Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in downtown Los Angeles Saturday to demonstrate against a new anti-immigrant bill being considered by Congress. Crowd estimates range from 500,000 to 2 million. We speak with longtime immigrant rights activist Javier Rodriguez and United Farm Workers of America co-founder Dolores Huerta. [includes rush transcript]
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in downtown Los Angeles Saturday to demonstrate against a new anti-immigrant bill being considered by Congress. Stretching for 26 blocks, the crowd of over half a million people marched peacefully in what was possibly the largest gathering in the city’s history. Some estimates put the crowd total at around two million.
The rally was organized by numerous unions, religious organizations and immigrant rights groups and publicized through Spanish-language media. Many of the demonstrators wore white to symbolize peace and chanted "Sí se puede!" (Yes we can!)
- Demonstrators speaking on the streets of Los Angeles.
At a mass rally, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa addressed the crowd in Spanish. Villaraigosa, who is the city’s first Latino mayor said: "We are in favor of an immigration reform, but not in criminalizing our children." The House of Representatives approved legislation in December that would criminalize 11 million undocumented immigrants and make it a crime for priests, nuns, health care workers and other social workers to offer them help. Several cities, including Los Angeles, have passed resolutions against the House legislation and some, such as Maywood, have declared itself a "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants.
The Senate is considering similar legislation today. Demonstrations are planned near the Capitol, including a prayer service with immigration advocates and clergy who plan to wear handcuffs to demonstrate the criminalization of immigration violations.
The Roman Catholic Church and other religious communities have launched immigrant rights campaigns in recent weeks. Hundreds of thousands of people staged demonstrations in more than a dozen cities. 50,000 people took to the streets in Denver. 20,000 rallied in Phoenix in what may have been the city’s largest protest ever. In Atlanta, An estimated 70,000 immigrant workers took part in a work stoppage on Friday in Atlanta.
- Javier Rodriguez, longtime immigrant rights activist and spokesperson for the March 25th Coalition Against HR 4437, the umbrella group that organized Saturday’s march.
- Dolores Huerta, pioneering social activist. Co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America with Cesar Chavez.
AMY GOODMAN: Here are two demonstrators speaking Saturday.
DEMONSTRATOR: [translated from Spanish] I think the proposition is unfair. We are human beings. We have to be treated with dignity. That’s all we want — dignity.
DEMONSTRATOR: [translated from Spanish] Our children are fighting for this country in Iraq. Why discriminate? It’s not fair! Say no to 4437! No!
AMY GOODMAN: At a mass rally, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa addressed the crowd in Spanish.
ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: [speaking Spanish]
AMY GOODMAN: Villaraigosa is Los Angeles’s first Latino mayor. He went on to say: "We are in favor of an immigration reform, but not in criminalizing our children." The House of Representatives approved legislation in December that would criminalize 11 million undocumented immigrants and make it a crime for priests, nuns, health care workers, and other social workers to offer them help. Several cities, including Los Angeles, have passed resolutions against the House legislation, and some, such as Maywood, have declared itself a "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants.
The Senate is considering similar legislation today. Demonstrations are planned near the Capitol, including a prayer service with immigration advocates and clergy who plan to wear handcuffs to demonstrate the criminalization of immigrants.
The Roman Catholic Church and other religious communities have launched immigrant rights campaigns in recent weeks. Hundreds of thousands of people staged demonstrations in more than a dozen cities. 50,000 people took to the streets of Denver, 20,000 in Phoenix in what may have been Phoenix’s largest protest ever. In Atlanta, an estimated 70,000 immigrant workers took part in a work stoppage Friday.
We go now to Los Angeles to speak with longtime immigrant rights activist, Javier Rodriguez, spokesperson for the March 25 Coalition Against 4437, the umbrella group that organized Saturday’s march. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Javier.
JAVIER RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Amy. It is wonderful to see you after this Saturday, let me tell you.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what happened on Saturday, why so many people took to the streets?
JAVIER RODRIGUEZ: People, since around the early January, were waiting for the call to convene massively here in Los Angeles. And what happened was not necessarily beyond our expectations, and I am speaking about us, the organizers in this major coalition in Los Angeles. We were looking at the process. And let me say that this was a three-week process, organizing process. And we saw the indicators, Amy. And the indicators definitely told us that it was going to be big. How big? That was the only guessing point. We knew we were going to have a million. After that, we didn’t know how much.
AMY GOODMAN: How many do you estimate now came out this weekend?
JAVIER RODRIGUEZ: We estimate anywhere between a million and a million and a half.
AMY GOODMAN: And Javier, what are you demanding? What are your major objections to the legislation? The House passed it; the Senate is considering it. And what are you demanding in its place?
JAVIER RODRIGUEZ: This is the same — basically the same demand as back in 1984, in the 1980s, when we were able to successfully get the Simpson-Rodino bill into law, which gave amnesty to approximately 3 1/2–4 million undocumented workers. And the battle cry then was: Amnesty, legalization, protection for all the undocumented. And we were able to get that. Now, in this case, the conditions have changed. And they are 12 million.
And they — "they," meaning all of those immigrants without the so-called legalization, the so-called protection so that they can say, "I am somebody," they are us. They are the American people already. They are interwoven into society. But, of course, they are the most exploited. So the main demand, the main demand is legalization for the 12 million undocumented. And that was the message of hope that was sent out on the call approximately three weeks ago on March the 8th.
