Today we march, tomorrow we vote 2 million immigrants & supporters stand up for equality & justice

NEW YORK — In the city that is home to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, 125,000 people, native- and foreign-born alike, turned out April 10 for a historic National Day of Action for Immigrant Justice. It was the city’s largest demonstration so far for immigrant rights.

The day of action mobilized some 2 million people in big and small cities and towns nationwide. (See NATIONALCLIPS and our online eXtra for more coverage.) Huge numbers and a festive, family-friendly, working-class spirit have been the hallmarks of this new civil rights movement.

New York’s massive show of unity saw labor, religious, ethnic, community, civil rights and peace organizations joining immigrant workers in a strikingly multiracial and multi-ethnic outpouring. The immigrant rights struggle has sometimes been portrayed as solely a Latino or Mexican issue. But at the New York rally, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim clergy, city and state officials, Democratic Reps. Jose Serrano, who is Puerto Rican, and Charles Rangel, an African American, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, and a wide array of grassroots representatives declared that immigrant rights are important to all American people.

Broadway was a sea of color as marchers carried thousands of American flags interspersed with flags of the native lands of the city’s immigrant population — all continents and, it seemed, nearly all countries were represented, from as far away as Senegal, Yugoslavia, Colombia, Ireland and even Australia.

“Yes, I carry two flags today,” Juanita, an undocumented maid who works in Manhattan, told the World, referring to the Honduran and U.S. banners she held. The Honduras flag “means my family, and hometown. The American flag represents me now,” she said. “I’m proud. I’m proud of where I come from but also where I am now, too.”

Solidarity across immigrant communities was evident. “The Irish are with you 100 percent!” said Brian McKenna of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform. “We’re going to get legalized. Stand together, no matter if you’re Black, brown or white. We are one — Sí se puede!”

“Sí se puede!” echoed a representative of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. He compared the plight of immigrants today to what happened a century ago when the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act caused “thousands of families to be broken up.”

The April 10 actions re-energized the immigrant rights movement after a Senate “compromise” fell apart last week. The message to President Bush and Congress from the nationwide actions was, “We are not criminals.” Immigration legislation cannot criminalize the undocumented, the marchers declared, and must include a path to legalization and citizenship for the 12 million people who work hard yet are forced to live in the shadows. Legislation must provide for united families and civil and workplace rights, speakers emphasized.

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson told the New York rally, “You deserve the chance to move out of the shadows — hold your head high and set out on a clear path that will take you to permanent residency in this country. You deserve a safe workplace, a fair wage with benefits, fair treatment, respect and dignity.”

Public opinion backs the demand for a path to citizenship. In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll 63 percent favored letting immigrants who have lived in the country a certain number of years apply for legal status and eventually become citizens. Only one in five embraced the criminalization measures in House bill HR 4437. And 61 percent disapprove of President Bush’s handling of immigration reform.

Unity was a key message. “They try to divide us,” Sarah Jones, actress/writer of Broadway’s “Bridge & Tunnel,” told the crowd. “We should not fight each other for crumbs, while they feast on our labor and steal from all of us. As a Black woman, I stand with all of you!”

Labor unions played a major part in the rally. Orlando Lara, on strike for five months with GSOC/UAW Local 2110, which represents graduate student workers at New York University, said the administration there had unsuccessfully tried to weaken the strike by threatening foreign workers with deportation. “Today,” Lara said, “GSOC stands in solidarity with all workers and students without papers.”

“We are all immigrants,” said United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “We cannot turn our backs on our country and our people. We need to roll back the House of Representatives.” She added that teachers do not want to be “snitches” or spy on their students, as HR 4437 calls for.

Roger Toussaint, head of Transport Workers Union Local 100, did not speak as scheduled, because he was in court, where he was sentenced to 10 days in jail for leading a pre-Christmas transit strike. When rally emcee Hector Figueroa of SEIU Local 32BJ hailed Toussaint, originally from Trinidad, as an immigrant worker the crowd erupted with a stormy solidarity ovation.

“This is a rally for human rights, for the soul of our country,” N.Y. Civil Liberties Union head Donna Lieberman told the World. The notion of immigrants “stealing” American jobs is wrong, she said. “They’re a critical part of our economy and a critical part of our society.”