Carrying a black and white sign that says "Stop picking on immigrants. Love your neighbor," the Rev. Norman Fong joins a throng of protesters gathering in San Francisco's Mission District, the city's mostly Latino neighborhood. The morning rally and press conference are part of a massive protest in cities across the country, expected to draw as many as a million people from San Diego to New York, all united against punitive immigration bills in Congress.
"This is a scapegoat issue to pick on immigrants," says Fong, who wears a black collar and a large silver crucifix around his neck. His own father was arrested and detained in 1919 and held on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay for a year and a half. "From my community in Chinatown, I see this as a good unifying issue."
In the House, a bill calls for building a 700-mile-long security fence along the border with Mexico and making it a felony to be in the country illegally. A less draconian Senate bill, which stalled at the end of last week, would have allowed undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for more than five years to stay and become citizens. Those in this country for less than two years would have to go home and seek reentry with others trying to immigrate, which could fracture families and communities. While the controversial bills have put Latinos who've crossed the border from the south in the spotlight, their issues affect people from numerous immigrant groups, including Chinese and Palestinians, who also turned out for the San Francisco rally.
Renee Saucedo, a staff attorney at the San Francisco Day Labor Program and for the nonprofit La Raza Centro Legal, sees many of her clients in the crowd, undocumented workers who do construction, hauling, gardening, housecleaning and childcare in San Francisco. "The proposals coming out of Congress today are the most egregious we have seen in this country's history," she says. "They are a complete violation of people's human rights." She argues that U.S. companies like Wal-Mart pay as little as $4 a day to waitresses working at their VIPS restaurants in Mexico; no wonder people come to the United States looking for a better-paying job.
Waving American flags in front of a huge painted banner that reads "Fast 4 Immigrant Human Rights" is a largely Latino crowd, including young mothers pushing strollers, a grandmother wearing a crocheted American flag pin, high school students and dozens of advocates for immigrants. It's a press conference organized by the Deporten a la Migra Coalition -- Immigrants Fighting for Their Rights -- a coalition of groups advocating for undocumented immigrants.
Passing cars honk, drawing screams and cheers from the crowd, and a frenzy of flag waving -- mostly American flags, with a few Mexican or Salvadoran flags to round out the pageant. Bonnie Senteno of San Francisco came to the rally with her 11-year-old son, Jack, "to support our brothers and sisters from the south. This place is theirs. Without the indigenous people of this region, we wouldn't have a lot of what we have in this country." As the crowd chants, "Sí se puede!" "Yes, we can!" she explains to Jack that it was Cesar Chavez's rallying cry. "You know who he is, right?" Jack nods.
"El que no brinca es migra!" chants the crowd, as young women and kids hop up and down, laughing and smiling. ("If you don't jump, you're INS!") A red, white, and blue sign declares "The war on terror is a war on immigrants," with stars decorating the inside of the word "immigrants." Another sign with red lettering on white poster board reads simply: "No human being should be call[ed] illegal." Chants of "El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido" -- "The people united will never be defeated" -- and "A qui, estamos y no nos vamos" -- "We're here. We're not going anywhere" -- fill the air.
Chris Crass, 32, holds up one end of a large sign reading "European descendents for immigrant justice! Gringas para la justicia inmigrante." He's part of a group called the Heads Up Collective, a member of the Deporten a la Migra Coalition, which he translates as the Deport the INS Coalition. "White communities have to understand how so many of us have been pitted against immigrants of color, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to bosses using the bracero program to undercut unions," he says. When a counter-protester in a backward baseball cap and black sunglasses, carrying a sign that reads "Stop the invasion" on one side and "Illegal = criminal" on other, captures a TV crew's attention, Crass and his groups step in front of him to get their supportive message on camera.
The counter-protester, who does not give his name, is met by jeers from the crowd. "One counter-protester!" "That's why we're stronger than him." "I have nothing against immigrants," sasses back the counter-protester. "Legal immigrants!"
Sonja Ricket from Belgium, who's lived in the United States for 15 years on temporary work visas, says she's marching because she was exiled for three months by the Department of Homeland Security after living on an expired visa for six months while seeking a green card. She stayed in youth hostels in Belgium, while maintaining her apartment and office in San Francisco. Waiting for a new work visa put her $12,000 in debt. Now, back in the country on a two-year work visa that expires in January 2007, she says, "I want everyone to have a path to citizenship, including me, and I want there to be a just way for people to work without being sent home every three years." As a self-employed movement therapist and a dance educator who teaches tango, it's been tough for her to get a green card. "In the climate after 9/11, it's practically impossible," she says. Still, she knows that she's lucky, compared to the low-income women, without papers, who come to the free movement clinic that she leads at a local women's community center. "I know I'm privileged," she says.
With a translator echoing his words in Spanish, Jay Jasper Pugao, 30, a teacher at East Oakland Community High School, shouts into a megaphone: "This issue affects all people, documented and undocumented." Pugao recently took part in a seven-day hunger strike in front of the Federal Building in San Francisco to protest the immigration legislation. From under his brown baseball cap, which reads Fili Islander, he yells, "Our students, our elderly who came and built this country, are not criminals," drawing hoots, claps and cheers. "This bill has the potential to sexually exploit our women!"
Pugao, who notes that he was educated in Oakland public schools, says he doesn't remember any history lessons about Native Americans greeting the European immigrants by asking, "Hey, where are your documents, pilgrim?" The crowd chants, "The people united will never be defeated," in three languages: English, Spanish and Tagalog. Meanwhile, Pugao explains to reporters that his parents came to this country with $200 and three children under the age of 10. His mother had a work visa at the time, but his father had only a tourist visa, which soon expired. It took his father, who once worked as a farm worker picking asparagus and who's now a police technician for the city of Oakland, 15 years to become a citizen. Pugao, who became an American citizen as a child with his parents, says he went on a hunger strike to speak out in support of his family and the undocumented Filipino and Latino youth he works with as a teacher.
As Bishara Constandi from the Palestinian Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride starts to address the crowd, he asks them to "put down the U.S. flag." "We are not here to beg for citizenship," he says. "We are here to demand citizenship. Who built this country? Immigrants!" Many if not most of the flag wavers ignore his exhortation to put down the Stars and Stripes. One older man holds his up even higher, waving it even more fervently.
Saucedo, the day-labor program attorney, says the massive demonstrations in Dallas, Atlanta, L.A. and other cities across the country over the past few weeks show that "immigrant communities in this country are organizing and are politically much more powerful than people expected them to be. We are not powerless like people in power want us to be."
She goes on to say that the massive, peaceful protests across the nation enabled millions who can't vote to engage politically, whether they were the undocumented themselves or their children who may be American citizens but who feel they must speak out for parents and relatives. "Why do you think that so many people here are kids?" she asks. "They represent the parents and the grandparents. An attack on their families is an attack on them."
Today is a huge day for the movement, Saucedo says, but she's also looking forward to May 1, a "day without immigrants," with participants encouraged not to go to work, school or shop. "Restaurants could literally stop. Hotels could literally stop."
There's no English class today for Maggie Terry's students. An English-language teacher at John O'Connell High School of Technology in San Francisco, Terry brought 15 of her students to the Mission District. Teens who hail originally from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua crowd under an umbrella to get out of the rain. Terry says the class has been discussing the immigration bills in Congress and how they might affect their families.
Martin Olivares, 16, a skinny kid with a Mohawk who came to the United States four years ago from Mexico, says he's here today with his class because "I want to shout my voice." Olivares has a succinct explanation for why there's so much debate in Congress and the White House about immigrants like him: "They are doing this because the bad government wants to look like a good government."