Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Roman Catholic Church, dozens of grass-roots coalitions and Spanish-language radio disc jockeys have helped fuel protests nationwide against congressional efforts to tackle illegal immigration.

One protest organizer described the effort as “the beginning of an immigration civil rights movement.”

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” said Marissa Graciosa, a political organizer at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, one of several groups that rallied about 300,000 people into the streets of Chicago on March 10.

As activists rallied outside the U.S. Capitol yesterday, Daniel Sharp, legal director for the Central American Resource Center of Los Angeles — a key group behind the 500,000-strong demonstration in that city Saturday — called on Congress to act responsibly.

“If Congress doesn’t address the problem in a realistic way, the demonstrations will continue,” said Mr. Sharp at the event organized by District-based Center for Community Change and the National Capital Immigration Coalition, an umbrella immigrant-advocacy group.

Demonstrators, who have also gathered in Detroit and Cleveland, oppose legislation already passed by the House that would make it a felony to be in the U.S. illegally, impose new penalties on employers who hire illegal aliens and build fences along part of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday approved legislation that would allow millions of undocumented workers to seek U.S. citizenship without having to first leave the country. It also stripped the felony penalty for illegal aliens. The full Senate is scheduled to begin debate today.

The Catholic Church has played a key role in opposing legislation to restrict immigration and rallying protesters.

“As we’ve been able to reach more and more people, they’re waking up to the ills of the proposals made to date and seeing the need to be vocal about the kinds of reforms that would be more acceptable,” said Mark D. Franken, executive director of migration and refugee services for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The bishops conference in May began “Justice for Immigrants,” a campaign focused on activating a network of grass-roots movements against punitive immigration-reform legislation.

Mr. Franken said all the nation’s 197 Catholic dioceses are in some way backing the campaign, with more than 70 being particularly active. Disseminating pamphlets and networking, community-level groups tied to the campaign are operating “in churches and everywhere they can gain access,” he said.

Protest organizers also credit popular disc jockeys on Spanish-language radio stations for helping turnout, particularly in Los Angeles and Chicago.

“DJs got on the bullhorn to say, ‘Hey, let’s take this day off and get on the street to make sure this anti-immigration legislation cannot pass, that it won’t be tolerated in a city like Chicago,’ ” Miss Graciosa said.

Yesterday in California, the state’s Cesar Chavez Day, thousands of students walked out of class, and crowds in Detroit marched toward downtown as nearly a week of street protests against proposed immigration reforms continued.

At least 800 students walked out from eight Los Angeles-area schools ranging from the San Fernando Valley to the wealthy coastal enclave of Pacific Palisades, said Monica Carazo, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

By midmorning, the protests spread to downtown, where hundreds more students were walking the streets and chanting.

In Detroit, protesters waving Mexican flags marched from the southwest side of the city, where many Hispanics live, toward a federal building downtown.

“We are illegal immigrants if you trace our heritage all the way back. But we are here, and we are working and we are living the American dream,” said Janet Padron, a 22-year-old Allen Park resident who participated in the Detroit rally.

“Do you see the community?” Miss Padron asked, pointing to the thousands of people surrounding her. “Do you see how many people didn’t go to work today?”

Several Hispanic groups are supportive of legislation that the Senate will consider, saying it gives hardworking immigrants the opportunity to become citizens, not criminals.

Mr. Sharp said the Central American Resource Center of Los Angeles thinks already pressed federal immigration law-enforcement resources should be focused “on terrorists, drug dealers and violent criminals, not the people who pick our crops, wash our dishes and take care of our children.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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