AMY GOODMAN: Javier, we’re also joined on the phone by Dolores Huerta, pioneering civil rights activist, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America. Can you talk about the significance of these protests, having been involved in many? This clearly is one of the largest California has seen.
DOLORES HUERTA: Well, Amy, I want to say that, well, the people who deserve an awful lot of credit for the great turnout, as in Chicago and also in Los Angeles, were all of the media, the Spanish-speaking media, just took on this cause. They coordinated it. They made sure that people knew that the demonstration was going to be happening. They did sometimes four-hour-long programs so people could call in and get information. And it really shows you the power of media, especially progressive media like yourself and what the Latino radio stations did, "El Cucu" y "El Piolin" and all of these great radio broadcasters, to bring people together.
But I believe that it is having some impact. We know we still have a long way to go. As we know, the Specter bill and, of course, Senator Frist has come out and said that he’s going to be, you know, for walls across the border and as much punitive measures as can be enacted. But the other bills are really punitive because they call for anywhere from one to 20 years of prison for anybody who has been deported and comes back into the country. The so-called guest worker visas that they are talking about issuing also include a waiver of any rights that one has in the United States, which of course undocumented in this country, although they don’t get welfare benefits or anything like that, but they do have some protections in terms of unpaid wages, etc. So those both are very, very punitive.
We are supporting the McCain-Kennedy bill — although there are some provisions in that also that, you know, need to be cleaned up — now, because the McCain-Kennedy bill does have provisions that will allow for a legalization procedure in that legislation. So these demonstrations are having an impact right now. We see a little bit of wavering, not enough in the Republican Party. We’ve definitely got to go on, and the labor unions and the religious groups, the student groups and community groups that came together for this fantastic march that was held here, the largest march, as you said, in L.A. history, but they’re going to be continuing to meet so that we can then go on further and take further actions, because we really can’t stop until we stop this really onerous legislation that is now being considered.
AMY GOODMAN: Dolores Huerta. Let me go back to Javier Rodriguez. What do you think of President Bush’s guest worker program proposal?
JAVIER RODRIGUEZ: Amy, let me say the following. The guest worker program, the unofficial guest worker program has been in effect since 1986. It is workers coming in without the regularization. What the president wants, as well as the president of Mexico, is to regularize the workers but, again, without any rights whatsoever.
Can I refer back to the mobilization, Amy? The mobilization was essentially hatched with a strategy. And that strategy included essentially two things: one, the organizing of the network of the infrastructure in the state of California (and we played —–we began to develop that, to put that in place); secondly, it consisted of a political and media strategy. The political was to send the message of hope and, of course, to stand to stop the Sensenbrenner bill because of its horrendous and macabre clauses, fascist clauses.
And the other, it was the media strategy. We knew the cultural psychology of our people. We knew the cultural psychology of the media. And we went after the strong, large media that exists in the L.A. County area. And we went after not only the disk jockeys in the area, which some of them — a couple of them at least and one of them, in particular, has the number one spotting. He’s had it for a couple of years in this area. And this is the Spanish language media in competition with the English-speaking disc jockeys. Now, we went after them, but, as I said, also, television, also the print media.
And we sent a message to them through our first press conference that it was with them, we appealed to them that — and it was — the message was accepted, little by little, gradually. But on the second week, they came in full speed ahead. The disc jockeys, we were able to organize a press conference in which approximately 13-15 of them participated. And then from that moment on, it was magic. The rest of the media and then the rest of the community, the rest of the organizations, it began to galvanize.
And as I said, the indicators were definitely there. The buses began to exhaust from the, from the rental agencies. The people in the communities, the organizations began to call the disc jockeys, began to be interviewed sporadically by the Spanish-language media. And other, many, many other indicators, many anecdotes that began to tell us: yes, we were going to have a successful march.
But the objective of the march, the main objective was to integrate, inject the undocumented community, the immigrant community and the immigrant rights organizations, the community organizations, labor and other folks, other sectors, especially the students also, which definitely mobilized into the national debate, in order to pressure Congress with the amount of people rising. And —
AMY GOODMAN: And do you have a sense in the Senate right now, that they have heard your call today?
JAVIER RODRIGUEZ: Well, the — let’s say again some of the indicators in the language that is being projected now, including President Bush, yes, it has begun to shift a little.
AMY GOODMAN: I was in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend. And I was talking to a woman who said her friend who is a minister who works with undocumented workers is terrified, because under the new law, she feared that she could be put in jail for working with people who don’t have the papers they’re supposed to have.
JAVIER RODRIGUEZ: You know, let me say this, Senator — your senator — Hillary Clinton mentioned something that was poignant, and that is that Sensenbrenner and the Republicans, if this law passes, they’re going to arrest Jesus. Well, in our case, we’re going to, not that we’re going to — we think the parallel is the following. If this bill passes, if this bill becomes law, any of those clauses become law; in the conciliation period, they’re going to arrest la Virgen de Guadalupe, the Virgin of Guadalupe.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Javier Rodriguez, we’re going to have to leave it there, thank you for being with us, spokesperson for the March 25 Coalition, speaking us to from Los Angeles. And Dolores Huerta, pioneering civil rights leader, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America.