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Do lower crowd counts at rallies equal a 'weak immigration movement?'

An immigrant rights protester in downtown Los Angeles, May 1, 2012
An immigrant rights protester in downtown Los Angeles, May 1, 2012
Photo by Mae Ryan/KPCC

There's an Associated Press headline that's been picked up by news outlets around the country by now in reference to Tuesday's rallies which reads, "May Day Protests Show Weak Immigration Movement."

It refers to the relatively low turnout by immigrant rights protesters in the rallies, which this year shared the stage with often competing rallies by the Occupy movement. And it's true that in comparison with the massive immigrant rights marches of 2006 - the first year that May 1 brought out hundreds of thousands onto L.A. streets - attendance was quite low, as it was last year.

Here's how the story describes it:

Over the last several years, May Day rallies in the United States have been dominated by activists pushing for a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally. But since 2006, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets in cities across America, the rallies have gotten smaller, less focused and increasingly splintered by any number of groups with a cause.

In New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., May Day protests were dominated by Occupy Wall Street activists, a sign of how far the immigration has fallen off the radar, unable to compete with the economy.

Immigration has been eclipsed by the economy as an issue of importance, as illustrated by recent voter polls. But in an era of virtual activism, is the number of protesters who show up to a rally the best indicator of the state of a broader movement?

There's no doubt that in the years since 2006, when the talk coming from Congress indicated bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform with earned legalization and an expanded guest worker program, those who had hoped for sweeping reforms have had to temper their expectations, to put it mildly. But these tempered expectations have also led to focused mini-movements within the immigrants rights umbrella, with different factions picking smaller, more manageable battles that have yielded some moderate successes.

Also from the AP piece:

Immigration activists say they are not worried about decreasing numbers at rallies because their focus the last few years has been more on getting eligible immigrants to become U.S. citizens and vote.

Voter registration and citizenship drives are where some of the focus has gone. The past half-dozen years have also seen the birth of an undocumented youth movement that had yet to reveal itself in 2006; even in 2007, one of the more recent years that the federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was voted on, the level of youth activism was relatively low. Today, a large youth movement that took shape around the 2010 campaign for the Dream Act, which failed in Congress, has continued to push for smaller state bills, among them the California Dream Act, legislation signed last fall by Gov. Jerry Brown that gives undocumented college students access to the same public financial aid as other students.

The evolving role of social media in activism of all stripes can't be brushed aside. As more young people have been drawn to immigrant rights activism, social media has become an important tool for their organizing efforts. Depending on how well connected they are with the larger movement, many facing deportation have benefited from a ready support network, with online supporters they've never met pushing petitions and setting up Facebook pages to win attention to their situation. In several cases these campaigns have had success, most often those in support of young people with clean records and a long history in the U.S.

At the same time, in the early days of social media, MySpace was used as an organizing tool by those who worked to draw large crowds to immigrant rights rallies around the country in 2006, and crowds like that haven't manifested themselves in recent years.

So it's time to hear from readers: Does weak turnout at immigration rallies translate to a weakened immigrant rights movement, or does this movement simply look different today? Is crowd count still a good indicator in an era when people don't necessarily gather in person?

Post your thoughts below.