Monday, April 17, 2006

The organizers of last week’s wave of nationwide pro-immigration rallies yesterday drew comparisons to the black civil rights movement but said they are missing the leadership and organization of the 1960s movement.

“We lack a national leader and national structure,” said Jaime Contreras, president of the National Capital Immigrant Coalition (NCIC), an umbrella organization for 45 D.C.-area immigrant-advocacy groups that coordinated rallies in more than 140 cities. “Right now you have a lot of strong coalitions with a lot of different ideas of how to create this movement.”

The NCIC on Friday withdrew support from “The Great American Boycott,” a planned nationwide May 1 stoppage of work, retail and transportation, saying “it’s not the right time” to take action until the U.S. Senate acts on pending immigration-reform legislation.

“We believe that it’s a little premature,” Mr. Contreras said of the boycott, also dubbed “a day without an immigrant.” The May 1 action is being organized by Latino Movement USA and the Act Now to Stop War & End Racism Coalition, and is widely supported by groups in California. “We have accomplished doing so much in a positive way, [but] we’re keeping [the boycott] as an option.”

D.C. leaders yesterday said they will instead hold evening gatherings in the District, Northern Virginia, Langley Park and Baltimore on May 1 to encourage voter registration and petition- and letter-writing campaigns.

However, recent comparisons of the immigrant movement to the black civil rights movement and questions about enlisting support from celebrities split pro-immigration leaders yesterday.

Juan Carlos Ruiz, general director of NCIC, said he wants to “walk away from” the civil rights movement comparisons “because the time, history and momentum is different.

“Each movement has its own personality, trends and definitions. … Our movement is calling for a number of leaders from different communities, and it’s not only Latinos. It’s also African- and Asian-Americans,” Mr. Ruiz said.

Mr. Contreras said there are similarities between the movements, such as a general sense of disenfranchisement and lack of respect from mainstream Americans. He noted that the black civil rights movement included many players — such as clergymen and the cohesion of advocacy organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition — something the immigrant movement will likely mirror.

“Without question … we are reviewing everything that they did with that time, and we need to learn from them and study exactly what they did because that is the model that we are using,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of immigrant-advocacy group CASA of Maryland.

However, unlike the black movement, immigrants are not looking for a central leader, such as Martin Luther King or Malcolm X because one person could not represent the historical, linguistic and cultural differences among various immigrant communities or within the Hispanic community alone, Mr. Torres said.

“We see the building of a collective leadership of different leaders around the Washington area, working together with different opinions and great diversity,” he said.

Mr. Contreras said the immigrant movement needs radio and television personalities with whom Americans can identify, but Mr. Ruiz disagreed. “The leadership should not be a radio personality, but someone from the grass roots,” Mr. Ruiz said.

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