New Tactics for Immigration Fight

March 12, 2007

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A year ago, Illinois took center stage in a national debate over what to do with the country's 12 million undocumented immigrants. Two massive marches in Chicago helped spark others around the country.

As the Democratic-controlled Congress plans to take up immigration reform, Illinois remains in the national spotlight. But marches aren't the reason now. Chicago Public Radio's Chip Mitchell has more.

At one point last spring, as many as a half-million people marched through downtown Chicago for immigrant rights. The organizers held a rally this Saturday, but drew barely a thousand people. Mexican-born labor activist Jorge Mújica claims he isn't disappointed.

MUJICA: Ah, and actually, this is not the only way for this struggle, to participate or demonstrate.

Mújica says the rally began 50 days of activity that includes prayer vigils, neighborhood events and letter-writing campaigns.

MUJICA: There are people sending faxes and sending e-mails and making phone calls and meeting personally with legislators.

The shift from loud street protests to relatively quiet legislative work has to do with the new Congress. Get-tough proposals like a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border have been moved to the back burner. Lawmakers are now talking about routes for undocumented immigrants to get work papers and become citizens.

Illinois Representative Jan Schakowsky last week helped announce a campaign for pro-immigrant measures at the state and federal levels.

SCHAKOWSKY: “I feel confident that 2007 is going to be the year that we really open the doors, welcome the immigrant population into our great country and make it even greater. Thank you very much (applause).”

WASLIN: Chicago and Illinois in general are going to play a key role in this year's debate over comprehensive immigration reform.

That's Michelle Waslin of the National Council of La Raza.

WASLIN: Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, for example, has been just a champion for immigrant rights. And he's leading the charge to introduce a bipartisan reform bill in the House this year. Senator Obama has also continued to be strong -- to say all the right things about comprehensive immigration reform.

Yet before the November election elevated his party, Obama voted for a bill that included the border fence.

That's the sort of enforcement the Federation for American Immigration Reform wants. Spokesperson Ira Mehlman says the Democrats had better not misinterpret their success at the ballot box.

MEHLMAN: They were put back into office because the public was understandably unhappy with the way the Republicans were handling the war in Iraq, the corruption that was taking place in Washington. The American people did not entrust the Democrats with control of Congress in order to grant amnesty to tens of millions of illegal immigrants.

Senate Democrats are vowing to pass a sweeping reform bill by August. If the legalization component stalls, Chicago activists say they'll go back to last year's tactics. They're already planning a march through the Loop on May 1. I'm Chip Mitchell, Chicago Public Radio.