Notes From Backstage At The Massive Immigration Rally

Dave Montgomery of the Washington Post was backstage at the huge rally for immigration reform on the National Mall on Sunday.  He was one of more than 300 credentialed media that covered the big event that has been largely over-shadowed by the historic health care vote last night and the rude and unruly – but puny by comparison – gathering of anti-health care reform protesters outside the Capitol.

Of the 200,000 or so people at the March For America, Montgomery provides the back story on several facing deportation:

In the VIP section behind the big stage with a majestic view of the U.S. Capitol, Esvin Blanco, Oved Vigil and Edwin Mazariegos showed the ankle bracelets they must wear beneath their baggy jeans so U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can keep track of them before they face possible deportation in coming weeks.

Onstage a few yards away, Carlos Luna wore an American flag as a cape in support of his brother, Mauricio, caught in the same series of raids 11 days ago. And Cesar Guanoquiza took the microphone to make his public speaking debut, in honor of a nephew, a brother and a cousin who were detained.

“We are not criminals,” Guanoquiza declared. “We are workers here to push this country forward!”

It is a must-read, long, and perceptive story about what is at stake for many of the hopeful but impatient immigrants who were part of the massive crowd on the Mall.

[For more on the march, see Marcelo Ballve’s article for New America Media, a consortium of ethnic media outlets, that was cross posted at AlterNet.org.  Ballve also filed a slide show of rally photos and I wrote a story for AlterNet.org, as well.]

I was also backstage most of the day and got a chance to stand on the press riser and see the crowd that stretched West to 14th Street and beyond from the main stage near 7th Street.  An overflow of people stretched behind the stage almost to 4th Street to the East with chanting, dancing, sign and flag waving crowds who could not hear or see the big screen coverage of the speakers and music on-stage – but didn’t seem to care.

The rally on April 10, 2006 in support of immigration reform – and against the pending “Sensenbrenner bill” H.R. 4437 to criminalize and more easily deport millions of immigrants – was perhaps a bit larger.  It set a one-day record for the DC Metro system at the time.  But this Sunday’s turn-out was tremendous and beyond the hoped for “tens of thousands” march organizers had predicted.

I reminisced with Maria Elena Durazo, the head of the Los Angeles County Labor Federation and Local 11 of UNITE HERE, about the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride she led and I worked on in 2003.  It was the first major national event that brought labor’s event organizing acumen to bear on the pro-immigration reform issue.  After a two-week, cross country bus caravan that included a roadblock at a Border Patrol checkpoint in Arizona and a bus that retraced (in reverse) the route of the original Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Freedom Rides of the 1960s, it culminated in a rally at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, New York that brought together 150,000-200,000 people.  SNCC and Freedom Ride veteran John Lewis, a Congressman from Georgia, and Rev. James Lawson of Los Angeles, and the late Rev. James Orange of Atlanta were among the civil rights movement icons that helped the series of rallies and events become a reality.  The Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride marked an alliance between labor, pro-immigrant, and civil rights leaders that endures to this day and was on display at Sunday’s rally.

But despite the tremendous crowd in 2003 in Queens, the event got little media attention in the English language media beyond CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who was just then sharpening his tongue against immigration and immigrants on his nightly broadcast.

Dobbs is no longer on CNN and the movement that was just starting to gel at that time has outlasted him, but so too has the wait for a serious overhaul of America’s immigration system.  About a thousand people are deported every day from America and about 400 die each year being smuggled into or sneaking into the country because we do not have an adequate legal immigration system as an alternative to illegal immigration.

Among the others hanging out backstage was a legend of the civil rights movement, activist and stand-up comedian Dick Gregory, who knows a thing or two about long fights for social change, human rights, and justice.  At 77, Gregory was taking it all in and chatting politely with fans and admirers who recognized him.  He had not come to speak, but like Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., who also roamed the crowd, Gregory knew this event was a moment not to be missed.

Dick Gregory, r, chatting with Deepak Bhargava

We had a chance to chat, interrupted several times by people who wanted a picture with him.  Dick Gregory is still as sharp and radical as ever, reflecting upon, among other things, the role labor played in the 1963 March on Washington.  What a treat to meet him.

Feet sore, face red, and pants and shoes dusty, I headed back home with my wife at the end of the day.  Clarissa, who is also an advocate for immigration reform, was moved by the, rally, but couldn’t hold back her tears when she saw hundreds of people taking the time to pick up trash on the Mall as they headed for buses home.  Our movement makes a statement with our numbers and then sweeps up afterwards!

