Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Immigration rights marches losing steam?

Ongoing crackdowns driving some supporters underground, organizers fear.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Two years ago, millions marched for legal rights for unauthorized immigrants in coordinated events across the country. The massive turnouts stunned even supporters,but they also inflamed some opponents of illegal immigration.

A year later, the crowds thinned. Now, as they prepare for another round of May Day demonstrations in support of more liberal laws, some Austin organizers say fear and fatigue have sapped some of the marches' vigor.

"When year after year you fight and you fight without any kind of real attention and concern by our legislators, it's only logical that people might wear themselves out and maybe get discouraged from coming out again," said Luissana Santibañez of Familias Unidas por la Esperanza (Families United for Hope).

"The enthusiasm has diminished," said Josefina Castilloof the American Friends Service Committee. "I think people are really fearful of coming out as they did in 2006 because they know about (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and how every immigrant is threatened by being not only detained and deported but being put into jail, and that is pretty harsh."

Organizers with the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition are planning rallies and marches in downtown Austin on Thursday, which is International Workers' Day.

The events coincide with demonstrations across the country in support of what is often called comprehensive immigration reform, which generally includes securing the border, creating paths to legalization for illegal immigrants already in the United States, and expanding the number of available visas so that more people can enter the U.S. legally.

With Congress failing to enact immigration reforms, federal immigration officials have dramatically stepped up raids and arrests, detentions and deportations. The crackdowns and increased presence of immigration agents in the Travis County Jail are a prominent focus of Thursday's local events, which begin with a 4:30 p.m. rally at the Capitol.

Protesters plan to walk past the jail during the march, which starts at 5:30 at the Capitol and ends with a rally at Austin City Hall.

Thousands marched last year, though fewer than in 2006, when police estimated that 8,500 people protested in Austin. (Organizers said the turnout was closer to 40,000.)

Omar Angel, a 31-year-old former day laborer from Mexico, said crackdowns and the presence of agents in the jail checking inmates' immigration status are fostering distrust and fear of law enforcement among undocumented immigrants and their family members, many of whom are citizens or legal permanent residents and fear separation from their loved ones.

Despite such fears, some will march because they believe it's important to speak out against the crackdowns, said Angel, who works with Proyecto Defensa Laboral (the Workers Defense Project).

Declining participation in the marches may also be due to a feeling among immigrants that the demonstrations haven't accomplished much and that they are powerless to make a difference, organizer Antolin Aguirre said.

Immigrant advocates hailed the 2006 demonstrations for helping block legislation that would have made living in the U.S. illegally a felony. But opponents of illegal immigration decried the protests, calling them brazen displays by immigration lawbreakers.

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