Minority Leaders Put Immigrant Movement in Context

As illegal immigrants challenge the tough words on Capitol Hill, many established leaders of minority organizations are being left in the dust, trying to figure out where the new movement — if in fact it is a "movement" — is headed.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

As the White House pushes Congress to change immigration policies, some of the immigrants who participated in the recent huge marches are planning their next moves.

So far, their grass roots movement doesn't have a single national leader calling the shots. And as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, that's the way many local organizers want to keep it.

RICHARD GONZALES reporting:

It's a Latino celebration in Richmond, California, a working class suburb of San Francisco, and there's a huge turnout.

One of them is 30-year-old Diego Garcia, a rising leader for immigrant's rights in this city.

Mr. DIEGO GARCIA (Immigrants Rights Activist, California): People had asked, can you lead us? Can you help us out in this political movement?

GONZALES: Garcia is a naturalized citizen and a former gang banger who turned his life around after being shot several years ago. Now he organizes soccer leagues here in Richmond. And on this day he leads a small contingent of players and their parents for a parade to celebrate the Mexican holiday el Cinco de Mayo.

Mr. GARCIA: I think people are fired up. Our community was waiting for things like this. They're waiting to be recognized.

GONZALES: On May 1st, the day of the big national marches, Garcia brought out 6,000 people for a march through his local community. There was no direction or aid from any outside group. And Garcia says he and his neighbors are prepared to do that again.

Mr. GARCIA: We're not waiting for anyone from Washington to give us the signal to do this. I mean, we're waiting for our leaders here in the community to give us the signal.

GONZALES: The recent marches for immigrant rights took place without any of the traditional drivers behind the wheel. In fact, many Latino political leaders and mainline civil rights organizations were caught flatfooted, surprised by the turnout. And partly, as a result, there's no single figurehead or leader who personifies the movement.

Ms. ALISON FINE (Author): Traditional media is accustomed to identifying a single face to put on a movement, whether it's Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King.

GONZALES: Alison Fine is the author of Momentum, an upcoming book on the impact of new technologies on social movements. She says in the age of email, cell phones and text messages, social networks might take the place of established leaders and organizations.

Ms. FINE: And what we're seeing with this immigration movement, for instance, is that there isn't one single organization leading the charge nor one single person. It is incredibly diffuse and far flung. And this is what we're going to be see more and more of in the movement, social movements in the future.

GONZALES: Some observers note that traditional civil rights organizations seem to be out of touch with the illegal immigrant community that took to the street. For example, national Latino organizations never endorsed the May 1st boycott of work and school.

Fernando Guerra of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles says the traditional leadership still has some work to do establishing credibility with the emerging immigrant movement.

Mr. FERNANDO GUERRA (Loyola Marymount University): And it's very important how that is resolved and -- because a lot of the immigrant leadership and community leadership doesn't want other leaders who are Johnny-come-lately's to take, number one, credit, to manipulate the movement for their own purposes.

(Soundbite of Spanish music)

GONZALES: Back in Richmond, California, local activists aren't waiting for national leaders. At the recent Cinco de Mayo celebrations, they were already registering new voters. And one activist, Lumirna(ph) Lopez, says the response was electrifying.

Ms. LUMIRNA LOPEZ (Activist, Richmond, California): Within an hour, we registered 32 individuals to vote. And the momentum is still there.

GONZALES: Of course, illegal immigrants are, by definition, ineligible to vote. But Lopez says that doesn't stop them from bringing in friends and relatives who are citizens.

Ms. LOPEZ: I had a husband bring his wife. I've had mothers come by and ask for information. Although they're residents, not yet citizens, they were bringing their daughters, who were 18 years old, to come register to vote.

GONZALES: The goal of local activists is to harness the momentum of the recent marches into a lasting political movement.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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