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Who’s Driving Immigration Reform?

New America Media, Commentary, Jerry Sullivan Posted: Mar 26, 2010

The March 21 demonstration for immigration reform in Washington, D.C., drew anywhere from “tens of thousands” to more than 200,000 participants, according to various estimates, and guesses on the causes and effects of the event have been just as varied.

Getting a good read on the chances for immigration reform will require more information—and that will come with a follow-up march planned for Downtown Los Angeles this Saturday, March 27.

Here’s a general rule for reading the turnout in Los Angeles: A big crowd—25,000 or more—will indicate that the grassroots of the Latino community have returned to action and will drive the political class to make a genuine push for immigration reform regardless of electoral implications.

A small crowd—5,000 or less—will mean that matters remain in the hands of the political class and will likely languish for the foreseeable future.

Anything in between will be anybody’s guess.

Why the uncertainty? Because the energy behind the push for an immigration reform plan that would provide some break for undocumented immigrants has come from alternate sources over the years. At times it has flowed from a broad swelling of voices at the grassroots level. At others it has relied on the political class whose constituent parts—elected officials, labor unions and various other advocacy groups--favor such immigration reform.

Consider the “megamarchas” of 2006, which brought an estimated 500,000 demonstrators to the streets of Los Angeles on two occasions, just a few months apart. Those were grassroots events. Their effects shook the political class that favored the marchers’ goal as much as it jarred opponents of immigration reform.

The reaction from knee-jerk opponents was predictable.

The shock to the political class is tougher to figure.

The truth is that even many Latino members of the political class overlooked a key aspect of their own community. They failed to note that everyday working immigrants are—in their own way—every bit as shrewd in figuring political calculus as elected officials or advocates.

Keep in mind that the giant marches of 2006 came in response to proposed federal legislation that would have brought severe restrictions on immigration and undocumented immigrants. Many immigrants saw a genuine threat. They felt their backs were against the wall, which left them little to lose by making a high-profile protest.

The marchers of 2006 took a chance and essentially won—or forced a truce, at least. The bill they saw as a threat faded away.

The energy generated by those giant turnouts did something else, though, drawing the interest of the political class, whose members saw power in numbers and realized they were laggards in what could become a real movement. They looked for ways to get in front of the marchers, harnessing the power of those vast numbers for use in the political arena. That means bargaining and accommodation and all the stuff of politics.

Meanwhile, the grassroots who provided the power by taking to the streets appear to have made a shrewd calculation: Their demonstrations had chased the wolf from the door by derailing the restrictive legislation on immigration. Political matters were going their way; officialdom had seen the value in their numbers. They decided to keep their heads down and let the politicians proceed.

They saw the U.S. Congress come under control of the Democratic Party, which offered a more sympathetic outlook on immigration reform. Next came the election of Barack Obama, a Democratic president who also offered reason to think that immigration reform might be in the offing.

So the grassroots made another shrewd calculation, waiting patiently while the political class maneuvered.

The political class, meanwhile, has tried to take control of the energy that gave rise to the megamarches of yesteryear, attempting to deploy the power of the Latino community for various causes. Periodic bids to stage demonstrations that would replicate the huge turnouts of 2006 have failed, however, with none generating anywhere near those numbers, and many drawing fewer than 1,000 participants.

The political class hasn’t gotten very far on immigration reform, either.

Elected officials put the issue on hold while pushing through a federal health care plan. Meanwhile, President Obama has toughened standards on identifying immigration status for employment, leading to the firing of many workers and making it harder for undocumented immigrants to find new jobs amid the economic downturn. This has brought an air of desperation to many of the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in the United States, including plenty in Los Angeles. And while the tough economy has ratcheted up anger among some native-born U.S. citizens, others have begun to view the circumstances of the undocumented with an empathy they didn’t feel in 2006.

So what does all of this mean for the upcoming demonstration in Downtown Los Angeles?

The guess here is that the grassroots will once again take command by turning out in significant numbers, topping the 25,000 mark.

Such a turnout will be more significant than last week’s demonstration in Washington, which might have drawn larger numbers but also came with a lot of logistical help from the political class. A significant turnout in Los Angeles, on the other hand, will show that everyday working folks in our community are worried and view immigration reform as a minimum requirement for holding onto whatever standing they have achieved in the country. It will mean that members of a large segment of our community once again feel that their backs are against the wall.

Anything less will likely leave the matters to the politicians—and you can bet they’ll take the safest path for themselves.

Jerry Sullivan is the editor of LA Beez, an online collaboration of ethnic media organizations covering Los Angeles. He is also the editor and publisher of the Los Angeles Garment & Citizen, a community newspaper that serves Downtown Los Angeles.

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