The Austin Chronicle

Immigrants Tell Country to 'Listen Up'

By Cheryl Smith, May 4, 2007, News

For the second year in a row, a flood of flag-waving, sign-toting immigrants and supporters spilled out of the Capitol's front gates onto Congress Avenue on May Day, chanting, "ÁSí se puede! [It can be done!]" and "Bush, escucha, estamos en la lucha! [Bush, listen up, we are in the fight!]" among other rallying cries. The May 1 rally and march to City Hall was one of dozens that went down across the country as part of a National Day of Action for Immigrant Rights, an effort to give the nation's millions-strong undocumented immigrant community a chance to be heard in the federal debate over immigration reform.

"We want them to give us amnesty," said local restaurant cook Manuel Romero in front of the Capitol. "We only came here to work." A native of Morelos, Mexico, Romero, 33, said he journeyed to Austin without immigration papers about 16 years ago. He was at the rally with his sons – Jose, 10, and Eduardo, 7 – and wife, Ofelia Romero, who joined him in Austin with the children five years ago.

Cristina Tzintzún, project director for the Workers Defense Project, one of several local groups that formed the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition, which organized Tuesday's event, estimated that at least 5,000 people marched in the rain down Congress past the federal building to City Hall, though there's no official count. The Austin Police Department estimates between 8,500 and 10,000 people marched in Austin last year. Turnouts were smaller than they were last year across the country, most notably in Dallas, where The Dallas Morning News reports 3,000 to 5,000 people took to the streets, compared to hundreds of thousands in 2006.

Tuesday's event was peaceful, with police reporting no arrests. APD spokeswoman Toni Chovanetz said the department isn't "concerned with whether you're in the country legally or illegally," only with whether someone is a victim or a suspect in a crime. The city isn't concerned with Austinites' immigration status, either. Council passed a resolution in 1997 declaring Austin a "'safety zone' where all persons are treated equally, with respect and dignity, regardless of immigration status," making it official city policy not to discriminate or deny "city services on the basis of a person's immigration status."

Local police and public servants leave immigration law enforcement to the feds, who weighed in on the rallies and marches with a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement press release. "ICE enforces the law 365 days a year using targeted enforcement actions based on investigations, intelligence and priorities," said ICE spokeswoman Nina Pruneda in a statement. "We do not conduct random sweeps, but no one in the country illegally is immune from being detained and placed into removal proceedings if encountered by law enforcement."

Although they stayed out of trouble with the fuzz, about 40 LBJ High School students got zeros for work due in their classes Tuesday for walking out of class before noon. The problem wasn't that they wanted to attend the rally, Austin Independent School District spokeswoman Carmen Luevanos said. The issue was that the event started at 5pm. "They want to be there from the very beginning," Luevanos joked Tuesday afternoon. "We do respect their right to exercise their First Amendment rights. We encourage that, [but] we prefer it be after school hours."

Salvador Jaimes, 12, attended the rally with his mother, Dalia Jaimes; his aunt, Elena Peres; and his younger brother, Hugo. Everyone but Hugo sported oversized Norteño 1490 T-shirts, one of multiple signs at the Capitol that local Spanish-language radio stations seized on the event as a marketing opportunity. Salvador and Hugo were born in the U.S., but Dalia and Elena are Mexican citizens.

"My parents came like this, and I don't want anybody else to suffer like that," said Salvador, who, when asked what he thought about the rally, unwittingly reflected the sentiments of a quote from a press release the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition sent out before the event: "Comprehensive immigration reform means that legislators must recognize that undocumented immigrants cannot continue living in the shadows of our society. A proposal with pathway to citizenship is the most viable and humane response," said Catholic Charities' Leslie Helmcamp in the release.

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