John Moore / Getty Images

Immigration protest movement gains new impetus

The current surge in undocumented child migrants from Central America has galvanized immigration protest groups

LOS ANGELES — A convoy will leave the city of Murrieta on Friday and start a 1,500-mile journey from California to McAllen, Texas, with stops along the way to protest “the invasion happening unchecked at our nation’s borders.”

Another organization, the Minuteman Project, has just launched Operation Normandy with plans to blanket the 2,000-mile southern border with protesters on May 1, 2015 — which it describes as D-Day.

Yet another group, Overpasses for America, plans another round of nationwide protests on highway overpasses Aug. 9.

“We’ll organize rallies where we can along this route,” said Eric Odom, the Border Convoy lead organizer. “There’s a reality setting in that even if this has not come close to you in the town that you live in, it’s probably going to come to a facility near you.”

“This” refers to the 50,000-plus unaccompanied minors who escaped poverty and gang violence in Central America and have been apprehended in the U.S. since October 2013, detained by the U.S. Border Patrol and released to temporary shelters or relatives.

The influx has reawakened slumbering movements to seal the border and stop the arrival of undocumented immigrants, whose numbers in the U.S are estimated to have peaked in 2007. And it has galvanized many groups angry at President Barack Obama and government in general.

The methods of pro- and anti-immigration groups are the same — rallies, placards, loud demonstrations — but the power of social media has fueled lightning-speed organization on both sides.

People from both sides of the issue argue across police lines during an immigration demonstration outside the Border Patrol facility in Murrieta, Calif., on July 4.
David Kadlubowski / The Arizona Republic / AP

A plane carrying immigrants lands in San Diego, and protesters camped out in front of the Border Patrol station in Murrieta get the word immediately.

“There is instantaneous messaging movement from one community to another,” Odom said. “During our first rally in 2006, we were using payphones and fliers … If buses [of undocumented migrants] are spotted anywhere within 10 miles of Murrieta, there is an instantaneous movement of people to that border facility.”

But the power of the Internet works both ways. When Overpasses for America — whose goal “is to see the corrupt Barack Hussein Obama held accountable for his many unconstitutional actions” — put up large signs calling for the president’s impeachment and had supporters waving American flags on highway overpasses, counter-groups quickly put up their own signs cautioning “Hate and Bigotry Ahead.”

“The current anti-immigration groups are largely a reanimation of the Tea Party protests of a few years back,” said T.V. Reed in an email. Reed is a professor of English and American studies at Washington State University and the author of “The Art of Protest.”

“Tactics originally developed by progressives — sit-ins, boycotts, etc. — have been copied by reactionary movements, beginning perhaps with anti-abortion protests of a few decades ago,” Reed said.

This current border crisis has galvanized groups that care less about immigration than they do about protesting government, said Jill Garvey, executive director of the Center for New Community, a Chicago-based national civil rights organization that provides support to advocacy groups.

Jim Gilchrist of the Minuteman Project plans a protest the length of the border.
Jay Mallin / Bloomberg / Getty Images

“Many of the anti-immigration groups are trying to use the issue to put pressure on the Obama administration, which is now considering executive action [on immigration reform],” she said.

“We see really troubling things from groups that have either been dormant or shuttered. The extent to which they’ve come back, we don’t know yet.”

Marine Corps veteran Jim Gilchrist, who founded the Minuteman Project in 2004 to get the government to enforce immigration laws, has resurfaced and launched Operation Normandy a week after protesters in Murrieta forced a bus bringing immigrants to a detention facility to turn around.

The Minuteman website said it expects to recruit and organize 3,500 nonmilitia volunteers and “uncounted groups of militia” to participate on D-Day. The plan is to blanket the 2,000-mile border from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas.

“This event will dwarf the Minuteman Project of 2005,” the site proclaims. In that year the organization stationed scores of men and women along the Mexican border in a controversial effort to track down undocumented immigrants.

Distracting from reform

The Central American immigrant crisis has complicated the campaign for immigration reform and even diluted some of its efforts by shifting media and public attention to border protests.

“The media play a big role in what message is sent,” said Carolyn Brown, an assistant professor of journalism at American University who specializes in the anti-immigration militia movement. “It covers the anti-immigrant movement more than the immigrant movement because it’s louder and sometimes a little crazier and makes for a better story.”

Groups that had lost momentum “are using the current influx of young children and women as a way to revive the movement,” Brown said.

But as the promise of immigration reform this year quickly fades, organizations from United We Dream to Mi Familia Vota Education Fund and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) are faced with the double challenge of countering protests at the border while continuing to pressure Congress and the White House to reform immigration laws that would give the 11 million-plus immigrants who are here illegally a chance to become citizens.

Faith groups have stepped in to help shelter Central American children and families, and local organizations are staging counter-rallies at the border. United We Dream had members at the border in McAllen to push for a fair hearing for Central Americans fleeing strife in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, said Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, deputy managing director of the advocacy group.

But while the border crisis plays out, the immigration rights lobby is keeping its focus on Washington.

This week, national Latino and Asian groups released a 2014 National Immigration Score Card that rates Congress members’ records on immigration reform: 219 members received a failing score of 59 percent, and 169 got a perfect score of 100 percent. Overall, House members averaged a score of 77 percent.

The National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the #Not1More Deportation Campaign are organizing a march to the White House this Saturday. On Monday, groups rallied at the White House and called for the participation of undocumented leaders in any negotiations on immigration reform.

So while grass-roots anti-immigration campaigns are erupting in cities across the country, the bulk of the immigration lobby is targeting Washington.

Public reaction

A Fox News poll of 1,057 registered voters released last week found that 60 percent of respondents said undocumented immigrants should stay and eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship.

When asked if they would favor or oppose having large numbers of children who entered illegally housed in their community, the respondents were almost equally split: 46 percent for, 48 percent against, well within the margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

“Most Americans believe we should take care of children,” Sousa-Rodriguez said. “We’re protecting the lives of young kids, and we need to create a more humane process for immigrants to live in the United States.”

But the opposition continues.

“We anticipate well over 100, if not a couple of hundred vehicles taking part in the convoy” this week, Odom said. “But there are some shady tactics. People are talking about slashing our tires, and one of the tactics that bubbled up is planning to block the convoy in a similar way that Murrieta [protesters] blocked buses.”

Although many of the demonstrations that have been touted as bringing out hundreds have turned out much smaller, immigration advocates are keeping a wary eye on the groundswell of opposition.

“When we see alliances building between fringe groups and more mainstream groups, we’re very concerned,” Garvey said. “We see some long-term consequences.”

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