By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 13, 2006
A relatively small but ardent group of protesters organized by the Minuteman group rallied against illegal immigration on Capitol Hill yesterday, lambasting President Bush and the U.S. Senate for considering legislation to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
"They are literally going to shove amnesty down our throats," Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist said to the applause of about 150 people. "If they pass this, we are no longer a nation governed by the rule of law. We are governed by mob rule."
The protest capped a cross-country trip by the Minutemen to build opposition to the legislation, which regained momentum this week when senators reached a compromise on the bill. The caravan began in Los Angeles last week and stopped for rallies in a dozen towns and cities, including Bush's home town of Crawford, Tex., as well as Memphis and Richmond.
The Minutemen rose to prominence last year when they began organizing armed citizen patrols along the U.S.-Mexico border, a move credited with helping to ignite the debate that has dominated Washington in recent months. Nationwide, huge numbers of immigrants have protested legislation passed by the House late last year that would result in mass deportations and make it a felony to assist illegal residents.
The Senate legislation would allow certain illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship after paying a fine and create a temporary guest-worker program, while also strengthening border security. Bush has indicated tacit support for the legislation. Yesterday, senior administration officials said Bush is considering shoring up the Mexican border with National Guard troops in an effort to build support for the legislation.
Gathered in a park by the Russell Senate Office Building, the protesters said that the Senate and Bush have betrayed the nation to curry favor with Hispanics and other immigrants. They spoke particularly harshly of Bush, who has criticized those on the group's border patrols as "vigilantes."
"History will record this act of treachery, and we as citizens must never forget it," said Barbara Coe, co-author of California's Proposition 187 to deny public benefits to illegal immigrants.
Over and over, the protesters said they support legal immigration and oppose only the flouting of the nation's laws by millions of illegal residents. They carried signs reading "Sovereignty Is Not Racism" and "Invasion Is Not Immigration."
Loudly challenging them were a few dozen people gathered nearby, a mix of immigration advocates and other activists who tried to drown out the Minutemen with drums and bullhorns. "Bigots in your suits and ties, we don't want your racist lies!" they chanted. Police tape separated the groups, and when it was removed after the rally, the counter-protesters advanced on the Minutemen before officers on motorcycles intervened.
The counter-protesters mocked the size of the Minuteman rally, noting that it was dwarfed by the pro-immigrant marches. "They claim to have a million members, but this is their big national rally," said David Benzaquen, 22, an American University student.
Gilchrist said the turnout was modest because most critics of illegal immigration are "average Janes and Joes" too busy working to attend rallies. He said their voices would be heard in the 2006 and 2008 elections, predicting that anyone with an anti-amnesty platform could win 40 percent of the vote.
Mike Olcott, 47, who joined the caravan in Texas, said it numbered about 15 or 20 cars for most of that stretch and drew varied crowds along the way -- very few in Little Rock but about 300 in Atlanta, where supporters showered the group with cash for gas and motels (money that, in some road-trip humor, several caravan members told Gilchrist they blew on beer).
Yesterday's rally included supporters who traveled on their own from California, New Hampshire, North Carolina and elsewhere.
There were also some Washington area residents who said they were not affiliated with the group but attended to register their anger over what they saw as a wave of illegal immigrants overwhelming their communities. Several said they took heart in the recent town election in Herndon, in which the mayor and two council members who supported a town-sponsored site for day laborers were turned out of office.
Hedy Ross, an editorial assistant from Silver Spring, came to the rally with her 13-year-old daughter, saying she had grown "very upset" about immigrants overcrowding her daughter's classes.
Ross said she suspects that there are many who feel the same way she does but are wary of doing anything about it. "A lot of people have their head in the sand," she said.