Thousands of immigrants march for rights

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Rally around the flags
American flags abounded as the thousands of immigrants rights supporters marched on the Minnesota state Capitol on April 9, 2006.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

In recent weeks, there's been something along the lines of "rally fever" going on among immigrant groups. Huge pro-immigration rallies a few weeks ago in Los Angeles and New York inspired immigrant workers in many other cities to take to the streets. Dozens more rallies are planned around the country today.

The lion's share of people who marched to the Capitol in support of immigrant rights on April 9, 2006, were of Latin American descent. Mexican Aztec dancers set a festive tone as they burned lemongrass, danced, and beat drums.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Minnesota saw its own massive pro-immigration rally in St. Paul, where an estimated crowd of at least 30,000 thronged the streets between the Cathedral of St. Paul and the state Capitol. The crowd mostly consisted of Latin American immigrants. They waved Mexican and American flags as Mexican Aztec dancers beat drums.

Mariano Espinoza, of the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network, says about 50 activist groups -- including several religious organizations -- put the rally together. He says they want lawmakers to appreciate illegal workers' contributions, and better understand the hardships they face.

"A lot of people don't have documents because the immigration system doesn't provide legal ways for people to come to this country. So hard-working people should be part of the community and we need to figure out ways to find solutions," according to Espinoza.

It's unclear how easily such a "solution" will come about, given a failed attempt in Congress to legalize millions of immigrant workers. A separate plan passed by the U.S. House last December would actually tighten the nation's borders.

But legal-worker status wasn't the only issue on the minds of demonstrators at the rally in St. Paul. Marco Davila, 20, came here five years ago from Mexico and doesn't have citizenship, so he can't qualify for instate tuition at colleges.

"I also would like to be able to go to the university, but we pay more, that's impossible for me. That needs to be changed," he said.

In Minnesota, Democrats are pushing for legislation that would help immigrant university students by allowing them to pay in-state tuition if they graduated from a Minnesota high school. The bill has been approved by one Senate committee, but has yet to get a hearing in the House as the session winds down.

Archbishop Harry Flynn
Twin Cities Archbishop Harry Flynn told a Capitol rally that "non immigrants in this community need immigrants as much, if not more, than immigrants need the non-immigrant community."
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

But opponents of such proposals add education to the list of ways they think immigrants drain resources.

Marlene Nelson, of Owataonna, attended an anti-immigration rally at the Capitol on Saturday, which was organized on short notice and drew fewer than 100 people. Nelson's with a group called the Steele County Coalition or Immigration Reduction and she says immigrants, namely Mexican immigrants, can't all expect a helping hand.

"There's 4.5 billion people in the world more impoverished than the average Mexican. Are you suggesting we open the doors and take all these billions of people here? We can't keep everybody floating. It's not possible. They need to learn to blossom where they are. They need to make their country work for them," she said.

But one of the messages at the pro-immigration rally Sunday was that the workers keep the American economy afloat. James Graves, CEO of Graves Hospitality, said that's true at the hotels he runs.

"Our country, and more specifically my businesses, need dedicated and outstanding immigrant employees. Without them, our businesses and our country would find itself in a shortage of quality and necessary workforce," Graves said.

Some immigrant groups around the country say they'll try to drive that point home even more today by not going to work, and making their absence felt.