NPR logo Low Turnout Seen for Immigration Rallies


Low Turnout Seen for Immigration Rallies

Advocates for the rights of undocumented workers are staging dozens of marches and rallies across the country this May Day, but organizers expect turnout to be just a fraction of last year's numbers.

In 2006, more than a million people took part in a work boycott aimed at showing how crucial undocumented workers are to the U.S economy. But those marches also energized anti-immigration groups, and cost dozens of participants their jobs.

Now, the momentum for legalizing an estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the United States, a drive many compared to a new civil rights movement, seems to have fizzled.

This year, there is less organization and pressing debate, Gordon Mayer, of the Community Media Workshop in Chicago, told the Associated Press.

"There's not homogenous leadership or means of communication," Mayer, who helped organize today's Chicago march, said. "There was a sort of energy last year. This year, that boulder has split up into a lot of smaller rocks."

Stepped up workplace raids have also left many immigrants fearful of speaking out in public. A number of Tuesday's demonstrations will focus on families that have been separated when a parent has been deported. Others will promote voter registration. Some groups are still urging people to boycott work, while others oppose that tactic.

The largest 2007 turnout could be in the Los Angeles area, where organizers say two demonstrations could draw 20,000 people.

In Washington, D.C., several hundred members of Asian groups are lobbying on Capitol Hill. And in Miami, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean was set to speak to immigrant groups.

Congress remains divided on immigration. A House bill would legalize many of the undocumented here now and allow about 400,000 "new workers" to come on temporary visas each year. But those measures would only take effect as successful enforcement "triggers" were achieved.

The Senate is scheduled to debate immigration later this month, but behind-the-scenes negotiations have stalled and no formal bill has yet been presented.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) is the Senate's main sponsor of immigration legislation. Speaking before the Anti-Defamation League on Tuesday, he said enforcement efforts alone will only push illegal immigrants "deeper into the shadows and allow employers to continue to exploit them. It perpetuates the current two-tiered economy, which hurts willing American workers, too."

Polls consistently show that about two-thirds of the public supports letting undocumented immigrants pay some sort of penalty to become legal. Yet opponents decry that as "amnesty," and activists say the looming presidential election is making it harder to forge a compromise.

Several Republican presidential candidates have backed off their earlier support for legalization. Even longtime advocate President Bush is sounding less generous. A White House proposal made public last month would limit the chances of citizenship for undocumented workers who are now living in the United States, and it would require future guest workers to leave their families back home.