As part of the National Day of Action for Immigrant Justice yesterday, roughly half a million people descended upon the National Mall for what was carefully choregraphed as an upbeat, inclusive rally for immigrants' rights rather than an anger-filled protest.
The tone and message of the immigration rally were resoundingly positive. Despite the strongly negative feelings toward HR4437 — a House bill that would criminalize illegal immigrants in the United States — the focus of the event was the strength of the immigrant community and the importance of working out a deal on immigration reform. Hence the mantra of the event: "Si se puede!" (It can be done!).
"That was intentional," said the Latino Economic Development Corporation's Manuel Hidalgo of the onwards-and-upwards message. "The strategy is to rally and educate.".
That strategy must have worked. The rally was organized by the National Capital Immigration Coalition (NCIC), which expected it to draw 100,000 people. Instead, about 500,000 came.
"We Are America" signs were everywhere, as were homemade posters with sentiments such as "Today we march, tomorrow we vote!" Large and small American flags dotted the scene; some participants even draped themselves with the Stars and Stripes.
Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., a co-sponsor with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., of legislation that would put illegal immigrants on a course toward U.S. citizenship, pledged his support of immigrants' right to "earn the privilege of citizenship." He concluded with an emphatic "Si se puede!" The crowd repeated the phrase enthusiastically before chanting "Kennedy! Kennedy!"
Daniel Cortez is a member of the NCIC. He is also a Vietnam veteran whose family emigrated from Mexico. Cortez said his family's story is one that demonstrates the optimistic spirit of the immigrant movement. His uncle, Raul, came to the United States illegally and went on to found KCOR, the first Spanish-language, Hispanic-owned radio station, in San Antonio, Texas, in 1946. Cortez said activist groups like those at the rally helped his uncle and others in his family to assimilate into U.S. society as well as they did.
Cortez, who heads an organization that represents the 15,000 undocumented veterans of the U.S. military, believes there is a spirit of bipartisanship operating in the immigrant movement. "We've stopped voting by party; we vote by person," he said. "These people support President Bush," Cortez added, but Gov. Tim Kaine, D-Va., has also been a public servant with "tremendous compassion" for immigrants.