By Donna R. Gabaccia, Rudolph J. Vecoli Professor of Immigration History and Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota
Through an accident of professional travel, I was in France on March 28, as
a million protestors hit the streets. Young people were objecting to a law
that would allow employers to dismiss them without cause. They carried
signs that said â€śâ€?No to trial employment!â€?
The protests were effective: this Monday the French government dropped the
proposed legislation. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4865034.stm)
Will we see equally swift and dramatic responses in Washington to the
millions demonstrating in American cities over the past 10 days?
I have my doubts.
Street demonstrations are highly orchestrated and carefully planned events,
and they have a long history in the United States. Assessments of their
political impact have been decidedly mixed, however. Few commentators doubt
that the 1963 March on Washington (of half a million African Americans and
their supporters) contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of
1965. By contrast, barrels of ink have been unable to resolve ongoing
debates about the impact on U.S. policy in Vietnam of the giant anti-war
protests of the 1960s and early 1970s. And, of course, more recently,
impressive demonstrations in the U.S. and around the world failed to
prevent the American invasion of Iraq.
This weekâ€™s large pro-immigration demonstrations began as Congress recessed
for two weeks, without having reached a compromise among many competing
proposals. Divisions within the Republican Party and sharp differences
between Republicans and Democrats in Congress resulted in the impasse.
Representatives with their eyes on the upcoming elections may not have the
incentive to compromise and reach agreement even when they return. American
politicians keep their eyes on the polls more than on the streets.
Nor can we be sure that protestors favored one legal reform or another.
Yes, Catholic prelates said they would go to jail rather than deny
assistance to the so-called â€śillegals,â€? a reference to a House bill that
had still been under debate last week. And yes, immigrant advocacy groups
pointed to the political significance of the large marches.
Still, one looked in vain for the placards demanding â€śamnesty,â€? a
â€śtemporary worker programâ€? or even â€śGreen cards for all.â€?
The signs and flags that most demonstrators carried suggested they wanted
more than a change in immigration law. Marchers demanded dignity. They
demanded recognition for who they are. As one marcher in St. Paul said,
"We're peaceful people. We're honest people. And we're helping the economy
Whatever the fall-out in Washington, demonstrators accomplished something
very significant. They pushed aside the ever-present and shadowy figure of
the threatening, criminal â€śillegal.â€? When Congress renews its debates in
two weeks, it will be harder for Americans to believe that 11 million
criminals threaten their security.
Millions of flag-waving, pro-American, hardworking, and very ordinary
people on the streets of American cities reminded the country what
â€śillegalsâ€? look like.
And what they look are immigrants. Mothers. Fathers. Workers. Neighbors.
Voters. Dreamers. Us.
Contributor Contact Information:
Donna R. Gabaccia Rudolph J. Vecoli Professor of Immigration History
Research and Director Immigration History Research Center
311 Elmer L. Andersen Library
222-21st Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455