Thousands of immigrants march for rightsby Annie Baxter, Minnesota Public Radio
Immigration issues took center stage in Minnesota over the weekend, as both supporters and opponents of more lenient immigration policy shouted their messages from the steps of the state Capitol.
The rallies occurred in the wake of a failed attempt by Congress to pass a guest worker program that would make it easier for millions of illegal immigrants to work legally, and also smooth the way to citizenship for those who have already lived in the U.S. for several years.
That proposal has energized immigration discussions in Minnesota and around the country.
St. Paul, Minn. — 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.
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.
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.
- Morning Edition, 04/10/2006, 7:20 a.m.