With unexpectedly low turnout, peaceful protests took place across the country today, with rallies in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, New Jersey, New York and other cities. Although two factors –rain and the possible spread of swine flu– represented a setback in some cities, advocates feel this is the right moment to push for immigration reform. Police in East Boston, Massachusetts estimated there were 1,000 protesters at a local rally. Across from City Hall in Manchester, N.H., demonstrators numbered only 60, according to organizers.
Fausto da Rocha, a Brazilian activist in Massachusetts was not disappointed with the low attendance. “I’m satisfied to see several religious leaders here today, people who can influence many in their communities,” he said . “Everyone knows the time for legalization is now.”
What the rallies lacked in numbers they compensated for with the participation of entire families.
At least three immigrant families whose members were separated by recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids attended the rally in Manchester. At one point, Aaron Silvestre, 6, an American citizen whose father was detained for a few weeks, told the crowd: “We need to keep families together. The police should not take fathers away like they took my father.”
“Immigrants contribute to the economy, not just with their work, but paying taxes, and their purchasing,” said Eva Castillo, an activist with the New Hampshire Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees. “If they were to be deported in masses, this country would see a big hole in local economies.”
What was also different in this year’s rallies was that immigrant rights gained the support of union leaders. These leaders are pushing for immigration reform that includes legalizing about 12 million workers mainly because there’s no political willingness to promote an expansion of a guest-worker program.
For Fines Mendes, president of a United Steelworkers of America local in Boston, people are being hypocritical when they claim immigrants will steal Americans’ jobs.
“Look at this people: how much do you think they make? It’s hypocrisy, because we know there are non-citizens serving in the U.S. Army right now,” said Mendes. “People who are hard-working should be legalized in this country because they already contribute to the local economies.”
Behind the shouts of “today we march, tomorrow we vote,” leaders and political figures catered to a new and large electorate base that can be formed if immigration reform is passed.
“During an economic downturn, it is even more important to promote immigration reform. It’s now that we reflect on the truly important things that face us ahead. Immigrants are the future of this country,” said Sam Yoon, a Boston city councilor.
Noting that Boston is the nation’s 26th most populous city, and the sixth most diverse one, Yoon, a Korean-American who’s running for mayor of Boston this year, acknowledged that the crowd was small.
“If every person here shares their experience with family members, or in their churches, this protest then becomes a good start.”
Nurse Cristina Balbino, of Peabody, Mass., received her American citizenship last year. She challenged those workers absent for any type of fear.
“Fear of what?,” she said. “If we don’t show our faces, President Obama will never see us. He wants to legalize our brothers, but he must know how hard some families work, but when it comes to driving in our roads they have to hide like criminals.”
For Sonia Dias, another American citizen with a 22-year-old son serving in the Army and an 8-year-old boy planning to follow suit, one rally per year is not enough.
“We need to do more,” she said. “If the president fulfilled his promise (talking about immigration reform in his first 100 days in office), we need to do our part. Immigrant workers suffer with a lot of injustice in this country.”
Another legal resident, Ednaldo Trugilo, a Brazilian businessman known as Branco, said today’s immigration situation is quite different from the one he encountered upon arriving in the U.S. 12 years ago.
“Today, anybody who’s is arrested for a driving violation runs the risk of being deported,” Branco said. “I’m here to help out those who don’t have documents to be more secure in this country because everyone has rights.”