Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Five years after the 'Great American Boycott,' what's changed?

Marchers in downtown Los Angeles on May 1, 2006
Marchers in downtown Los Angeles on May 1, 2006
Photo by jeromebot/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Sunday marks five years since the massive immigration reform marches of May 1, 2006. It was that year, amid a wave of activism, that May 1 first became closely associated with immigration rallies.

Things have changed quite a bit since, something I discussed in detail during a recent segment on KPCC's Madeleine Brand Show. But with this year's march coming up in two days, it's worth revisiting the history of the May 1 marches, as well as what to expect this year.

A little background: May 1 is traditionally known as International Workers' Day, celebrated as a "labor day" holiday in some parts of the world. In 2006, at the height of a large immigrant rights movement that revolved around talk of broad immigration reforms and guest workers during the Bush administration, immigrant rights advocates wishing to point out the connection between immigrant workers and the nation's economic engine organized what was referred to as the "Great American Boycott." The goal was for people to abstain from buying or selling anything, working or even attending school, anything that could demonstrate the power of immigrants.

Here's how CNN described May 1, 2006:

Kids skipped school. Men and women walked off their jobs. Others didn't bother going to work. Businesses shut down for lack of patrons or employees.

Throngs of immigrants and advocates took to the streets of many U.S. cities Monday to protest proposed immigration laws, and the sites represented a veritable where's where of American metropolises.

Among them: New York; Washington; Las Vegas, Nevada; Miami, Florida; Chicago, Illinois; Los Angeles, California; San Francisco, California; Atlanta, Georgia; Denver, Colorado; Phoenix, Arizona; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Hundreds of thousands of people marched that day in L.A. The following day, a story in the Los Angeles Times described the scenario:
Thousands of businesses were shuttered on the "Day Without Immigrants" as workers and their families, most of them from Mexico, participated in a boycott of work and commerce, rallying to demonstrate their importance to the U.S. economy and to demand changes in immigration law that would give illegal migrants a path to citizenship.

A crowd estimated by Los Angeles police at 250,000 marched to City Hall in the morning, after which many determined demonstrators made their way, on foot or by subway, to MacArthur Park for a larger march along Wilshire Boulevard. Police estimated that crowd at 400,000 and reported few problems.

"I want to come out of the shadows," said Josefina Cordoba, 46, of El Sereno, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who joined six family members on the City Hall march. A cleaning woman who earns $70 a day, she said it was worth losing a day's wages to make her case. She clutched a small poster that summed up the sentiments of many: "We Just Want a Taste of the American Dream."

The momentum behind the rallies of 2006 began to wane after the hoped-for reforms did not come to fruition. In the years since, as enforcement-based policies have taken the front burner and the immigration battle has moved to the states, immigrant rights advocates have regrouped around smaller bits and pieces of the immigration debate.

Some have focused on the impact of enforcement programs like Secure Communities, a controversial fingerprint-sharing program involving local law enforcement; young activists last year threw their weight behind the Dream Act, a bill that would have legalized youths brought here illegally if they went to college or joined the military. The bill faltered in the Senate late last year, but a campaign to revive it, and to protect undocumented students, continues.

As for the local May 1 marches, they have changed as well. A 2007 rally that erupted into a melee with police in McArthur Park, and during which several people were injured, including journalists covering it, took down the positive tone of the previous year's marches by several notches. May 1 marches since have been smaller, though tens of thousands marched last year in Los Angeles to protest the then-recently signed SB 1070 anti-illegal immigration law in Arizona.

This year, L.A. march organizers say they will still rally for broad reforms to the nation's immigration system, though there's little anticipated chance of such a thing in the near future. Marchers will mainly be protesting the record number of deportations carried out by the Obama administration, said one of the march organizers, Juan Jose Gutierrez, when I spoke with him last week.

"A lot of people are frustrated and disappointed," Gutierrez said. "We feel that the White House is able to do a little more than it has done so far."

Marchers are expected to assemble at 10 a.m. at Broadway and Olympic Boulevard downtown, moving north along Broadway before concluding with a rally near City Hall. This Sunday's crowd is expected to be relatively small, at least in comparison with that of previous years.