A new corps mobilizes over immigration

Latinos are uniting as never before to oppose immigration proposals in Congress.

For the Latinos of this northern Colorado farming community, it was the final straw.

A proposal for a federal immigration office in town was supposed to help with gang and meth problems. Hispanics felt it unfairly targeted immigrants.

Sylvia Martinez, the daughter of a migrant Mexican worker, mobilized fellow Latinos. Three rallies ensued, and the proposal was all but quashed. "We saw this anti-immigrant stuff on a national level and then on a local level, and we said: 'OK, that's it. We do something now,' " says Ms. Martinez.

Local flash points like the one in Greeley, often born of hometown concerns about an influx of immigrants, are sparking the rise of a new corps of Hispanic activists. Now this corps is mobilized as never before to do battle on a national level - uniting legal and illegal, old guard and fresh faces - to oppose tough immigration reforms moving through Congress.

The strength of "Latino power" has been evident in recent days at protests in many US cities. Martinez and her group from Greeley, for one, were among the demonstrators, joining a 50,000-strong rally in Denver last weekend.

Granted, Hispanic political activism certainly isn't new. But this time its voice is different. The divide that usually exists between Hispanic-Americans born in the US and undocumented Hispanics is fading, say advocacy-group leaders, and fresh faces are joining old hands in the trenches of political organizing.

"There used to be a kind of divide" between native-born US Latinos and undocumented immigrants, says Raul Yzaguirre, former president of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino advocacy group. "Now, there is a sense that we're in this together."

In fact, some are saying that Latino political activism has not reached such a level of intensity since 1994, when a California ballot initiative to deny social services to illegal immigrants rallied that state's Hispanic population against it. This time, however, the intensity is on a much broader scale, as groups from Atlanta to Milwaukee to Los Angeles follow closely any government moves that could affect them.

"I have to say, it makes life easy for us," says Pablo Alvarado, a Salva-dorean immigrant and leader of the National Day Labor Organizing Network in Los Angeles. "An environment of fear means people are more willing to come together. I guess it's the same anywhere in the world."

Still, many Latino organizers remain troubled. "Sure, this accelerates people's incursion in the political system," says Clarissa Martinez de Castro, director of state-local public policy for the National Council of La Raza. "But in the long term, I think we are doing great damage." That is, she worries that any short-term increase in political activism and unity could be negated by anti-Latino sentiment - even if it's only a matter of perception - that results in long-term alienation and disillusionment.

And at times, some of the national rhetoric on immigration issues has left many Latinos feeling beleaguered. "We take it very personally," says Verónica Dahlberg, head of a Latino advocacy group in Ohio. "We have to turn off the TV because the words 'illegal alien' have begun to sound like the 'n' word."

In Greeley, however, activist enthusiasm shows little sign of waning since the protests against establishing an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. Those rallies happened late last year, after Martinez and others canvassed neighborhoods with fliers and radio spots.

"I asked everyone to leave their identification at home," she remembers. "That way we would all be undocumented."

One rally drew 600 protesters - some immigrants, some native-born citizens - to a local Catholic church. The sudden show of unity moved public officials to apologize for not vetting the proposal with the Hispanic community.

Now, Martinez's group, Latinos Unidos, is putting together a voter-registration drive.

"This has been very invigorating," says Rebecca Safarik, Greeley's community development director. Latinos, she says, are now speaking up at city council meetings and are attending a weekly leadership training session. "We teach residents how to participate in local government," Ms. Safarik says. "At our last meeting, two-thirds were Latinos."

Still, for Martinez, success has come with a price. "I've exhausted two years of vacation time in two months," she says over a lunch of fajitas at a Mexican restaurant near her home. She adds that her efforts have also taken time from her husband and two children.

As she pauses, however, a fellow Latino quietly approaches and in Spanish says, "Congratulations on our victory. We're with you."

Martinez smiles and reminds the man to listen to the radio for information on future rallies.

"Sometimes I get people crying and giving me kisses for standing up for them," she says. "That guy just gave me fuel for two more months."

Material from the wire services was used in this report.

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