Activists diversifying ranks in traditionally Latino-led movement: immigration reform

By Suzanne Gamboa
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Beyond the noisy town hall meetings, Tea Party protests and sky-is-falling speeches characterizing much of the health care debate is a less visible, but an intense push to broaden the face of the immigration reform movement.

With the 2010 election year looming, Democrat Barack Obama in the White House and increasing numbers of Asian American and Pacific Islanders in Congress, many groups, including the NAACP, are working harder in the traditionally Latino-led movement, sensing a fresh opportunity to overhaul laws affecting millions of immigrants, both legal and illegal.

“For far too long, the Latino population in the U.S. has really borne the brunt of the anti-immigrant sentiment,” said Rep. Yvette Clarke.

National Association for Advancement of Colored People Washington bureau director Hillary Shelton said, “The immigration debate needs to have, in addition to a Latino face, a Haitian face. It needs to have an Asian face.”

Unquestionably, the immigration issue is a rising matter. Opinions are strong. And no small part of the renewed impetus for revamping the system are the increasing immigrant crackdowns.

Against this backdrop, the collection of voices clamoring for overhaul is expanding — Caribbean Americans, evangelical churches, labor unions, and law enforcement, besides the NAACP. And businesses, too, are becoming increasingly active.

“It’s a Godsend,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “We have been trying to make the argument, unsuccessfully in many respects, that immigration is not just a Latino issue because others are affected — Asians, Russians, Africans … At the core, this is about the future viability of this country.”

However, the immigration reform movement hasn’t been devoid of diversity over the years.

Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, Christian, and other churches and faiths have been active leaders. In 2006 and 2007, people wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Legalize The Irish” in green letters were common sights around the U.S. Capitol. Even immigration groups in Caribbean American communities have participated.

But because the overwhelming majority of immigrants are coming from Mexico and Latin America, the push for a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented has been led largely by Latinos. It was mostly Latino immigrants who turned out for the 2006 marches against immigration crackdowns. It was a massive showing, stoked in part by Spanish-language radio and television.

Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has said he fully expects work on rewriting immigration law to begin in Congress next year. But he also said Congress may have to deal with it on a piecemeal approach if Democratic leaders delay because of the elections and a hostile political climate.

For his part, Obama said in September he believed that remaking immigration policy would be difficult, “but I think we can get it done.” But he has not suggested a timetable.

Meanwhile, proponents of immigration reform are stepping efforts to expand their ranks, and present a more diversified face at the same time.

Part of the problem is that Black and Latino communities have divided in the past over illegal immigration reform. There has been frictionover whether illegal immigrants take jobs from Black Americans.

But Clarke, a second-generation American whose parents immigrated from Jamaica and the West Indies, said many in the Black community, which includes many African, Caribbean, and Black Latino communities, realize that ignoring the immigration reform movement means giving up the chance to ensure that the unique problems of Black immigrants are addressed.

California Democratic Rep. Mike Honda, a Japanese American, said he wants to make sure reforms address the long waiting periods that Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders face to get visas to legally enter the country and to help lesbian/gay/bisexual and transgender communities have equal chances to bring their loved ones to this country.

“We are being asked to lead. At 29 members strong, we are weighing in with newfound force to ensure Asian American/Pacific Islanders are included in immigration reform,” Honda said.

“No longer will we be silent on issues of immigration reform,” said Bishop Orlando Findlayter, head of Churches United to Save and Heal, a coalition of Carribean American clergy. A few moments later, about 100 ministers, pastors, and others crossed Independence Avenue in Washington to join him in lobbying members for immigration changes.

The increased intensity behind the movement has been palpable, with many faces and organizations pitching. Activism is on the rise:

— Rep. Luis Gutierrez led immigration reform meetings in various churches. And more than 60,000 people attended “house parties” this month and listened in on a conference call with Gutierrez and other members of Congress.

— Lennox Abrigo, pastor of Seventh-Day New Covenant Church in Maryland, said the pastors have a Dec. 2 meeting at the White House. He said they have seen increases in immigrants in their congregations and increases in the problems faced by those in the country both legally and illegally.

“Members in our church have been deported … Families are disrupted. We have families broken up just like it was done in the period of slavery,” Abrigo said.

— The National Council of Evangelicals, representing 40 denominations including the Assemblies of God and Church of the Nazarene, recently issued a resolution backing immigration reform. ♦

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