By Courtney Suciu
The contemporary pro-immigration social movement can be traced to a bill taken up in the U.S. Senate in March 2006, according to scholar Kathryn Hoban’s article, “The Emergence and Obstacles of the Immigrant Rights Movement.”1
Hoban wrote that the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act (known as the Sensenbrenner Bill):
proposed to make it a felony offense to be an undocumented immigrant, make assistance to immigrants a felony, authorize the building of an additional 700 miles of wall along the U.S.-Mexico Border, require government officials to detain undocumented individuals, and require employers to confirm employees’ immigration status by conducting background checks.
In order to gain deeper insight and understanding of the contemporary mobilization around immigrant rights, we looked more closely at how the movement has unfolded over the years in one particular urban hotspot, the city where it all began: Chicago.
Why did Chicago play such a critical role in launching this pro-immigration movement? And how has this social movement evolved in the city – and throughout the nation – since 2006?
We explored these questions through the Chicago Tribune’s coverage of the movement for immigrant’s rights as it transpired from 2006 to the present.
The Sensenbrenner bill had been approved by the U.S. House in December 2006, rousing alarm throughout the Latino community and resulting in what the Chicago Tribune2 described as “one of the largest pro-immigration rallies in U.S.,” comprising an estimated 100,000-300,000 participants.
According to Tribune reporters Oscar Avila and Antonio Olivio, “the broader message [of the protest] – carried out mostly by Mexicans, but also a smattering of Poles, Irish and Chinese – was that immigrants are too integral and large a part of Chicago to be ignored.”
This historical event triggered similar protests across the country in New York, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Dallas and several other major U.S. cities. The urban setting of these protests was notable. According to Hoban, social movement theorists “consider[ed] cities to be hot spots for social movements because of the richness of relationships that urban settings foster, both within and across communities.”
The Senate did not pass the Sensenbrenner bill but instead approved a compromise that omitted most of the more controversial components of the proposed act. Hoban wrote that in response, “another series of national protests was organized. Immigrant workers, students, and supporters were encouraged to participate in a nationwide boycott in order to demonstrate immigrant contributions to the United States,” on May 1 (International Workers’ Day), 2006.
These rallies, wrote Michael Martinez, national news correspondent for the Chicago Tribune3, brought more than a million immigrants across the U.S. to the streets “to display their economic clout and demonstrate in favor of sweeping immigration reform.”
“Officials couldn’t provide an immediate figure on the economic impact of the U.S. immigrant version of May Day, but myriad businesses from meatpackers to McDonald’s reported worker shortages,” he noted.
From Chicago, Avila and Olivo4 reported “a chorus of voices more numerous and more forceful than at the historic rally in March” gathered for a peaceful protest featuring such speakers as then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama and Archbishop of the city, Cardinal Francis George.
According to the publication, police estimated the crowd at nearly 400,000 participants gathered “through the canyons of Chicago’s skyscrapers and in spacious Grant Park” where “Korean drummers complemented songs in Spanish while Irish bagpipers played ‘Danny Boy.’”
While the program was mostly conducted in Spanish, the reporters noted the spirit of solidarity among workers as “several unions turned out rank-and-file of all races,” with representatives from manufacturing and hospitality industries.
One participant who had been born in Britain told reporters, “I am an immigrant. These are my people. When I saw the first march [in March 2006] I said, ‘Good for them.’ Today, I’m saying ‘Good for us.’”
The spirit of the May 2006 demonstrations in Chicago and across the U.S. marked by festivity and comradery lingered into the summer though on a smaller scale with about 10,000 protestors gathered thoughout the city’s Loop in July.
A Tribune5 report on the event indicated “activists nationally worried that the city was a cautionary tale for rally fatigue at a time when symbolism matters in the immigration debate.”
One participant, Steve Montano, told the publication that even after three marches, he remained resolute in his support for the cause, even though his coworkers at a metal factory opted not to attend: “They say, ‘I’m not going, because nothing works.’”
Richard Diaz, who coordinated similar events in Philadelphia, said he was concerned immigrants might feel “demoralized” by the significantly smaller crowd. His worries were warranted. The following year, activists in Chicago held another May Day protest and the 2007 rally differed not only in size (with 150,000 estimated participants compared to 400,00 May 2006) but in tone.
With immigration reform at in impasse, protestors seemed wearier and angrier than in the past.
“This time,” reporters Antonio Olivo and Sara Olkon wrote, “the mood was set by speakers and signs insisting that illegal immigrants are here to stay and challenging the federal government to deal with them.”
“Bystanders, meanwhile,” they noted, “looked on ruefully and wondered what all the marching was accomplishing."
In addition to fatigue and frustration, Olivo and Olkon suggested that protestors might have been hesitant to participate in the demonstrations as the result of increased crackdowns, noting “fear of backlash caused by recent deportations kept many away from marches in Chicago and elsewhere.”
If over the course of one year, the size of Chicago’s demonstrations for immigrants’ rights had declined by more than half, what would that mean going forward? Would the movement continue to dwindle in the coming years, or would it simply lose some of its early steam but carry on at a steadier, more consistent pace?
And, more importantly, would pro-immigration activism in Chicago and across the U.S. have an impact on immigrant rights?
The answer to that last question is yes and no. Though the next decade, there would be policy and legislative proposals like the Deferred Action for Children Arrivals (DACA) and the Dream Act (which was first initiated in 2001) to protect young immigrants, but neither of these bills has yet become law.
Remember that compromise to the Sensenbrenner bill in 2006? As part of that measure, Congress authorized a 700-mile long wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. Such a wall wasn’t talked about much until the 2016 U.S. election season when Presidential candidate Donald Trump made restricting immigration a cornerstone of his campaign – and “Build the Wall” became a rallying cry for his supporters.
After Trump was elected, the U.S. immigration debate came to roiling boil. Pro-immigration activists and organizers were galvanized by the new administration’s impassioned promises for increased security at the nation’s borders and crackdowns on immigrants who were in the country illegally.
In February 2017, immigrants in Chicago heeded the nationwide call to skip work and school once again to demonstrate the economic power “of a community that has been shaken by the Trump administration’s hardline stance on immigration,” Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz wrote in the Chicago Tribune6.
With this protest, the tone of the movement again was changing. According to the Tribune, immigrant rights advocate Maria Fernanda Cabello wrote in a statement “We are switching the conversation from ‘Are immigrants wanted?’ to ‘Are immigrants needed?’ We cannot live like this anymore and the immigrant community is ready to show this country what would happen without us."
Hoban concludes her article by examining strategies that can help achieve goals such as better protections for immigrants. Part of the problem, she noted (and as demonstrated in accounts of the movement chronicled in the Chicago Tribune) is maintaining the momentum that infused this movement when it first emerged in 2006.
She explained how critics of social movements have pinpointed this dilemma to the nature of pro-immigration rallies to be more reactionary than proactive. Social protest that develops in response to policy and legislation peaks and declines depending on government activity (such as the proposal of the Sensenbrenner bill or building the border wall) rather than an effort to present alternatives to such legislation, like new paths to citizenship or amnesty for undocumented immigrants.
Hoban argued that pro-immigration mobilization focused around alternative policies, such as protections for immigrants, might be key to the movement’s success.
Has the movement been effective in demonstrating how and why immigrants are an integral part of life and culture in the U.S.? Only time will tell. The impact of a social movement can only be determined by looking at it over the course of time. Newspaper accounts of pro-immigration mobilization since 2006 can help us piece together the story behind this contentious, ongoing debate in Chicago and across the country.
Such insights might even help activists and organizers shape a more successful social movement.
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Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu