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Immigration march stampedes nation’s capital

WASHINGTON – At the April 10 Washington march for humanitarian immigration reform, telling moments abounded, but all of them together weren’t as telling as the contrast between democracy in action and politicians in hiding.

The marchers here probably didn’t number all of 180,000, as organizers had predicted they would. But it seemed trivial to keep count as Latinos thronged to the National Mall, surely 100,000 strong. Turnout at demonstrations nationwide may have approached one million.

None of the march sites reported significant violence. The most overtly defiant gesture in the nation’s capital was the almost exclusive use of Spanish in chants and speeches, speaking defiance to the English-only faction of anti-immigrant opinion. But the main traits of the crowd in Washington were youth, exuberance, and a kind of familial politeness reflected in the way young people made space for older ones of any race, or the way older Latino men both participated vigorously in the chants and kept a check on young firebrands-in-training who began to get off-message. These are the traits – number, youth, energy and commitment to family – that have made the political allegiance of America’s largest minority a coveted prize.

In the aftermath of the nationwide marches, that prize is apt to go Democratic for the next generation, despite the efforts of President Bush and other Republican leaders to court the Latino community. Their efforts have been eclipsed by the Latino response to a Republican bill in the House of Representatives that would build a near-700-mile fence along the U.S./Mexico border, criminalize assistance to indocumentados crossing the border, and apprehend and deport indocumentados – in the process turning an estimated 11 million to 12 million of them into felons and separating innumerable families from their breadwinners.

The impact of the April 10 rallies on that law-and-order line of policy was immediate. The day before, House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, was in the news defending the harsh House bill from more moderate Republican initiatives in the Senate. The day after, the only lawmaker more powerful than Boehner in the House, Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., joined Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., in vowing not to make illegal immigrants felons. Instead they pledged to beef up border security and enforcement.

But there was no escaping a Republican blunder that dates back to last December. In contrast with the April 10 demonstrations in the full light of a warm spring day, House Republicans convened an unusual meeting in deep winter, between the two sessions of the current 109th Congress, to pass House Bill 4437 as target practice for their conservative base during the holiday recess. With national attention elsewhere and the media half-staffed, the plan was to provide a momentum-building interim prior to passage of tough anti-immigrant reform law.

But when the Latino community got wind of it, alarm spread through word of mouth, the Internet, cell phones and radio stations. A series of separate marches were a prelude to the convergence on April 10.

The Republican “base,” on the other hand, produced handfuls of sloganeers.

Meanwhile, employers, conventionally a Republican constituency, may have gotten a taste of what the planned boycott day of May 1 will be like – and of what their businesses would be like in a future with one of every few Latinos in jail, deported or turned fugitive. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, undocumented workers are a significant percentage of the labor force in restaurants and retail, food and furniture processing and manufacturing, construction and farming, household domestic help, health care and the hospitality industry, among other sectors. Reports of absenteeism, reduced sales and production setbacks, compiled by an assortment of business publications, were frequent around the nation following April 10.

Republicans will have to live with their miscalculation at least until Congress returns from the Easter recess, but even then it’s not certain Democrats will join them in repealing the fierce intentions enshrined in H.R. 4437. They blocked a previous GOP effort to stand down from felonizing indocumentados and breaking up their families, and they may see no reason to change a strategy that paid off politically.

The Senate failed to agree on a more moderate set of immigration reforms before the recess, primarily because of Republican demands that convicted felons not be included in blanket legalization measures. But the Senate debate revealed still further rifts between a core of hard-line conservatives, led by lawmakers from the border states of Arizona and Texas, and more moderate Republicans who hope to demand an investment in the nation as the price of a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants – an investment that would include, at this writing, paying fines and back taxes, learning English and submitting to guest worker programs. Many citizens and their lawmakers consider the offer of even these strong demands in return for legal citizenship a form of “amnesty.” Despite the impressive successes of April 10, the possibility of a conservative backlash against illegal immigrants can’t be altogether discounted.

Against this background, there are plenty of observers in Washington who no longer think Congress can pass stern immigration reform, not with mid-term elections looming in November.

These are matters of the moment, their disposition uncertain. The future seems to wear a surer face for Latinos. Perhaps the best evidence of that came from a young Latino girl, 4 or 5 years old, who stood at the base of the Washington Monument, where the march began. But it was still early on in the gathering of the clans, and her voice carried as she pointed toward the Lincoln Memorial and asked her mother, in high-pitched playground tones, “Is that where Marian Anderson sings?”

That’s where the famed black contralto sang in 1939, after the Daughters of the American Revolution kept her from appearing at Constitution Hall because of her race. With the backing of then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, her performance that afternoon, in the view of many commentators, marked opening day of the civil rights era, and enlisted Anderson herself in a leadership vanguard that would come to include Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr., in addition to countless people less famous but every bit as important to the cause.