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May Day protests for immigration reform

Immigration activists march in Downtown Los Angeles on May 1st, 2012.
Immigration activists march in Downtown Los Angeles on May 1st, 2012.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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On this May Day, activists expect thousands of people to march through the streets of downtown LA in a call for immigration reform. Demonstrators remember another time when immigration reform was at the top of the national agenda.

Back in 2006, the key word was noise. Walk through downtown and you would've been shoulder-to-shoulder with a half-million other people.

Jesse Diaz was one of the organizers of the march -- the Great American Boycott. To prove the value of immigrants, he wanted people to neither buy nor work that day, and to him, it was a great success.

"I mean you could feel this groundswell that was happening across the country," said Diaz. "Based on these mobilizations we thought we could get immigration reform."

Across the country, millions took to the streets. Many of them were angry that the House had passed a bill that included increased penalties for illegal immigrants. Those massive demonstrations took anti-immigration advocates completely off guard, like KABC radio host Larry Elder.

"The police were shocked by how many people came out, not just here in California but all over the country, because it was a subterranean thing because most Americans don't speak Spanish," said Elder. "We were completely blindsided by what happened. That's why the other side wasn't able to marshal their forces because they had no idea it was coming."

Elder argued that immigration reform shouldn't take place without better border security, but it was hard to hear him that day. That included Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minutemen Project, whose volunteers patrolled the border. He was the opponent most visible to reform activists, and on May Day seven years ago.

But he was definitely outnumbered on the streets. In the end, that didn't matter, the immigration reform bill passed in the House, but died in the Senate, effectively ending the bid for new legislation. So why didn't that people power turn into political power in 2006? Activist Jesse Diaz says those grassroots got uprooted.

"I mean everybody was just scrambling. There was no central leadership and so the ones that rose to the top were these national nonprofits, so that power that momentum was just shifted."

Diaz thinks that as those nonprofits and the Democratic party took over, they compromised too much on the goals of the movement. But anti-immigration forces didn't win either. Jim Gilchrist faced his own fractured movement.

"Some people on my side of the debate are extremist. They are essentially fascist and racist," said Gilchrist.

Which may come as a surprise from someone who's been called that, too. He now tries to distance himself from the people he thinks hijacked the Minutemen.

"Seven years later, 2013, I can honestly say that I have more enemies from my side of the debate than I have on my adversarial side," said Gilchrist.

Radio host Larry Elder watched the breakdown on both sides.

"When a bunch of people take to the streets and call one side racist, and another group of people say you ought to go home, we'll round you up and deport you, then we'll have no conversation whatsoever," said Elder

Everyone lost. But here we are, seven years later, and today, Angelenos are taking to the streets, hoping once again for a reform bill. But this time, there is something different about the political landscape: voters. Potentially 11 million new ones, currently living here illegally. 

"After amnesty, they can all be voting citizens, and they will pledge their vote to the party that essentially gave them amnesty." said Gilchrist.

Jesse Diaz agrees that politicians are seeing an electorate gold mine.

"It's only because of the election of the president that they've then tried to capitalize on that to get the Latino vote," said Diaz. 

But there's another factor that may sway the outcome of reform: 7 years of groundwork by immigrants and their children.

"With the Dreamers, they've been able to politicize their parents, so the immigrant community has become very politically astute especially after 2006," said Diaz. 

Maybe activists won't be jamming the streets of LA today like they did years ago, but they've been quietly working all this time. So while 2006 was marked by lot of noise, perhaps 2013 will be more of a quiet revolution. Diaz, for example, is taking a backseat this year in organizing.

"You know, the next generation has come in of leadership and they're doing pretty good," said Diaz. He'll be marching, but hasn't been calling for a boycott.

The Minutemen Project's Jim Gilchrist will be laying low, although he'll still conduct interviews.

"If I were to completely drop out and say that this is hopeless, then essentially there wouldn't be as much debate," said Gilchrist.

And radio host Larry Elder? He still plans to sit behind his mic, sending his message out to the streets.

"If it means that I'm called a racist for saying let's secure the borders first, then call me a racist," said Elder. "But I believe that our borders should be secured first, then we should have a discussion of what to do with the 10-12 million people who are here illegally: that is my message."

But, as in 2006, who knows if anyone will be listening. If you're planning to be out in downtown today, marching for or against immigration reform — tweet to us about what you're seeing and hearing @TakeTwo