High Expectations, Low Turn Out at New York Immigration Rally

By Maibe Gonzalez Fuentes, FI2W contributor
May Day rally at Madison Square Park in Manhattan.

May Day rally at Madison Square Park in Manhattan. (Photos: Maibe Gonzalez Fuentes)

About 500 people, many of them immigrants, rallied today at Madison Square Park in Manhattan to call on the federal government to reform the immigration system and legalize the status of about 12 million undocumented workers currently living in the United States. The march was the first of two to be held this afternoon in New York, with another one starting later in Union Square.

The turnout fell significantly short of the projections of organizers who were expecting to draw at least 1,000 people. The rain and the tough economic situation seem to have affected people’s plans.

“This is the year when we need more people out because we need to remind President Obama that he has to keep the promise and pass immigration reform this year, but the economic situation makes it very difficult for people to miss a day of work,” said Luis Olavarria, 38, an undocumented Mexican worker who took a few minutes during his lunch break from a nearby restaurant to attend the rally.

Make the Road New York, one of the 25 organizations that participated in the demonstration, achieved its own goal of bringing two buses with over 100 of its members from Queens and Brooklyn to the demonstration site.

Ecuadorian ... and Argentinean Javier Cuenca

Ecuadorian Juan Diego Castro and Argentinean Javier Cuenca at the rally.

“I think this is great, there is a lot of hope and energy here today,” said Javier Cuenca, a 33-year-old undocumented Argentinean immigrant. Cuenca had spent the day yesterday preparing for the rally. At the demonstration he joined his friend Juan Diego Castro in clanking a pot and shouting slogans in Spanish, such as “No human being is illegal” and “We are here to stay.”

Castro, an Ecuadorian, is a 23-year-old college graduate who spent most of his life as a client of the immigration system. He came to the United States when he was 3 years old, became a permanent resident when he was 16, and a U.S. citizen two years ago.

“The immigration system is terrible,” he said in Spanish. “I’m here because I think all human beings should be treated equally and benefits shouldn’t only be for citizens.”

“The government can’t separate families”

Standing right next to them was Miguel Bonilla, a construction worker from Veracruz, Mexico, who came to the U.S. nine years ago. He’s undocumented but he said he wasn’t at the rally to advocate for himself.

Miguel Bonilla.

Miguel Bonilla.

“I’m here to support a friend of mine whose husband got deported. She’s here alone with her daughter now,” Bonilla said. “The government can’t separate families like that.”

The rally’s agenda, as explained by Ana Maria Archila, the co-executive director of Make the Road New York, consists of three legislative items: changes in immigration laws that provide a path to citizenship for undocumented workers and students; the enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act, which will give 60 million workers the right to unionize; and health care reform that provides affordable care to everyone.

Fighting for the DREAM Act

Karla Lopez, 20, is a high school graduate who was brought from Puebla, Mexico, to New York when she was 3. She will attend Kings Borough Community College in the fall but her chances of getting a job after graduation are scarce, as she is undocumented.

Karla Lopez.

Karla Lopez.

Raised and educated in the United States, Lopez’s Spanish is great but she obviously feels more comfortable in English. She joined La Union, a Brooklyn-based community group that advocates for immigrant rights, so she could join the fight for the passage of the DREAM Act.

“We are asking the government to pass the DREAM Act so youth who have come to the U.S. before they were 16 years old and have gone through the American school system can apply for legal residency and get a job after college,” Lopez said.

Brett Tolley, a 26-year-old New Yorker and community organizer with La Union, said that his organization sees many cases like Karla’s.

“Many of these youth,” he said pointing to the crowd, “have done their entire school in the U.S., they can’t even remember their home countries. We [Americans] talk about reducing the drop-out rate among Latinos, but we don’t want to give them opportunities after college. What is their motivation if they can’t have a decent job after graduation?”

AboutMaibe Ponet
Maibe Ponet is a Venezuelan-American journalist. She is currently the Opinion Page Editor for El Diario La Prensa, the oldest Spanish-language daily in the United States. She has worked as a reporter for leading Venezuelan national publications and was a staff writer for the Spanish language newspaper Hoy, where she covered local politics and NYC City Hall from 2002 to 2005. Following her departure from Hoy, she served as a press person for candidates, elected officials and city agencies, including the 2005 Democratic mayoral nominee Fernando Ferrer, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and the New York City Department of Education. Maibe is a former Independent Press Association Ethnic Journalism Fellow. She holds a BA in Journalism from the Central University of Venezuela, and a master's degree in Urban Policy and Management from The New School University.