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Immigrant Rights Protests Rock the Country: Up to 2 Million Take to the Streets in the Largest Wave of Demonstrations in U.S. History

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In an unprecedented wave of protests, as many as two million people took to the streets Monday in more than 100 cities and towns around the country to march for immigrant rights. We hear some of the speakers at the largest rallies in New York and Washington and we speak with some of the demonstrators about why they are taking to the streets. [includes rush transcript]

Today we spend the hour on the issue of immigration. In an unprecedented wave of protests, as many as two million people took to the streets on Monday in more than 100 cities and towns around the country to march for immigrants’ rights.

Across the United States, hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers, legal immigrants, labor unions, immigrant rights advocates and their supporters demonstrated in what was billed as the National Day of Action for Immigrant Justice.

In New York, over 100,000 demonstrators converged in lower Manhattan for a rally near City Hall. In Atlanta, as many as 80,000 people flooded the streets. In Phoenix, an estimated 100,000 rallied at the Arizona Capitol. 50,000 marched in Houston. 25,000 in Madison, Wisconsin. 10,000 in Boston. 8,000 in Omaha, Nebraska. In Fresno, California 10,000 people turned out in what a police spokesman called “by far the largest event we have ever had in the city.” Even in the tiny farming town of Garden City, Kansas, 3,000 people took to the streets–more than 10 percent of the local population.

The rallies Monday followed a day of demonstrations in San Diego, Miami, Birmingham, Alabama, Utah, Idaho and Iowa. A Sunday rally in Dallas drew half a million people, the largest protest in the city’s history.

Many are likening the extraordinary national mobilization to a second civil rights movement.

One of the largest protests on Monday took place in Washington DC. Hundreds of thousands streamed past the White House to a rally on the National Mall. The demonstration took place just yards from the Capitol, where Senators last week failed to reach agreement on wide-ranging immigration reform that would allow the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country a chance to work here legally and eventually become U.S. citizens. The Senate will resume the debate on the issue in two weeks” time, after the spring recess. The House passed its own bill in December that has been described as the most repressive immigration bill in 70 years. HR 4437 would, among other things, turn every undocumented immigrant into a felon and make it a crime to offer help to undocumented immigrants.

Among those who addressed the massive crowd on the Mall in Washington DC was Jaime Contreras, president of the National Capital Immigration Coalition. He outlined some of the demands for immigration reform.

  • Jaime Contreras, president of the National Capital Immigration Coalition speaking in Washington DC, April 10, 2006.

Meanwhile, in New York City over 100,000 took to the streets. Thousands converged on City Hall Park for a massive rally. Among those who addressed the crowd was Roger Toussaint, president of the Transport Workers Union.

As tens of thousands marched on City Hall, Democracy Now hit the streets and spoke with some of those protesting.

  • Demonstrators talk about why they are taking to the streets.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Among those who addressed the massive crowd on the Mall in Washington, D.C., was Jaime Contreras, president of the National Capital Immigration Coalition. He outlined some of the demands for immigration reform.

JAIME CONTRERAS: Real comprehensive immigration reform must have the following. We need a process that allows immigrants who come to this country and work, while protecting the wages and working conditions, for them to be able to come to this country in a legalized way. We do not want to come here undocumented. But the current system is not broken — it’s broken, it’s not working. Second, we need a sensible way for immigrants who are already in this country undocumented to earn citizenship. These are workers who work hard, pay taxes. They would also be more than willing to pay a fine and learn English, if given the opportunity to become legalized and to become U.S. citizens in this country. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

AMY GOODMAN: Jaime Contreras, president of the National Capital Immigration Coalition, speaking at Monday’s rally in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, here in New York City, over 100,000 people took to the streets. Thousands converged on City Hall Park for a massive rally. Among those who addressed the crowd was Roger Toussaint, president of the Transport Workers Union.

ROGER TOUSSAINT: Everyone here should think long and hard about what is happening in America today. We have a government that creates immigrants by the millions and then mistreats them. I say the U.S. creates immigrants the old-fashioned way. If you have tyranny and oppression and famine and poverty around the world, you are going to have immigrants coming to the U.S. No wall is going to stop them. No fence with barbed wire on the Mexican border or no frozen moat on the Canadian border is going to stop them. It will just make it easier to arrest and brutalize them. We don’t need a wall. We need a new foreign policy, so people can make a decent living and live in peace in their home countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Roger Toussaint, president of the Transport Workers Union, speaking in Lower Manhattan yesterday. It was just after he was sentenced to ten days in jail for leading the Transit Workers strike. As tens of thousands of people marched on City Hall, Democracy Now! hit the streets and spoke with a number of those protesting.

KENIA GUERRA: My name is Kenia Guerra. I’m from El Salvador. My mother fled to this country in 1980 to flee the civil war, to protect us. She brought six children to this country. And I have to show my children what immigrants are. We have to stand up and teach them, especially the young ones. They don’t know. They’re Americans. They don’t know what an immigrant is. They have no idea what it is to be discriminated against because you don’t speak English. All you want to do is to better your future and your family.

