Jessica Rodriguez led an enthusiastic crowd in a chant that resonated October 5 in the downtown streets of Albuquerque. “What do we want?” shouted the MC for the National Day of Action for Dignity and Respect demonstration. “Reform! When do we want it? Now!”
Set below the stage holding the activist leader from the Albuquerque-based El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, a big banner emblazoned with the words “Let Our Dreams Soar!” expanded on the theme of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which kicked off this past weekend. Large drawings depicted hot air balloons bearing messages like “Respect” and “Path to Citizenship.”
Convened by El Centro, hundreds of people rallied and marched in the Duke City to demand Congress, especially the House of Representatives, finally pass a comprehensive reform bill that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Young and old, university and high school students, business owners, workers, and elected officials called for immigration reform.
A seven-year resident of Albuquerque, El Centro member Placida Cortes said the demonstration was for all Latinos, workers and immigrants.
“We don’t want anything else other than a dignified life, respect, and that our employers don’t exploit us and threaten us with deportation if we are undocumented,” Cortes told FNS. Life was difficult for many immigrants in New Mexico’s biggest city, with minimum wage workers scrambling to pool their resources to make ends meet, Cortes said. “You don’t have a big salary, and can’t pay expenses,” she added. The immigrant worker compared today’s migrants with the Monarch butterflies that fly from the upper reaches of North America to Mexico to survive.
Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, was on the roster of speakers at the event. “The Pope is with you. The Catholic Church is with the immigrants,” Sanchez said to cheers. “Congress: No more playing games. You are playing games with people’s lives.” Sanchez also criticized the partial shut-down of the federal government. “We got to be building bridges, not burning them, and the shut-down of government is burning bridges..,” he said.
Almost 30 local organizations participated in or endorsed the demonstration, including Albuquerque Interfaith, OLE, New Mexico Dreamers in Action, Central New Mexico LaborCouncil AFL-CIO, and the Hispanic Roundtable of New Mexico, among others.
The Albuquerque action was part of a national action that chalked up more than 180 events from coast-to-coast in support of comprehensive reform and a path to citizenship. According to various media accounts, tens of thousands of people marched, rallied and chanted in big cities and small towns the weekend of October 5-6. Organizers of the National Day of Action for Dignity and Respect plan to follow it up with a large October 8 rally and concert in Washington, D.C. featuring musical legends Los Tigres del Norte and Lila Downs.
In New Mexico, many eyes are on Congressman Steve Pearce, the Republican representative for the Second Congressional District that sprawls from the Mexican border practically to the doorstep of Albuquerque.
While the other members of New Mexico’s Congressional delegation (all Democrats) back a comprehensive reform that includes a path to citizenship, Pearce is opposed to such legislation. Instead, he proposes a third alternative between mass or self-deportation and an “amnesty or pathway to citizenship.”
In an October 4 op-ed published in the Albuquerque Journal, Pearce wrote that a reform should take three steps, starting with securing the border, then moving to fix a backlogged legal immigration system and ending with a “non-citizen guest worker program" that, if approved, would be far bigger than the expanded guest worker proposals currently in the House or already approved by the Senate.
“Undocumented immigrants will be able to have a job, pay their taxes and live the American Dream,” the southern New Mexico Congressman wrote. “Employers, too, will benefit from a fresh, modernized guest worker program that makes it easier to find employees.”
Pearce insisted that he’s “urged that immigration reform should be a top priority” ever since he arrived in Washington.
Pearce’s immigration plan fell like a lead brick at the Albuquerque rally. “Nothing less than a path to citizenship will be acceptable to our families and workers,” Rachel Lazar, El Centro’s executive director, told FNS. Pearce acknowledges the importance of immigrant workers, Lazar said, but advocates an “un-American” solution that will create an underclass contrary to “our collective values.”
El Centro contends that enough votes exist in the House to pass a comprehensive reform bill, but Republican leadership is blocking action.
Albuquerque City Council Rep. Issac Benton likewise criticized Pearce’s guest worker approach. “Pearce is looking out for his agricultural big business friends on that,” Benton said. “Steve Pearce, in my memory, has never done anything for the immigrant community.”
As elsewhere in the United States, immigrants are vital to the lifeblood of Albuquerque, Benton said.
“I’m in the construction industry,” he added. “It would grind to a halt without immigrant labor. We’re lucky to have them.”
In recent months, Pearce has been under intense community pressure to support a path to citizenship for the undocumented. Indeed, his vote turned out to be a major focus of other New Mexico demonstrations held during the weekend.
In Las Cruces, the Border Network for Human Rights (BNRH) pulled out several hundred people for a march to Pearce’s office.
“For our communities here at the border, the call for immigration reform includes total rejection of militarization at our border communities just as much as it includes a process for the 11 million undocumented Americans to gain citizenship,” the BNHR said in a statement prior to the protest.
The statewide immigrant and labor rights group Somos un Pueblo Unido organized caravans for an October 6 rally in Pearce’s hometown of Hobbs in the oil patch of southeastern New Mexico. In announcing the event, Somos said the caravans were in the “grand tradition of the Freedom Riders of the 1960s.”
Reached on her cell-phone as demonstrators paraded through Hobbs, Somos organizer Marina Pina said people from 11 New Mexico counties and many cities, from Gallup and Farmington in the northwest to Roswell and Lovington in the southeast and points in between, were participating in a four-wheeled caravan stretching three miles.
Her voice almost drowned out by the loud chants and honks in the street, Pina estimated about 700 people were demonstrating even as the event was far from over. Oil field and dairy workers, small businesspeople and entire families were on the streets of Hobbs, the organizer said.
“I’m really excited. It’s so much better than we expected,” Pina said of the turn-out. “We’re making history in New Mexico as an immigrant community,”
The caravan was welcomed into town by Hobbs City Commissioner Joe Calderon.
Aimee Villareal, Somos communications director, said the Hobbs protest represented nearly a decade of organizing efforts in southeastern New Mexico by her group.
The movement for immigration reform in the area, including “unprecedented” immigration marches staged this past summer, reflected historic demographic changes in a traditionally Anglo-dominated part of the state sometimes called “Little Texas,” Villareal said.
In recent years, new Latino and immigrant workers have formed the backbone of the labor force in the main economic levers of the region-oil and gas, dairy and agriculture, according to Villareal. “Hobbs has changed,” she said. “You see Mexican taquerias in Hobbs.”
As for the prospects of a comprehensive immigration reform during a time of extreme Congressional gridlock and a looming battle over the debt ceiling, Villareal was optimistic, citing recent movement on some House legislation. “We’re going to keep pushing the issue until the end,” she vowed.
But opponents of a reform that puts undocumented residents on the road to citizenship are also mobilizing. Tea Party groups are urging supporters to “fax blast” Congress with a no “amnesty” message.
Back in Albuquerque, a middle-aged woman who participated in Saturday’s downtown demonstration perhaps summed up the deeply personal motivations of many marching for immigration reform.
Declining to give her name, the woman said she had spent the last 12 years in Albuquerque unable to see her daughter because the immigration status issue effectively traps the mother on this side of the border. The daughter, in turn, can’t visit her mother because of the difficulty of obtaining a visa in Mexico, the woman said.
“I want to see my daughter. I haven’t seen her in many years. She’s in Durango, Mexico. I want to see her before I die,” the Albuquerque resident said. “They should fix (immigration law). We have been waiting for a long time now.”
(Photo by Ray_from_LA)