The streets of downtown Los Angeles became a sea of red shirts stretching for many city blocks on April 7 when at least 20,000 people turned out for one of the largest immigrant rights demonstrations since the big marches last year.
March organisers — who expected no more than the 800 or so people to turn out as had been the case for a similar demonstration two weeks previously — were surprised by the size of the crowd. The bigger-than-expected turnout was driven by opposition to US President George Bush's new immigration reform proposal, recently released in draft form.
The White House's plan contains many of the enforcement provisions in a right-wing bill put up by Republican legislator Jim Sensenbrenner that stalled in Congress last year because of the mass marches — such as a fourfold increase in border fencing and a more than 50% increase in Border Patrol agents.
It would also establish a new "Z" visa that would allow undocumented immigrant workers to apply for three-year work permits — renewable indefinitely, but at a cost of US$3500 each time.
To get a permit and become legal permanent residents, undocumented immigrants would have to return to their home country, apply at a US embassy or consulate to re-enter, and pay a $10,000 fine. The cost for work permits and the green card application would total more than $20,000 — well out of reach for the vast majority of low-wage immigrant workers.
The Bush proposal would break up immigrant families, too, according to the April 9 Washington Post: "In a new twist, more green cards would be made available to skilled workers by limiting visas for parents, children and siblings of US citizens. Temporary workers could not bring their families into the country."
As LA protester Armando Garcia told a reporter for the Associated Press, "charging that much, Bush is going to be even more expensive than the coyotes". Francisco Gomez agreed. "For my wife and I, it would cost about $30,000", he said. "Multiply that by all the illegal immigrants here… It's obvious that Bush just wants to fund his Iraq war with our money."
Maria López, an undocumented immigrant who works as a seamstress and sends $200 a month home to family members in Mexico, said: "We have no way to come up with that much money, and Bush knows that. He is doing this on purpose so we don't ever become legal residents."
During the LA protest, thousands of people carried bright red "Amnistia" placards, as well as banners and signs reading "Alto A Las Redadas" (Stop the Raids), and "Alto Los Deportaciones" (Stop the Deportations).
Many protesters heard about the event on local Spanish-language media.
The turnout in LA is certain to build momentum for a national day of action on May 1. Events are already planned in at least a dozen cities, from LA to Boston, and Chicago to Raleigh, North Carolina.
Significantly, International Longshore and Warehouse Union local branches at six West Coast ports have resolved to participate in the day of action by holding "stop work meetings" in support of workers' and immigrants' rights.
The size and anger of the LA march and rally is a clear indication that the immigrant rights movement has not "disappeared" as some allege. May 1 will be an opportunity to organise the anger against Bush's proposal — and build the fight for demands that go beyond what the Democrats and Republicans in Congress are willing to put forward.
[Abridged from Socialist Worker, weekly paper of the US International Socialist Organisation. Visit http://www.socialistworker.org.]