Immigrant Groups to Keep Heat on Capitol Hill

Hundreds of thousands demonstrated across the country this weekend against proposed legislation to crack down on undocumented migrants and those who employ or help them. Debbie Elliott discusses the mass protests with Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza. She also speaks with the Rev. Patrick Demmer of Graham Memorial Church of God and Christ in Denver, Colo. Demmer will join a protest on Capitol Hill on Monday, when the Senate Judiciary Committee will be debating immigration policy.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. This weekend hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters staged protests around the country. They were driven into the streets by a bill passed in the House of Representatives that would make it a felony to be in the U.S. illegally and would punish those who employ or help undocumented migrants. The Senate takes up debate tomorrow and there will be another demonstration on Capital Hill. Half a million people turned out in Los Angeles yesterday and protestors were out again today.

(Soundbite of protest)

ELLIOTT: Similar scenes played out this weekend in Denver, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Dallas and Atlanta. To find out more about the explosive growth of the immigrant rights movement we turn to Cecilia Munoz, Vice President of Immigration Policy at the National Council of La Raza. Welcome to the program.

Ms. CECILIA MUNOZ (Vice President of Immigration Policy): Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Have we ever seen this kind of widespread organized protest by immigrants?

Ms. MUNOZ: Not on this scale. Not really since Proposition 187 in California in the 1990's.

ELLIOTT: And remind us again what Proposition 187 was.

Ms. MUNOZ: Proposition 187 was a California ballot initiative which was about denying services to undocumented immigrants who were not eligible for those services in the first place. We saw people rising up in the sense that they've naturalized in record numbers, they registered to vote in record numbers and they had some real political impact. But we haven't seen people turning out on the streets in peaceful demonstrations in this way really ever. It's really exciting. It feels like this is a civil rights moment in my community.

ELLIOTT: Is there a way to point to one or two groups that you could say have done a good job of organizing this?

Ms. MUNOZ: There isn't just one or two groups. There is a family of organizations that include ethnic organizations like mine, religious organizations like the U.S. Catholic Church, the Catholic Bishops, but also evangelicals, labor unions, employer groups. It's a very broad coalition.

ELLIOTT: Lets talk a little bit now about the legislation. You mentioned the legislation that has passed the House and tomorrow the Senate takes up this debate. You plan on being there.

Ms. MUNOZ: Indeed.

ELLIOTT: But there are a lot of competing things out there. You've got the House bills that would criminalize being here illegally or helping people who are here illegally. You've got this guest worker program that's being advocated by the President. There's also talk of expanding a security wall along the U.S./Mexico border. What do you think is really likely to happen? What do you think will become law?

Ms. MUNOZ: I'm not sure anybody knows what will become law or if anything will become law this year. What's hard is that this debate on the airwaves, especially on television, has gotten so ugly that, you know, some folks in political life are really worried and think it's a pretty scary issue to take up.

ELLIOTT: I have seen though polls showing something like 60 percent or more of U.S. citizens are really concerned about what they perceive as sort of this out of control illegal population in this country.

Ms. MUNOZ: I think it is probably higher than that. I mean I think if there is a consensus on anything on the immigration issue, it's that our system isn't working. Nobody likes the fact that we rely on this population of undocumented immigrants. The question is what we do about it.

ELLIOTT: Cecilia Munoz is Vice President for Immigration Policy for the National Council of La Raza. Thank you for being with us.

Ms. MUNOZ: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: We turn now to Reverend Patrick Demmer with the Graham Memorial Church of God in Christ in Denver, Colorado. He's flown to Washington for an interfaith prayer vigil on Capitol Hill tomorrow to coincide with the Senate debate on immigration.

Welcome, Reverend Demmer.

Rev. PATRICK DEMMER (Graham Memorial Church of God and Christ, Denver, Colorado): Thank you.

ELLIOTT: So what is the plan for tomorrow on Capitol Hill?

Rev. DEMMER: Well, tomorrow there's going to be clergy from 30 different states and we're going to be praying to come up with a solution that is fair and most of all that is just.

ELLIOTT: Now, you're the Vice President of a group called The Greater Denver Ministry Alliance.

Rev. DEMMER: Yes, the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance. We're made up of about a hundred churches, interfaith, interdenominational. Most of those churches are predominately African American churches, and we do a lot of work in regards to civil rights, justice, community concerns, things like that.

ELLIOTT: Now, yours is a Pentecostal Church?

Rev. DEMMER: Pentecostal Church.

ELLIOTT: What about your congregation? Has this been a concern of theirs?

Rev. DEMMER: There is a lot of discussion that needs to be done around immigration. There are those that are in my own congregation that does not understand why I've taken such a personal lead in this kind of an issue. For some African Americans there is this ideology that we're fighting for the bottom of the barrel. I don't know if you ever heard that term before or not. And that's not true.

I sometimes have to remind some of the African American congregants that are there under my watch that it wasn't that long ago that it was the civil rights fights, the plight of the African American in the United States that we were actually being what I consider to be picked out, picked on, isolated and our rights were being denied. For us to now sit back and not be proactive, not be concerned about any other group, would make us hypocrites and would make us false to the God that I believe in.

ELLIOTT: Reverend Patrick Demmer from the Graham Memorial Church of God and Christ in Denver, Colorado. Thank you for being with us.

Rev. DEMMER: Thank you.

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