WASHINGTON — Father Claudio Holzer, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Melrose Park, Ill., is a board member of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Yet even he was stunned by the mass demonstrations that swept the nation in defense of 11 million undocumented people in recent weeks.

It first erupted in Chicago when half a million converged for a rally downtown to protest the repressive, anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner bill, HR 4437, named after its chief sponsor, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).

“It was the Sensenbrenner bill that gave us the opportunity to get together with so many others in defense of immigrant rights,” Holzer said. “It would criminalize 11 million people, make it a crime to provide food, shelter and medical care for them.”

Holzer spoke with the World moments after he delivered a fiery speech to an immigrant rights rally on the west lawn of the Capitol, March 27.

“Nobody expected half a million people to march in downtown Chicago a few days ago,” Holzer said. “In 48 hours over 2,000 people in my congregation said they wanted to come to that rally. We sent 36 buses and it still wasn’t enough to take everybody. On April 10, we expect a big rally here in Washington and in every other big city across the nation.”

The surging movement also includes a drive to register millions of new voters and get them to the polls Nov. 7, one of many voting blocs that could vote to end Republican control of the House and Senate.

Father Michael Gutierrez, pastor of St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church in Santa Monica, Calif., told the World, “Nearly a million people turned out in Los Angeles last Saturday. They came saying, ‘We are not criminals.’ And yet the Sensenbrenner bill would do just that, make criminals of people who came here to work. We are here demanding a humane, comprehensive immigrant reform with a path to citizenship.”

Dr. Abdul Malik Mujahhid, director of the Council of Islamic Organizations, denounced the Republican right’s repressive law-enforcement approach. “They have already spent $20 billion for fences and dogs. They are prepared to spend $20 billion more,” he said. In a climate of fear after Sept. 11, 2001, he said, Muslims face the constant danger of arbitrary arrest and detention. “If Muslims are behind bars, we are all Muslims today,” he said.

The Rev. James Lawson, a Los Angeles civil rights leader and a longtime co-worker of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., denounced President Bush’s “perpetual war on terrorism.” Hardworking immigrants are not terrorists, he said. “When we launched a war on Iraq, that is terrorism. In Arizona, they want to build a wall that seeks to keep people out. A wall is tyranny wherever it is.”

During the rally, 200 priests, protestant ministers, a rabbi, and a Muslim leaders marched into the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigrant reform wearing handcuff as a warning that enactment of HR 4437 will be met with massive civil disobedience.

Later that day, the Senate panel, feeling the street-heat in an election year, reversed course and approved a bill that provides a path to citizenship and drops the punitive measures in HR 4437. The Senate bill also includes the “Dream Act” permitting the children of undocumented families to apply to college and receive financial aid. The debate over these and other provisions is continuing.

Kenneth Jamison, a Baltimore construction worker, came on a bus chartered by the Laborers Union. “This is a fight for justice,” he told the World. “If they were to enforce that House bill, they would have to deport everyone in this country except the Native American Indians. We’re all immigrants. We are here representing the workforce of America, a rainbow of all races and nations.”