Immigrant Students and Workers Take to the Streets: Outpouring in Chicago

— Joseph Grim Feinberg

IN LATE FEBRUARY, word began to spread around Chicago about a protest against HR 4437, a bill passed by the House of Representatives to criminalize undocumented immigration, as well as aid given to undocumented immigrants (for more information on HR 4437, see http://www.ilrc.org/HR4437.html).  A humble-looking activist website announced, in English and Spanish, "Unite!.March against HR 4437 General Strike!" (www.somosunpueblo.com)

By the day of the protest, organizers predicted that several thousand people would turn out. Then throngs of people filled downtown Chicago, and soon hardly an inch of road or sidewalk was open on the 2.5-mile route of the march.  Federal Plaza, the site of the rally where the march would end, was so packed that only a small fraction of marchers ever reached it.

Estimates of the turnout ranged from 100,000 to 1,000,000, and it has been called the largest protest in Chicago history.  That is hard to judge, but for the sake of comparison: 80,000 are estimated to have marched through Chicago in the world's first May Day demonstration, during the struggle for the eight-hour working day in 1886.  Like that one 120 years earlier, the March 10 demonstration was organized by immigrants.

Almost all of the demonstrators were Latin American, and almost all of the organizing had taken place within the local Latino communities.  Numerous community, labor, and activist groups responded to the call put out by the march's original organizers, many of them renting buses to bring people in from the suburbs.  Tens of thousands of people respected the "general strike" by walking out of school and work, often with the support of their teachers and employers.  They made it clear that the city cannot function normally without immigrant labor.

At least 40 workers have announced that they were fired for leaving work to attend the march, but many of them have since been re-hired by companies that are either wary of bad publicity or in need of labor.

The central demand of the march was the rejection of HR 4437—a modest demand, but capable of uniting nearly the entire immigrant community, plus those who work with them and those who exploit them.  Clearly, businesses employing immigrant labor have an interest in the status quo. A number of them closed for the day, whether to express their support for the cause, or because it would be difficult to keep open with so many workers away.

Many marchers carried American (i.e. U.S.) flags.  Some carried signs supporting a moderate "guest worker" proposal by senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy.  Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley and Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich both attended and lent support to the march.

But more radical demands were also heard: Many demanded a general amnesty for undocumented immigrants.  Many denounced the racism of those who fear the influx of Latinos, and some called for a new civil rights movement.  A few marchers demanded respect for immigrant workers' rights—beyond the simple right to stay and work.  These, too, were fairly modest demands.  But modest demands can quickly become radical when they are backed by hundreds of thousands marching in the streets.

For now, the movement has the support of important politicians and businesspeople, but it is by no means their initiative.  As the movement progresses, we will see what new demands come to the fore, and how far the pro-immigration sections of business are willing to extend their support.

Moving Forward

On Monday after the march, a coalition of organizations met to discuss their next moves.  Their first decision was for a boycott campaign against the Miller Brewing Company, which donates to the election campaigns of the Wisconsin Republican congressman James Sensenbrenner, who first proposed HR 4437.

Miller recognized the power of the movement almost immediately, asking to meet with the march organizers, declaring that it did not support HR 4437 and had only donated to Sensenbrenner's campaign because of specific help that he gave the company.  Organizers said the boycott would continue until a new general meeting could be convened to discuss the issue.

The coalition's second decision was to begin organizing for a national "megamarch" on Washington, tentatively scheduled for October 12.  With the cooperation of activists in other cities, and with much more time to prepare this time around, the October rally could be huge, even if by that time HR 4437 has been defeated, or if a radicalization of the movement scares away its more bourgeois supporters.

Another open question is how far this movement will extend beyond the Latino communities.  In spite of common interests with immigrants from other regions and, at a more general level, with all non-ruling people in the United States, the March 10 demonstration was probably 99% Latino.

In Chicago there live hundreds and thousands of immigrants from Poland, as well as smaller communities from many other parts of the world.  Not more than a handful of them were present at the march.  Nor was mauch of the traditional left.  If the various rising social movements in the country can meet and act together when necessary, we could be powerful indeed.


Joseph Grim Feinberg is a student activist and a member of Solidarity in Chicago. 

ATC 122, May-June 2006