A reported 8,500 people marched in Austin, meaning according to some informal estimates, perhaps around 10,000. A lot of people stayed away because of recent scares of rumored roundups in such places at HEB (supermarket) and other work places. I heard from several teachers who said that children went to school crying out of fear that their parents would get deported. Lots of folks stayed home yesterday. I was happy to see a number of students and UT faculty out in the sun sweating it with the marchers. -Angela
May 3, 2006
After Immigration Protests, Goal Remains Elusive
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
WASHINGTON, May 2 — The nascent immigrant rights movement showed on Monday that it could build an organization, mobilize hundreds of thousands of people across the country and wield economic power.
But the protesters do not appear to have achieved their primary goal: changing votes in Congress. And some critics say the demonstration may have generated a backlash, hardening positions on Capitol Hill.
The protests, which began in March and resumed on Monday with a boycott of work, school and shops, have clearly grabbed the nation's attention when the issue of illegal immigration is high on the agenda in Washington.
The heightened attention will make it difficult for Congress to duck the question of what to do with the estimated 11 million to 12 million people living illegally in the United States. Although the outpouring has drawn comparisons to the civil rights movement of the 1960's, questions remain about whether the protesters can translate their passion into political results.
Some companies closed on Monday, yet it is too early to assess the economic effects of the boycott. The effects were diminished because many workers notified their employers ahead of time that they planned to take the day off.
"This was a one-day deal," said Randel Johnson, vice president of the United States Chamber of Congress, which supports bills to legalize immigrants. "If immigrants decided to abandon their jobs for two weeks, that would definitely have an impact."
Some advocates who support "comprehensive immigration reform," the idea that illegal workers should be put on a path to citizenship, say the protests have given that concept an important lift in the debate on Capitol Hill.
Even some immigrant rights backers say few if any minds were changed and called the marches a Rorschach test in which people simply saw their own view reflected in the sea of mostly Latino marchers.
"I have no effective data on this, but it has probably hardened positions and maybe done a little bit of wedging," said Gov. Jon S. Corzine of New Jersey, a Democrat and former senator who said he supported the protesters' cause. "I think that the people that were really fired up about this still are, and the position that they had to start with, they still carry."
Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, said: "The protest, I don't think, changes votes on the floor of the Senate. I think what changes votes is coming down, sitting down, talking about it, as opposed to students' staying out of school. I happen to think that students' staying out of school is counterproductive."
The protesters have discovered that there is a thin and potentially dangerous line between promoting national pride and pushing opponents' buttons. They used tactics — flying the Mexican flag, recording "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Spanish — that have left even some supporters feeling a bit queasy.
"I have a great respect for a lot of the people that did the protesting, but I think their message is all confused," said Senator Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, whose sympathy dates from his childhood, when his mother, an Italian immigrant, was nearly deported. "The flag, the anthem, all that, it got everybody all mixed up. 'Take off work' — it sounded wrong to some people, right to others."
The public is deeply divided on illegal immigration. A survey in March by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, found that 53 percent of respondents said people who were in the United States illegally should be required to go home and that 40 percent say the immigrants should be granted some kind of legal status that allows them to stay here.
"What buttons were pressed?" Roberto Suro, the director of the center, asked, wondering aloud about what Americans saw when they looked at the protesters. "Was it that there are so many people here outside of government control or was it the hard-working family types? I think that's really imponderable."
That divide is reflected among Republicans on Capitol Hill. The House opposes giving citizenship to illegal immigrants, and it has passed a bill aimed only at controlling the borders, while a more comprehensive Senate bill is backed by Republicans like Mr. Domenici, as well as Senators Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, John McCain of Arizona, and Mel Martinez of Florida.
Some say the protests have given the Senate approach a boost. "While you could never point to a specific vote, they moved the tone and the thrust where now a balanced bill has the upper hand, and it's in part because of the protests," Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said.
The Senate bill collapsed last month amid partisan bickering on procedure, but the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, says he wants to resume the debate this month. On Tuesday, the minority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, offered to limit the debate to 10 amendments a side. Mr. Frist did not accept that, and they continued talks. The Republican split is complicated because not just the immigrants are weighing in. Among their biggest allies are employers, large and small, who want assurances that they will continue to have that labor pool. Business groups are important for the Republican base, and many employers gave immigrant employees the day off on Monday in solidarity with the marchers.
With Republicans so divided, reaching consensus will be difficult.
"Obviously, there's tremendous pressure on lawmakers to fix the problem," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group. "The marches in the street, the public opinion polls that show immigration is one of the top two or three issues in the country.
"But the crosscurrents of politics and policy are such that it's going to take a tremendous push from President Bush and from Democratic and Republican leaders to get this done."
It is clear that the protests have raised some hackles. After the March rally, Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, said he was deeply offended by marchers' waving the Mexican flag.
"I want to be sensitive to human concerns, why they're here and how they're here. But when they act out like that, they lose me," Mr. Lott said.
He suggested a risk of deportation and said, "We had them all in a bunch, you know what I mean?"
Julia Preston contributed reporting from New York for this article, and Rachel L. Swarns from Washington.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company