And we come here to work. We come here to struggle. We don’t come here to steal. We don’t come here to cheat the government. On the contrary, we work. They pay taxes. And you know, and the government keeps those taxes. I mean, they are taken advantage of when they come to this country. They struggle. They work for less than minimum wage. They will do the jobs that no other American will do for the salary that they do. And now we’re going to penalize them and call them criminals for working? That’s injustice.

FEKKAK MAMDOUH: My name is Fekkak Mamdouh. I’m from Restaurant Opportunity Center of New York, ROC New York. And we are here today to say no to H.R. 4437, that discriminates immigrants, and to say that this country is based on immigrants, and it’s not fair that early immigrants get it easier than immigrants today, going through all this political stuff that our government just wants to push. Anything that is bad is immigrants, immigrants. So, you know, this is related to all the things that’s going on all over the world, you know. First, going to Iraq, fighting other people. Then, second, coming down here and fighting immigrants inside our country.

MARCELA BARRIENTOS: Hi. My name is Marcela Barrientos. I’m 20 years old. I was born in Honduras. I came to the United States at the age of four. And I’m here today to support immigrants, as I am, too, an immigrant. And reaching that American dream, whether it’s real or not, it has become a struggle for everybody. Whether it’s lack of diversity in institutions like universities or offices, there’s a voice that isn’t being heard loud enough, and I think the numbers today are showing that we are here and we are together, and we’re demanding our rights. We’re what makes this country. Our country was built on immigrants, and it continues to be.

However, when we’re shunned from the light and we’re denied rights that every human being should be allowed, I think it speaks loudly of where our country is going. When we are co-workers, when we are friends, when we are teachers, and we’re called terrorists, it speaks volumes as to what our perception of what it is to be American means. And I, as an American, I bring diversity to this country. And I want to be unified with people that accept that and then encourage it, and it’s clear that we’re doing that today.

EFRAIN QUINTANA: My name is Efrain Quintana. I’m from New York. I was born here. My parents were born in Puerto Rico. And Puerto Rican people are here to support all undocumented workers, because we know that we are fighting the same battles. They need to be secure in their household. They need jobs. And they should be given amnesty. They got these harsh laws that are affecting many, many families in New York. Some people are being deported, with their children being born in the United States, and it’s an outrage.

TAHESHA GILPIN: My name is Tahesha Gilpin. I am from Long Island, but originally from Jamaica. We’re from CUNY Law School. And we’re about to go through, but we’re out here today, because we’re a school that’s dedicated to public interest, and immigration rights are a part of that. And as such, we’re out here to protest for all immigrant rights and for lawyers or for anybody who wants to aid immigrants. I think it’s ridiculous that they would be held accountable or subject to any type of fines or police time, because they want to help other human beings. We’re out here for human rights. That’s what we’re out here for.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the people on the streets of New York. Juan Gonzalez, we were out on the streets covering people, the whole Democracy Now! team. You covered this one and the one just about a week ago over the Brooklyn Bridge.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, the April 1st one. Of course, this one was much larger, and it was part of a nationwide series of protests, but this is really an astonishing outpouring that we’re seeing across the nation. And I think one of the things that people are not realizing is that many people are saying, 'Well, this is just illegal immigrants who don't vote, and therefore the politicians don’t have to pay attention.’ But nothing could be further from the truth. As I found out, for instance, one of the people speaking was Adriano Espaillat, a state assemblyman, who told the crowd, 'Hey, I was illegal when I came in this country originally from the Dominican Republic.' And he overstayed his visa. He is now one of the most respected Dominican leaders in the country.

I spoke to Marianela Jordan, who was the head of the Latino Affairs Office for the Nassau County Executive, who also was illegally in the country initially, became a U.S. citizen. So you have many people who are now citizens, who are now legal residents, who at one time for a period of time in their lives were in the country illegally, and they understand and sympathize. And many of these folks are voters, and I think the impact is being felt across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about some of the politicians here in New York who spoke. And just the scene, the image at City Hall, there were so many people that they had screens up at City Hall, and then as you walked up Broadway where more and more screens, so that these voices were amplified right up through Canal Street and going toward the center of the city.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. So you had both United States senators, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, addressed the crowd, as did the candidate, the Democratic candidate for governor, Eliot Spitzer.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised to see Hillary Clinton out there?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I understand that Hillary Clinton was one of the last to say, 'Yes, I will be there.' As of Friday afternoon, there was still a question as to whether she would be able to make it in her schedule. But I think the growth, the enormous size of the mobilization convinced any politician who wants to get votes in New York state that they should be there. And I was a little surprised that the mayor himself didn’t show up, although he has been having kind of contradictory statements in regard to the immigrants legislation in past weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: Certainly, the Mayor of Los Angeles has been a major player.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. Yes, he has.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Villaraigosa.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. But Texas has seen some of the largest protests over this. And we’re going to be talking in a few minutes with some folks there in Texas who will tell us about — I think it may have been the largest protest in the history of the state, as far as I know.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right. We’re going to go to Dallas right now after break. And then we’re going to also learn about a student organizer in California — he was a high school student organizer — and what happened to him after a vice principal threatened him with time in jail for organizing a student protest.

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