The power of protest

Mass protests have forced Obama administration to address immigrants’ rights issues

By Jonathan Rodrigues

This Week host Jake Tapper perfectly encapsulated the media’s incompetence when he expressed his surprise at immigration reform being next on Washington’s agenda: “We thought it was dead.” The absurdity there is astounding. It has been less than two years since Obama’s election, which he won thanks to overwhelming Latino support in several important swing states like Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida. The Latino vote was so important in the last election that Republicans even had a debate moderated by Univision! In the primary debates—and up until the economic collapse—the main issue was immigration reform, along with health care and the wars. The issue never died, certainly not for the millions of Latino voters who comprise the fastest growing demographic in the U.S., and whose support is necessary for any candidate who wants to be elected president.

Candidate Obama knew this very well, and he was one of the most generous candidates on immigration policy during the debates. Boldly promising to have immigration reform done in his first year in office, he actively sought the support of immigrant and Latino organizations. The Latino vote was clearly on board with Obama’s message of hope and change and had strong faith in him as a candidate. But all was not well in America; the economic collapse changed the course of history, and once again deferred the fight for immigration reform.

2009 was a year of patience for Latinos, but unfortunately, it was also a year of gross injustice. To their surprise, the President who had boldly promised them reform in his first year not only broke that promise, but also oversaw a rise in deportations from the last year of Bush’s second term. In 2009 there were close to 400,000 deportations. Four hundred thousand families separated. Hardworking—and yes, tax-paying—pursuers of the American Dream were punished in terrorizing raids on workplaces while their employers were either not punished at all or received penalties tantamount to slaps on the wrist.

The final straw was the way Obama addressed the issue in his State of the Union speech. He said that we should fix our immigration system to “secure our borders, enforce our laws,” and make sure that everyone who “plays by the rules” can help make our nation stronger. If those sound like the exact same Republican talking points we have heard in the last 10 years, it’s because they are.

It was at this point that immigrant rights groups across the nation started to organize. It took them less than two months to organize a huge march and rally in the National Mall that brought over 250,000 people from all across the country. It was the largest gathering of protesters during the Obama Administration and yet it received little to no media coverage. It seemed that slightly over 200 mostly old, white tea partiers were more important than over 250,000 Latinos, Koreans, Filipinos, Chinese, Polish, Albanians, and Palestinians—and these are only the ethnicities I could identify through flags or banners!

March 21 will live on in history as a significant date that the media completely ignored; there’s probably going to be a footnote on it in your child’s history book—the one that won’t contain Cesar Chavez or Thomas Jefferson. That night, when the march was over, I rushed to the nearest computer to see what the media had said about this historic protest. What I found was simply surreal. It was so surreal I doubted my own experiences. What had I done? What had I seen? Were there actually 250,000 people taking up most of the National Mall, protesting against a broken system? Ultimately, it was not my memory that was playing with me—it was the media’s utter disregard for the immigrant rights movement. I checked multiple Web sites and found not one picture or headline. You could only read a short, three-paragraph story on the protest citing merely that “thousands” had came to D.C. that day. The newspapers the next day, even in D.C., were nothing short of depressing.

But rest assured, our voices were heard that day. The political pressure of the March 21 rally, along with sustained events across the country since then, put immigration reform front and center, at least in Washington. And this is not all: More protests are being planned, including an upcoming rally in downtown Chicago on May 1. As far as the media is concerned, this is quite the sudden change, the resurrection of a long-dead debate.

In short, the immigrant rights movement learned important lessons from the health care debacle. It is important to note that it was because of the threat of a huge rally that Obama frantically invited immigrant rights leaders to meet with him in the White House a few weeks before the march. Obama did not want to be publicly embarrassed by a huge rally that strongly condemned him for inaction and for the escalation of deportations. The immigrant rights organizations demanded an outline of immigration reform by March 21, and they got it the Friday before the march: the Graham-Schumer outline for immigration reform. Because of this, the actual rally was significantly less critical of Obama than it was poised to be.

The March 21st rally was the first part of what will certainly be a long tug-of-war to force Congress to make the right decisions about immigration reform. Washington listens to loud people. This is something that progressives who supported health care reform ignored, and tea partiers knew quite well. The question is: Who will be louder this time?

—Jonathan Rodrigues is a second-year in the College majoring in Latin American Studies.