Union Tribune

October 10, 2002


Thousands rally in D.C. in support of illegal immigrants



WASHINGTON Advocates for illegal immigrants displayed their political muscle yesterday, rallying to celebrate the delivery of 1 million postcards urging President Bush and Congress to push for a sweeping legalization program.

"These 1 million signatures say there is broad support for immigration reform in this country," labor union leader Eliseo Medina declared to a mostly Latino crowd of several thousand at a plaza two blocks from the White House. Many waved the American flag or the flags of Mexico and other Latin American countries.

Medina, a Mexican immigrant's son and executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, said the postcards came from 40 states, reflecting the spread of illegal immigrants across the country.

"We're not talking about an issue that's isolated in California or Illinois or Texas," he said. "We're talking about an issue that's being raised in North Carolina, in Mississippi, in Nebraska, in Alaska. We think we're creating the kind of momentum that the Democrats and Republicans can't ignore."

Setting a theme that was echoed at the rally by church leaders, immigrants and several Democratic members of Congress, Medina said, "It's time for immigration laws to reward the hard work of immigrants."

The featured speaker was Rep. Richard Gephardt, the House minority leader and one of 25 Democratic sponsors of legislation that would legalize millions of immigrants who have lived in the United States at least five years.

In recognition of the potential power of the Latino vote, Gephardt has been learning Spanish grammar and presenting himself as more of an immigrant advocate than President Bush and the Republican Party.

Although Republicans have worked hard to court the Latino vote, they have generally taken a cautious approach to sweeping legalization proposals, which they fear would not only reward those who crossed the border illegally but also spawn new waves of illegal immigration.

That reluctance last year forced the White House to temper Bush's initial enthusiasm for a plan that would have legalized several million Mexicans and possibly workers from other Latin American countries that stoked the 1990s immigration boom.

Between 1990 and 2000, the immigrant population in the United States grew 57 percent, to 31.1 million, with Mexico sending more immigrants than any other country.

Gephardt demonstrated his awareness of the importance of careful legislative packaging as he repeatedly said his bill would provide "earned legalization." He avoided the politically charged "amnesty," even though his bill resembles 1986 federal legislation that gave amnesty to about 3 million immigrants, mostly from Mexico.

Mark Krikorian, director of a Washington think tank that seeks to curtail immigration, said the Democrats' bill would repeat the history of the 1986 act by creating immigration networks "that will enable more persons to come illegally."

Rally organizers said Republican leaders didn't accept their invitation to attend the rally but agreed to meet with immigration advocates later in the day on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, Bush welcomed Latino community leaders, athletes and members of his administration to a White House celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.

"We welcome the great values that our Hispanic-Americans bring to America, the values of faith y familia,"  Bush said.