Tuesday, May 08, 2007

KANSAS CITY STAR COMMENTARY: "The message, not the marches, reveals progress on immigration reform"

The message, not the marches, reveals progress on immigration reform
By MARY SANCHEZ, Columnist

Funny thing about rallies, marches and demonstrations. People tend to believe that you can judge the strength of a movement by the heads you can count.

Some commentators, for example, have made much of the fact that this year's May 1 immigrant rallies drew noticeably smaller crowds than the estimated 1 million people who poured into the streets in cities around the nation last year.

An Associated Press article, noting that "only a fraction" of the marchers of last year turned out, blamed the lesser numbers on "fear" about recent raids and "frustration" that reforms had yet to be passed by Congress. A New York Times article opined that the crowds "paled" in comparison to last year and blamed "splintering" of tactics among advocates.

Don't be fooled by such simplistic reasoning. The opposite is true. The smaller gatherings signify not a floundering movement, but a movement progressing forward.

True change to immigration policy is not going to come about quickly, or simply because large numbers of people march through downtowns and gather in town squares. Far more important are the laborious tasks of educating the general public about immigration reform, lobbying legislators, and getting industries that depend on immigrant labor to find a role in the debate. Progress has been made on all these fronts.

Organizers have registered thousands of U.S. citizens from immigrant communities to vote. Businesses heavily dependent on immigrant workers-landscaping, agriculture and other industries-have spent the year organizing and lobbying members of Congress to change visa regulations to accommodate their labor needs.

Most important of all, the movement has revamped its message. It's more about keeping families together, providing access to college for immigrant kids born elsewhere, and giving people an opportunity to fess up to their illegal status, pay fines and right themselves with the law. That's a far more nuanced message than last year's, when sheer numbers alone gave a face to a population of people who had been largely discounted as invisible.

Of course, some activists cling to a romanticized idea that protests alone will reshape U.S. policy. But public demonstrations have always been more for the benefit of those gathered than for advancing the issue with the broader public. They are about organizing and keeping momentum.

To expect demonstrations to bring real change is folly. If you are standing outside on the sidewalk protesting, do you really have the clout to make change happen? If you had it, you wouldn't be on the sidewalk-you'd have made a phone call and you'd be inside, seated around a conference table with the people who control policy and make laws.

That's a harsh reality some need to embrace. Success will come when they stop simply preaching to the choir.

Immigrants advance their cause best by doing what they do every day: going to work, rubbing up against naysayers and proving them wrong by example. That's why this year there were no calls for walkouts by students, no promotions of a "Day Without an Immigrant." Both would have reinforced the image of illegal immigrants not wanting to be a part of society-the wrong message.

While the pro-immigrant movement is getting savvier, their opponents are stuck in a rut. They keep showing the same inflammatory images and touting the same enforcement measures-Wall off the borders!-that lawmakers have rejected as impractical. The Minutemen organization, which last year drew an inordinate amount of publicity despite accomplishing little, has splintered in legal squabbles over finances. Politicians such as Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) continue to spout the same rhetoric, but they are increasingly at odds with the sentiments of most Americans.

In April, a USA Today and Gallup poll of 1,000 people asked if people in the country illegally should be given a chance to gain citizenship. Almost eight out of ten, 78 percent, said they favored the so-called path to citizenship. And a poll by the National Immigration Forum and the Manhattan Institute showed that 75 percent of likely voters nationwide support comprehensive immigration reform.

The general public is far better educated on immigration than it was a year ago, far more insistent on broad reforms that account for the nation's security and labor needs, and that keep families intact. They understand the immigration system is broken-and that solutions will come through long debates with many players represented, not in the streets through signs and chants.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at msanchez@kcstar.com.


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