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.

Two successive Democratic candidates were swept into the governor's mansion, and the state became a reliable voter for Democratic presidential candidates.

Once the sense of crisis abated, fewer California Latinos turned out to vote. In the 2002 general election, for example, Latinos represented 17 percent of registered voters but 10 percent of those who voted.

Organizers of the demonstrations set for tomorrow said they plan to counter the pattern by convening a national conference in June, probably in Milwaukee, to craft an agenda that carries the movement beyond a single legislative goal.

"We're going to be talking about what a pro-immigration platform looks like and how to maintain it," said Kimberly Propeack, advocacy director for CASA of Maryland, an immigrant rights group.

The effort to mold an issue into a movement might be hampered by the absence of a nationally recognized leader to fulfill the galvanizing role that Martin Luther King Jr. played for the African American civil rights movement, or that Mexican American labor activist Cesar Chavez played for West Coast farm workers.

The lack of such a figure is at least partly due to the nature of the organizations underlying the current mobilization.

Although many leaders of the civil rights movement emerged from historically black colleges or Protestant churches that fostered the rise of a select group of orators, the recent demonstrations have been the work of a diverse, dispersed, grass-roots network of community service organizations, social clubs, unions and Spanish-language media outlets. The Washington demonstration alone is being coordinated by more than 60 such groups.

"Without a Dr. King-like figure, we lack the capacity to create that personal connection, not just within our own community but with folks on the outside," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president of policy for National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group. "Someone with that kind of visibility is really useful in terms of educating people."

Although there is no identifiable leader to reconcile the inevitable fractures that have emerged as so many groups try to harmonize their activities, Salas said the decentralized nature of the movement also has an advantage.

"There's no one leader who could disappear and affect the movement," she said. "Instead, you have all these local communities with their own independent local leaders."

And many Latino leaders say that whatever the fate of their movement in the short run, their success over the long term is virtually guaranteed by the millions of U.S.-born Latinos who will be turning 18 over the next decade.

The most lasting impact of the demonstrations might be the passion it ignites among the young people who participate, said Antonio Gonzalez, executive director of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which is dedicated to increasing Latino political involvement.

"The way you get youth to vote is to have a sort of revolution, an evil enemy to fight," he said. "That has just been handed to us by [the Republicans]. We ought to send them a thank-you letter."

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