Frank Sharry, the head of America’s Voice, summed up Sunday’s rally in a statement issued Monday:

As yesterday’s rally on the mall showed, immigrants and their allies love this country and are just asking for a chance to be part of it.  Conventional wisdom was wrong on health care and wrong about the power of a few thousand dedicated Tea Party activists.  The pundits should take note that the pro-immigration coalition is a force to be reckoned with.  We demonstrated what a real crowd looks like.

As health care winds down as the issue dominating the Washington news, I suspect you will be hearing a lot more about immigration reform.

Editor’s Note: Please follow Douglas Rivlin on Twitter, and The News Junkie Post to stay updated on all of our articles.

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5 Responses to Notes From Backstage At The Massive Immigration Rally

  1. Vote -1 Vote +1Mary
    March 23, 2010 at 10:24 am

    It was moving to see people pick up trash. Piolin did a great service when he asked people to do it. The whole march experience was amazing, beautiful and empowering. Si se puede!

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  3. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Brittanicus
    March 23, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    No amnesty, No Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR). They keep repeating the–SAME TIRED NUMBER–but the US border Patrol in just the Tuscon sector, expressed, “Only one out of ten is caught.” The Tucson sector Border Patrol union local 2544 on the number of illegal aliens in our nation: “There are currently 15 to 20 million illegal aliens in this country by many estimates, but the real numbers could be much higher and the numbers increase every day because our borders are not secure (NO MATTER WHAT THE POLITICIANS TELL YOU-DON’T BELIEVE THEM FOR ONE SECOND) Said a Spokesman for the Border Patrol. “Our illegal immigration numbers are based on an estimated twenty million illegal aliens having been present in our nation as of -JANUARY 1, 2004.”almost four million people crossed our borders illegally 2002″ end of quote. Other experts on the subject agree that illegal crossings have only increased since then.

    Americans cannot afford 10 million more families. Foreign nationals are very knowledgeable at cheating the IRS and the US taxpayer. They can even get child credits for their children, either not in America or in some other country. Once those here receive appropriate green cards they can then sponsor immediate family member, including people with infirmities as long as they are financial sponsored. But this is a joke, because once here the law–IS NOT ENFORCED. They then become public charges. They can collect Supplementary Security income (SSI) and other benefits. The number can never be truly calculated? Even the US Census will be off the mark, because hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions will stay silent. Now the number of illegal immigrants who have no intention of renewing their entry visa, or have slipped past the Border Patrol (Canada and Mexico, South American countries and islands) must be deported.

    We need professional and highly skilled workers, but not desperate uneducated, non-or semi-skilled. We have millions of Americans and legal residents in that category. Guest workers for farms and agriculture, but they must stay in that job until their visa expires. No options!.Then go home? California the SANCTUARY STATE, ARIZONA & NEW YORK have been bled dry.

    The true estimate of foreign nationals in America is somewhere between 20 and 30 million? If AMNESTY is forced through the numbers will skyrocket, as countless numbers will be ready to bridge the border, just before President Obama signs the new reform. (with the wife and kids this would amount to 40-50 million people) on welfare, in subsidized housing, food stamps, WIC, more teachers, covered by Medicaid and other payments. They will not be paying any taxes because of the EIC and Child Tax credits will reimburse them. The IRS does not follow up on this type of fraud? This is a cruel trick on every honest taxpayer is this first generation of newly legalized immigrants, could escalate with thousands bring in brothers, sisters, Mothers and Fathers. By the year 2040 the population of America could be unsustainable with limited resources, water shortages, highways crammed to capacity and a infrastructure that is falling apart.

    THOSE INTERESTED-THE HISTORY CHANNEL IS ONCE AGAIN TELEVISING “The Crumbling of America.” This Friday observe the depreciating bridges, dams, levees and 50 year old underground system of sewage in some areas. Our Survival is in peril, but they do not enforce immigration laws. In fact Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has cut the budget for the Border Patrol and other enforcement tools in the SAVE ACT and REAL ID Act. Yet the Congress keeps appropriating money to fight foreign wars or aid other countries. There is much more to learn-not- the propaganda given to us by the business world Learn so much more by surfing the Internet or go to NUMBERSUSA. Read about the corruption from both political parties at JUDICIAL WATCH. Don’t hesitate in calling your Senator or Representative at 202-224-3121 In addition Don’t forget to give your State assembly a piece of your mind.

    Not copyrighted. TELL THE PEOPLE YOU KNOW–NO AMNESTY! It will entice Millions more to come for free government entitlements.

  4. Vote -1 Vote +1KF
    March 27, 2010 at 12:05 am

    Douglas,

    What’d you talk to Dick about?

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