From Latinos' Rally, Hopes for a Movement

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 9, 2006

On the eve of demonstrations by Latinos in dozens of cities across the country, protest organizers said they would strive to transform momentum over the immigration controversy into a lasting civil rights movement that unifies the nation's largest minority population.

They face the challenge of appealing to a population that is divided economically, racially and by national origin, a fact that has perplexed marketing and political strategists alike. And some experts say they fear that forming a political coalition around issues more broad-based than immigration might prove daunting.

The mobilization, which already has drawn hundreds of thousands of people this year to immigration protests in major cities, has yet to produce the visible leadership characteristic of civil rights movements.

Demonstrations are planned for more than 60 cities tomorrow, and organizers expect that as many as 180,000 people will converge on the Mall, enhanced by frustration over the congressional impasse last week on immigration legislation.

"Our challenge is to transform this massive movement of people in the streets into a massive movement of people to the polls," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, where a demonstration last month drew more than 500,000 people. "Ultimately in a democracy, your influence depends on putting people in power to represent your interests."

If political power comes to a population estimated to number more than 40 million people -- hailing from more than 20 countries -- it will come gradually.

Only 40 percent of U.S. Latinos are eligible to vote, according to a recent study by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California, and fewer than half vote regularly. One-third of Latinos are too young to vote. And an estimated 27 percent are adults but noncitizens or illegal immigrants.

Although immigrants from all countries would be affected by changes in the law, a wave of Latino protest coalesced after the House passed legislation that would make illegal immigration a felony and penalize those who employed such immigrants. Apparent agreement on a Senate compromise that would have opened a path to citizenship for millions in the country illegally collapsed Friday under the weight of election-year politics.

"A community that had essentially been trying to remain invisible suddenly concluded that their invisibility was only making them more vulnerable," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which advocates expanding immigrant rights.

But Sharry said activism could be undermined if legislation similar to the Senate proposal ever finds its way into law.

"I suspect a lot people will start busying themselves with getting on the path to legal permanent residence, and that could take the political momentum out of [the movement]," Sharry said.

This cycle of success followed by complacency has played out during several previous waves of Latino activism -- most recently in California during the 1990s. In 1994, when voters there adopted Proposition 187, denying some public benefits to illegal immigrants, many Latinos perceived the move as a personal attack by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, who had advocated the measure. Mass demonstrations were followed by a surge in voter registration and political activism by Latinos.

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