference from law enforcement or counter-protesters, the latter of which was represented by a single sign baring individual who left before the march began. Although a large crowd by the standard of Orlando area activists, it was no comparison to a May Day march three years ago. Amidst that period of anti-immigrant hysteria, the same organizers were able to galvanize well over 25,000 marchers into the streets, shutting down downtown Orlando for the duration of the event.
Such a grand difference in turnout can be explained by the dramatic change in the executive and legislative branches of US government and in the ever deepening economic recession. The high water mark of the immigration debate of 2006, and a major factor in generating the historic response of the immigrant community, was then House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner proposed legislation that among other provisions would have made undocumented immigration a felony and those assisting undocumented immigrants a subject of prosecution. It is difficult to imagine similar legislation having the same potential for passing in the current legislative climate.
While immigration remains a hot-button issue, there are signs that the fervor may be dying down. In addition to the change in the makeup of the federal government, the worsening economy has taken a particularly hard toll on undocumented workers. The collapse of the housing market and the attendant construction sector has harmed this segment of American society far more harshly than the documented population. According to a recent report from Pew Hispanic Center, (a project of the Pew Research Center) from 2006-2007 the income of non-documented households fell by 7.3%, where as the average for Americans was a decline of 1.3%.
It is difficult to determine at this point the exact drop off in undocumented immigration resulting from the heavy blow to the construction industry, but all indications are that immigration has decreased substantially in recent years as a direct result. The focus being moved away from immigration may turn out to be a blessing to the marchers and their supporters, as their reforms face less impassioned defense from anti-immigration elements. What is certain is that the future efforts towards reform by those who attended the rally will not be an easy task.