May 12, 2006

May Day 2006: An Initial Assessment

Nobody really knows how many people participated in the May Day pro-immigrant legalization protest that shook North America and beyond. Very conservative media estimates speak about 1 million people just in the United States, while other media stories and pro-immigrant organizers estimate many millions more.

Whatever the numbers, May Day was a spike in a new movement that remarkably, in only a couple months, turned the immigration reform debate in the US on its head, galvanized a new generation of youth activists, spread across borders, and even pumped new life into corporate anti-globalization movements that declined in the wake of September 11, 2001.

Perhaps the best gauge of how deeply the protest cut into the political fabric is not measured by the mega-marches in Los Angeles or Chicago that each drew 500,000 people or more, but by the actions in almost anonymous settings throughout the United States, places usually not known for their political fervor.

In small towns like Tooele, Utah, and Rockdale, Texas, immigrant workers and students demonstrated for legalization. In the self-proclaimed chile (hot pepper) capital of the world of Hatch, New Mexico, a dozen students walked out of the village’s small high school- much to the chagrin of a local Baptist minister.

U.S. Actions

Initial assessments of May Day’s impact in the US are mixed, ranging from critics who dismissed the action as a misguided adventure that will backfire to movement organizers who characterized the day a great, historic success.

Some pro-immigrant forces, most notably the Roman Catholic Church and long-time, Washington, D.C.-based Latino civil rights groups urged people to go to work and school and then participate in mass rallies. But by May Day, the call for a strike and boycott had acquired a life of its own, surpassing the ability of traditional organizations to control it.

A post-May Day poll quoted on Univision found that 65 percent of Latino participants did not work on Mayday, while 95 percent reported not buying anything on the boycott day. Most visibly, the huge US rallies and marches, drawing from several thousand to the hundreds of thousands of people, displayed the potential might  of what many call “the sleeping giant” of Latino political power.

A long-time US resident from Ecuador who worked for 10 years in Alaskan mines, David Rodriguez said May Day had been a long time coming. “I’ve lived in the US for 30 years and you never used to see these kinds of demonstrations 30 years ago,” Rodriguez said. “There weren’t demonstrations of this kind, or organization. Certainly, this is a power that still needs to be organized more... we still got a little ways to go.”

Controversy erupted over the boycott, once again underscoring class differences and conflicting economic interests in the pro-legalization movement. Credited for boosting turn-outs at earlier events in March and April, Spanish-language commercial media, which is obviously dependent on advertising revenues, emerged as the leading voice against boycotts. The Spanish-language television monopoly Univision even followed up May Day with a news story that featured a spokesperson from Los Angeles’ Carecen immigrant rights advocacy organization who criticized the boycott tactic as ineffective.

Mexico’s Day of Solidarity 

Spreading on the Internet, the message for solidarity with US immigrants on May Day produced mass marches and rallies, international bridge shut-downs and scattered boycotts of US businesses and franchises in Mexico. As in the United States, the actions were not coordinated by a single organization south of the border, and involved unions, students, former braceros, indigenous groups, and others. A few days before May Day, the Mexican Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution backing the US immigrant protest.

May Day solidarity actions were strongest in the northern border region. In Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, 200 protestors got a head start on others when they closed a Wal-Mart store for 10 minutes on April 30. The next day, in bridge blockades ranging from 15 minutes to several hours, different groups closed international crossings in Tijuana-San Diego, Tecate, Mexicali-Calexico, Ciudad Juarez-El Paso, Nuevo Laredo-Laredo, Reynosa-Hidalgo, and Matamoros-Brownsville. Downtown El Paso, which is largely dependent on shoppers from neighboring Ciudad Juarez, was reported largely deserted with 75 percent of its stores closed. 

Students, ex-braceros, merchants and others participated in the actions. In Mexicali, former braceros marched to the city’s “La Pagoda” building to symbolize Mexican-Chinese unity.

In both Mexico and Central America, many of the pro-immigrant May Day protests also brought up the NAFTA and CAFTA trade agreements, low salaries, high energy costs, and other economic grievances. “CAFTA, as well as the neo-liberal measures imposed by the US and the International Monetary Fund are directly responsible for the unemployment and migrations,” declared Honduran opposition leader Carlos Reyes. “Therefore, the US has the obligation not to deport (migrants) but to welcome them, and not to criminalize their migratory status.”

May Day’s Possible Impacts 

US Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist dismissed the May Day protests as not carrying any potential weight in the immigration reform legislation debate, but others are confident the echoes of May Day will be heard when the US Senate takes up the stalled legislation this month. Anti-legalization forces are wagering that a backlash to seeing Mexican flags waving in the streets will help forestall any reforms smacking of amnesty. 

A CNN poll released this week reported that sympathy for immigrants had dropped from 70 percent of respondents in April to 57 percent in May. Pro-legalization organizations, on the other hand, are betting their newly-displayed strength will produce positive results. How the negotiations between a Senate bill and the Sen-senbrenner HR 4437 House legislation pan out in the days ahead is the big question. Still in doubt is whether any legislation at will be approved by both houses of Congress and signed by President Bush in an election year.

Eligibility for green cards, guestworkers and border security provisions will be among the key sticking points. Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a former US Border Patrol chief, said it’s almost certain that the massive border wall and undocumented immigrant criminalization aspects of the Sensenbrenner bill are dead.  If Reyes is correct, the new pro-immigrant movement can claim a great, first victory.

Analysts will be carefully watching the electoral repercussions of the pro-immigrant movement in the 2006 and 2008 elections. Many of today’s protestors are US citizens —and current or potential voters— who turned out to support their relatives and friends. A common slogan in protests across the nation was: “Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote.” And with a new generation politicized, May Day’s winds of change could well expand beyond the arena of electoral politics.

Reprinted from Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University.

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