This month marks the 10th anniversary of an extraordinary flexing of political muscle by America’s Latino community over the issue of immigration. Through the spring of 2006, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Los Angeles and other cities to stop legislation that they said was immoral and assaulted the humanity of the undocumented.
The legislation was introduced by Wisconsin Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner who said it was a necessary reaction to illegal immigration run amok.
Formally called House Resolution 4437, among its provisions it mandated faster and easier deportations, increased fines for those employing the undocumented, and possibly prosecuting people if they even assisted people who were in the country illegally.
“It not only cracked down and tried to demonize immigrants themselves, but anyone who helped,” says Matt Barreto, a professor of political science at UCLA who participated in the 2006 marches.
“Anyone who even, you know, gave a ride,” says Barreto, “or helped in anyway an undocumented immigrant just try to have a better life would be in violation of federal law, so it was very extreme in what it was trying to do.”
After the Sensenbrenner bill passed in the House of Representative and awaited a vote in the Senate, activists in the immigrant and Latino communities began to organize in opposition.
One of those who planned strategies to oppose the legislation and rally public opposition was Armando Navarro, a professor of ethnic studies at U.C. Riverside and a veteran immigration rights advocate. He and others quickly settled on the need to stage protests.
“The only political avenue that we had available to us was to take to the politics of the street, so mobilization,” says Navarro. “We had to show our power, our capability manifested by our numbers.”
And those numbers showed up to oppose the Sensenbrenner bill, starting with a 100,000 strong march in Chicago. But the largest demonstration was held in Los Angeles on March 25th of 2006. On that day, an estimated 500,000 people marched in the streets of downtown L.A. It’s considered the largest mass gathering in the city’s history.
Protests soon followed in dozens of other cities, including New York, Dallas, Seattle, Houston and Milwaukee. And on May 1st, organizers increased pressure by staging “A Day Without an Immigrant” demonstrations. Undocumented workers, form nannies to janitors to cooks, were urged to march instead of showing up at their jobs.
“We combined the power of the streets with the power of the pocket book,” says Armando Navarro. “Meaning we would organize so that our economic power was felt, not only our political power of the streets. but our economic power of denying people profit.”
Protestors claimed victory when the Sensenbrenner bill was defeated in the Senate. But in the 10 years since the 2006 marches, immigration rights advocates have spent a lot of time debating the legacy of the demonstrations.
Political scientist Matt Barreto says the marches were crucial in creating an opening for initiatives that would follow, such as DACA, which allows undocumented individuals who were brought into the U.A. as minors to stay in the country.
Barreto also says the 2006 protests created new leaders and an enduring political unity among America’s Latinos centered on the common experience of immigration.
“It created that issue that everyone could relate to,” says Barreto. “It didn’t matter if you were conservative. It didn’t matter if you were U.S. born or third generation, everyone could relate to what was happening. And that created this Latino identity that continues to revolve around the immigration issue.”
But Navarro isn’t as optimistic. He notes that the defeat of the Sensenbrenner bill was quickly followed by an increase in deportation and no progress when it came to enacting comprehensive immigration reform and path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented residents.
Navarro puts some of the blame for this on activists who he believes didn’t capitalize on the momentum of the 2006 marches.
“And efforts were made during the latter part of 2006 to recapture that incredible energy,” says Navarro. “To recapture and revitalize it and move it forwards now with immigration reform as a focus, but we didn’t succeed.”
Others contend the 2006 marches also helped create a backlash against immigrants, one that found expression in everything from the spread of so called “Minutemen” militia groups patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border, to states like Arizona seeking to toughen their own immigration laws to the rhetoric and policy proposals of presidential candidate Donald Trump this election year.
In this kind of political climate, Matt Barreto says if immigration rights activists want to revive the spirit of 2006, they need to go to the ballot box as well as the streets.
“You saw that as a theme in the rallies back in ‘06.” says Barreto. ” There were a lot of signs that said Hoy Marchamos, Mañana Votamos, “ Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote.” So I would say that is the biggest objective now. How do we take that energy that was there in ‘06 and turn it into very high rates of voter registration and voter turnout? Because when that tide turns, at that point, we will have an opportunity to send a message to politicians by voting.”