Saturday, April 15, 2006

Debate: The May 1 demonstrations

Calls for boycott test immigration unity
Protest movement splinters on tactic; some fear backlash

By Myung Oak Kim And Rosa Ramirez, Rocky Mountain News
April 15, 2006

The new immigrant rights movement in Colorado, which took off with
stunning success last month, is now facing its first real test over
a planned student walkout April 19 and a work boycott May 1.

Some leaders, including a growing number of student activists, favor
the aggressive tactics of walkouts and a boycott to show the
economic power of the immigrant community.

But others caution that actions that go beyond the rallies that
Denver has seen in recent weeks could backfire and strengthen calls
for get-tough laws that would penalize illegal immigrants.

All factions in the immigrant rights movement agree on the goal - to
see Congress pass immigration reform that gives people who are in
the country illegally a path toward citizenship.

But the two upcoming events have created a disagreement over
strategy, echoing a debate that's occurring among immigrant rights
groups across the country.

That's not unusual, said Rachel Einwohner, a sociology professor at
Purdue University in Indiana. She noted that the civil rights
movement splintered into factions that took different approaches.

"People are, of course, interested in achieving justice. They're not
always going to agree on how to achieve that," she said.

Sometimes groups come back together and sometimes their split
hardens, Einwohner said, and "it can be very difficult to get the
two sides back together."

Immigrant rights took center stage at a March 25 Civic Center
demonstration that drew an estimated 50,000. Since then, there have
been a series of student walkouts and other demonstrations.

But next Wednesday, student organizers are planning to up the ante,
calling on students from at least 10 high schools and middle schools
to leave class and gather at the state Capitol for a late morning
rally, said Eddie Montoya, 19, of the youth activist group Jovenes

Students may stage another walkout May 1, when immigrants across
Colorado and the nation are being urged to skip work for the day to
protest legislation passed by the House of Representatives that
would criminalize undocumented immigrants and the people who help

The protest movement has also hit Mexico and parts of Central
America, with some groups calling for boycotts May 1 of American-
made products.

While details of the local events are still undecided, the myriad of
organizers are struggling to unify on strategy and scrambling to
keep up with calls to action sent nationwide through Spanish-
language media, the Internet and e-mail.

"In terms of a movement, what does a movement look like, we're
seeing a very unique dynamic that I think is unprecedented in U.S.
history," said Jamila Spencer, of the Colorado Catholic Conference,
part of a coalition called the Colorado Grassroots Movement for
Immigrant Justice. "That's why this May 1st thing has the potential
to be so explosive - because you can't control it."

The idea for a May 1 work boycott emerged from local groups during
coordinated rallies April 10 and then spread across the country,
said Germonique Jones, a spokeswoman for the Center for Community
Change, an activist group based in Washington, D.C.

"There's no one main group that is really behind the May 1st event,"
she said. "The May 1st event has really taken on a life of its own."

May 1 boycott

One of the most prominent calls for labor halts has come from
Eduardo Sotelo, a popular syndicated Spanish radio host of El Piolin
Por La Manana, who can be heard on Denver-area stations.Juan Jose
Gutierrez, director of the Los Angeles-based Latino Movement USA, is
traveling the country to promote the boycott.

"We are calling on people not to go to work. No school from grammar
to college and no shopping or selling," he said. "We want to create
a day without immigrants. We fully expect to have participation
across the board."

At an April 10 rally at the state Capitol, labor organizer Paul
Lopez called on immigrants "to shut down Denver" May 1, a day some
groups are calling "The Great American Boycott of 2006."

About 40 to 60 people attended meetings Wednesday and Thursday,
which were closed to the media, to discuss the May 1 events. They
have scheduled another meeting for Monday evening at Escuela
Tlatelolco, a school at Federal Boulevard and 29th Avenue.

The groups are trying to reunite after slight divisions and lack of
communication in the planning for the April 10 candlelight vigil at
Sloan's Lake to remember immigrants who died crossing the border.

Conflicting strategies

Some organizers oppose student walkouts and work stoppages, saying
such actions would create too much anger and hurt efforts to defeat
an anti-illegal immigrant initiative heading to the November ballot
in Colorado.

Others support those tactics, saying it's time for the community to
see how much immigrants contribute to the economy.

Lourdes Norton, owner of El Defensor del Hispano, a tax preparation
and notary public business on Federal Boulevard, said she's not
opening May 1st. She said 90 percent of her clients are undocumented
Hispanic immigrants: "If I open the store, I'm telling them, I don't
support you."

Romario Delgado, president of Three Brothers Concrete Inc. in Denver
said his small company will shut down on May 1.

"I already told my foreman: Nobody is going to be working," he
said. "I'm not planning on doing any business that day also. That's
the only way to support our people (and) to stand up for them."

Delgado has already informed his customers: "They don't disagree,
and they're not disappointed. They are all with us."

But not everyone is with the demonstrators. Rallies have already
generated criticism and a boycott could turn up the volume.

Rep. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, signed a letter earlier
this week asking President Bush to declare a state of emergency in
response to immigrant protests.

"It makes me more resolved to fight this issue," Schultheis said in
a recent interview. "They do not have rights of free speech in this
country, or any other rights for that matter. Those rights come to
us as a result of us being citizens of this country."

Bill Vandenberg, co-director of the Colorado Progressive Coalition,
which helped organize the March 25 Denver immigration rally, said an
alternative to a May 1 work stoppage is in the works. It would
involve volunteers going door to door that day to educate businesses
about immigration and seek their support in pushing for more
generous policies.

"We have a lot of people that want to do a lot of different things,"
he said. "Passionate opinions are present in every setting, and
that's a healthy thing."

Action 'harsh, drastic'

The Colorado Catholic Conference opposes student walkouts and work
boycotts "because those types of actions do not encourage reasonable
dialogue," Spencer said. "Instead, they heighten the rhetoric and
debate, and they help to polarize the debate, distracting us from
real public policy solutions."

"We encourage positive actions, prayer vigils and rallies in support
of comprehensive immigration reform," she said. "To do something
this harsh and this drastic can hurt community. It can undermine the
long-term goals."

As for the student walkout, Ricardo Martinez, an organizer of the
April 10 candlelight vigil at Sloan's Lake, supports it.

"We support that they will express their First Amendment rights,"
said Martinez, co-director of a local Latino activist group Padres
Unidos, which means parents united.

Eddie Montoya, of Jovenes Unidos, the youth arm of Padres Unidos,
said adult organizers of the pro-immigrant events have tried to
change the minds of students planning to skip class.

"People are still going to do it anyway," he said. "That message is
already out there, and that's what people are going to do."

In Denver Public Schools, officials told principals not to interfere
with students leaving school and to allow them to return. Students
who walk out will be considered truant.

And students predict more absences if Congress deadlocks on
immigration reform.

"If our demands are not met, then we're going to keep going,"
Montoya said. or 303-892-2361

Copyright 2006, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.

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