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The great immigration debate 'Activists from southern California and New Mexico opine on proposed reforms'

Immigration reform repeatedly made national headlines this year when massive amounts of pro-immigration supporters took to the streets in vehement opposition of House of Representatives Bill 4437.

The bill, initiated by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., would criminalize the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States and call for their deportation, and criminalize anyone trying to help them. The House passed the bill in December 2005.

However, immigration advocacy groups want amnesty granted to people already living here.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government has been searching for remedies to further secure the U.S./Mexico border, and people sneaking across the border in search of work and/or a better way of life are center in the debate. It’s estimated that 11 million undocumented immigrants are living in the United States.

As for finding any long-term solutions, it’s apparent from media reports from this past year that the country stands strongly divided on immigration reform. With millions of undocumented immigrants already living in the country, and scores more slipping in the country under the nose of U.S. Border Patrol agents, finding a compromise has been topsy-turvy and slow-moving at best.

The first rally began Valentine’s Day on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, Pa.; demonstrations gained momentum in early March with rallies held in Chicago, Milwaukee and Phoenix.

On March 25, nearly 1 million people gathered for a peaceful march in downtown Los Angeles, said Alvaro Huerta, director of communications for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

“Immigrants are coming out of the shadows,” Huerta said. “This wasn’t just about Latinos. There were a lot of immigrants from different countries.”

According to news sources, April 10 drew the most protesters in 102 cities nationwide. Crowds in several cities were estimated to be between 100,000 to more than 500,000 people.

Santa Fe, N.M., drew about 2,000 people that day. Elsa Lopez, an organizer for Somos Un Pueblo Unido, an immigrant advocacy group that organized the rally, said she was awed by the number of businesses and array of workers in the city that came out in support.

“It wasn’t just the immigrant community, it was everyone coming together,” she said. “People were really excited to participate.”

Across the nation, numerous marchers who walked down city streets waving the Mexican flag were criticized for being anti-American. After catching heat, many switched to the American flag.

Lopez said marchers were asked to not bring U.S. or Mexican flags to the rally that day, but instead were asked to wear white clothing and bring white handkerchiefs to wave as a sign of peace.

In addition to protests, millions of people skipped a day of work May 1. Huerta explained that May 1 is known around the globe as International Workers Day, but is not typically celebrated as such in the United States.

Huerta said about 17,000 workers in Los Angeles alone played hooky from work that day. Scores of those workers attended rallies and joined in the discussion on immigration reform.

On the other side of the debate are the anti-immigration groups. One such group that continually made headlines with their pro-active tactics was the Minutemen Project.

The group canvasses the U.S./Mexico border to call on Border Patrol agents when members see anyone trying to sneak into the country, hosts anti-immigration rallies and advertises hate mail it receives on its Web site.

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“It is a call to bring national awareness to the decades-long careless disregard of effective U.S. immigration law enforcement,” the Minutemen’s Web site states. “It is a reminder to Americans that our nation was founded as a nation governed by the ‘rule of law,’ not by the whims of mobs of ILLEGAL aliens who endlessly stream across U.S. borders.”

Professor James Fenelon, Lakota/Dakota and an associate professor of sociology at California State University, San Bernardino, said the Minutemen remind him of militia groups from the 1800s that called on the U.S. Cavalry to kill Indians who fought to protect their land from white encroachment.

“Borders are very interesting to Native people and are a construction of empire and Euro-American domination,” he said.

He added that California was at one time a part of Mexico, which anti-immigration groups fail to recognize.

Fenelon said that despite the protests and walkouts, San Bernardino made national headlines when resident Joseph Turner and the Save Our State organization collected more than 2,000 signatures to put his Illegal Immigration Relief Act Ordinance on the ballot.

If the ordinance passed, it would have banned city-funded day-labor centers, punished those who did business or rented to illegal immigrants, and required that city communications be done only in English.

Fenelon called Turner’s bill “cultural policing” and the “English only” portion of the bill “cultural domination.”

Farther south, the city of Escondido, Calif., passed an ordinance in October that required owners of rental properties to verify the legality of renters. A federal judge quashed the ordinance before it could be put into effect.

Under the ordinance, if renters fail to provide documentation of legal citizenship, landlords would have to evict the tenants within 10 days of their move-in date.

Opponents argued that it incited racial profiling,
racism and potential price-gouging against the city’s large migrant worker population. Escondido, located in San Diego County, is surrounded by a booming agricultural industry. Hispanics make up 42 percent of the population.

Adriana Jasso, coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee’s Mexico – U.S. Border Program, said the city was going to look at more effective ways to “deal with the problem of illegal aliens.”

Jasso added that throughout the debate the city used the derogatory term “illegal aliens” to describe undocumented immigrants. She credited the migrant and supporting community for documenting abuses and organizing forums and vigils to speak out against the ordinance.

Overall, the protests seemed to help immigrant rights, with the exception of the Secure Fence Act that President George W. Bush signed earlier this year. The bill calls for 700 miles of reinforced fencing and additional physical barriers to be erected across the border.

In August, Louis Guassac, executive director of the Kumeyaay Border Task Force, told Indian Country Today that the fencing, which has also been described as a border wall, would run atop existing burial grounds of ancestors of the San Diego County- and Baja California-based tribes.

Under the Real ID Act of 2005, the government can waive legal protocol, including existing laws, which may allow for the burial grounds to be desecrated despite legal opposition.

Huerta said the wall, which would cost an estimated $7 million to build, was only earmarked for a little more than $1 million. CHIRLA and countless other immigration advocacy groups are fighting against the bill.

Instead of generating more rallies, Huerta said CHIRLA’s latest campaign encourages undocumented immigrants that are eligible for citizenship to naturalize and register to vote. In California more than 3.2 million people are eligible for citizenship, and there are more than 14 million such people nationwide.

So far, CHIRLA has persuaded about 1,700 people to begin the citizenship process.