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

Beyond May Day and marches, an evolving immigrant rights movement

The crowd at Olympic and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, May 1, 2008
The crowd at Olympic and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, May 1, 2008
Photo by jenlund70/Flickr (Creative Commons)

As an immigrant rights marchers wind their way through downtown Los Angeles this afternoon in one of a series of rallies tied to May Day in L.A. and throughout the country, today marks the sixth anniversary of a historic event that drew hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the city's streets.

That massive demonstration in 2006 took place at a time when hopes were high among immigrant rights activists that broad reforms to the nation's immigration system were imminent. Resistance to enforcement-based federal measures (at the time, the ill-fated HR 4437) had spread, while the talk coming out of Congress during the Bush administration suggested bipartisan support not only for a guest worker program, but for earned legalization.

In Los Angeles and throughout the country that spring, rallies calling for immigration reform drew record crowds. On May 1, traditionally known as International Workers’ Day and celebrated as a “labor day” holiday in some parts of the world, immigrant rights organizers wishing to point out the connection between immigrant workers and the national economy organized what was called the “Great American Boycott." The goal was for people to abstain from buying or selling, working or even attending school, anything that could demonstrate the power of immigrants. In Los Angeles alone that day, two related marches drew upwards of 650,000 participants.

The hoped-for reforms didn't materialize, and since then, the immigrant rights movement has shifted, as has the political climate surrounding immigration. The latter has become increasingly enforcement-friendly, both in the states in the wake of Arizona's SB 1070 anti-illegal immigration law in 2010 and at the federal level, with deportations at a record high as the Obama administration embraces polices like the controversial Secure Communities fingerprint sharing program.

In response, immigrant rights advocates have regrouped around smaller, more tangible goals while at the same time building alliances, notably with labor and the faith community. The larger movement has also branched out into mini-movements at the grassroots level, with activists in many cases tailoring campaigns around social media as an alternative to marching in the street.

Just a few examples of where it's gone since:

The youth movement surrounding the Dream Act

Perhaps the first large-scale immigrant rights push after 2006 went toward the federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. While the measure failed to clear the Senate in December 2010, what happened around it brought unprecedented developments in the immigrant rights movement. First, it drew in a large number of undocumented young people, youths who would have benefit from the bill, which proposed conditional legal status for those brought to the U.S. before age 16 if they went to college or joined the military.

The tactics changed as well. There were rallies, but civil disobedience in the form of sit-ins was coupled with "coming out," young people going public with their immigration status as a political act, a move taken from the early gay rights playbook. After the federal Dream Act failed, the coming-out movement continued, with young activists rallying around state measures aimed at making college tuition less expensive for undocumented students, who in most states don't get the breaks afforded to citizens and legal residents.

One victory this movement has claimed is passage last year of the California Dream Act, which allows undocumented students to access public financial aid, as other students have. There are also a series of stripped-down versions of the Dream Act being considered in addition to the original, some of which have generated a great deal of attention, if not as much support.

Anti-deportation campaigns

One response to the record number of deportations under the Obama administration has been the use of social media, mostly by young immigrant rights activists, to halt the deportations of people in proceedings. These are often younger immigrants, people who arrived as minors, although some older immigrants have been the subject of anti-deportation petitions also. Others have become active in these campaigns as supporters of same-sex couples, who don't benefit from immigration rules in the same way that male-female binational married couples do.

Some of these campaigns have worked better than others. There are some that have been quite successful, getting the attention of legislators who in some cases have introduced private bills, or at least getting the ear of immigration officials who have temporarily halted some removals. One dramatic example was the story of college student Steve Li, who was sitting in an Arizona detention center awaiting a flight out of the country when his removal was suspended.

Some have claimed the Obama administration's "prosecutorial discretion" guidelines announced last year as a victory of sorts; the guidelines have been cited in recent deferred actions, for example, the decision by immigration officials to give Miami valedictorian Daniela Pelaez a two-year reprieve from deportation. Immigration officials have been using the guidelines at they review low-priority deportation cases in the immigration courts, although just a fraction of the cases reviewed have been officially shelved.

Harnessing the voting power of Latinos, and Asians too

Some of the news coverage six years ago focused on the young marchers in the immigrant rights rallies, teens who would soon reach voting age. And in the years since, there's been a concentrated effort to harness the votes of both immigrants and their U.S.-born children.

Among these has been an effort launched in 2009 by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), which partnered with Spanish-language media outlets and the National Council of La Raza to launch Ya Es Hora (Spanish for "now is the time"). The bilingual campaign urges Latinos to become U.S. citizens and to register to vote.

Similarly, the more pop culture-oriented Voto Latino, co-founded by actress Rosario Dawson in 2004, has expanded in recent years as it attempts to reach out to younger, English-speaking Latino voters. And last year, in part inspired by Ya Es Hora, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles mounted a similar get-out-the-vote campaign aimed at reaching Asians.

Latinos helped propel President Obama to victory in 2008, and could well do the same this year. Asians American voters also have the potential to swing an election, although they are courted far less by candidates. Have outreach efforts made a difference in more recent elections? Going by how Latinos are credited with saving Democratic candidates in the West in 2010, especially Nevada's Sen. Harry Reid, that would seem like a yes.

There have been other battles picked by the immigrant rights movement in the years since, notably the opposition to state measures like SB 1070 and its successors in other states, and a vocal campaign against Secure Communities, which allows the fingerprints of people booked at local jail facilities to be shared with immigration officials.

Interestingly, immigrant rights also became a side issue within the Occupy movement that mushroomed last year. But while there's some overlap, that movement remains focused on economic inequality; in addition to the immigrant rights May Day march, Occupy organizers are staging their own march today in Los Angeles. Plans are for the two, along with other demonstrations taking place, to converge downtown in the late afternoon.