More than 200 arrested at immigration rights rally in D.C.

WASHINGTON (PAI) – For several years now, Lisa Bergmann of New Haven, Conn., has been anxious about many of her Spanish-speaking friends and neighbors. 

The former Unite Here member was one of more than 20,000 people – including thousands of unionists — who marched down the Washington, D.C., Mall on Oct. 8 to demand the U.S. House immediately pass comprehensive immigration reform.  Bergmann says the danger to her friends is why she came to the protest. 

“I’m a citizen. I don’t have to worry,” she said.  “But I worry about a lot of my friends who are waiting to get their papers.  And I have friends who are incarcerated” because they’re undocumented. 

“And some are afraid to drive” because police could stop them and demand proof of legality – which they lack – on pain of detention and deportation.” 

Concerns like that — which would be alleviated, if not ended, by comprehensive immigration reform — brought the thousands to the Mall.  And 200, including 90 union leaders and union members and eight members of the House of Representatives were arrested when, in an act of civil disobedience, they blocked a street in front of the Capitol. 

Arrestees included Bergmann, SEIU 1199 member Delphine Clyburn and activist Joelle Fishman, both also from Connecticut, Communications Workers Secretary-Treasurer Annie Hall and Political Director Yvette Herrera, The Newspaper Guild’s president, Bernie Lunzer, and Paul Booth, the top assistant to AFSCME’s president.  Among the nation’s top labor leaders also taken into custody were AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, AFT President Randi Weingarten, Unite Here President D. Taylor and Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

Among the lawmakers arrested were Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), John Lewis (D-Ga.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Joe Crowley (D – N.Y.), Al Green (D-Texas), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.). 

“I’m not really worried about getting arrested,” Hall said beforehand.  “This reform is long overdue.  And it’s about people who are coming to this country to seek and find economic justice for themselves and their families.” 

Unions, led by contingents from the Service Employees and their Local 32BJ, the Laborers and Unite Here, contributed a large share of the demonstrators.  Other unions represented included AFSCME, the Communications Workers/TNG, Labors Council for Latin American Advancement, AFT and the United Farm Workers. 

The rally, which went on with National Park Service cooperation despite the federal government shutdown, was a sea of colorful banners, flags, T-shirts and signs, punctuated by strong pro-reform speeches and lively music. 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pledged to use every method available to get a comprehensive reform bill to a floor vote, where all 200 Democrats and several dozen Republicans would vote for it – over GOP leaders’ opposition.  “We have the votes to pass the bill,” Pelosi declared.

The massive protest followed more than 160 rallies for immigrtion reform held across the nation Saturday and came a week after House Democrats introduced their own immigration bill based on two pieces of bipartisan legislation: one from the Senate and one approved by the House Homeland Security Committee.

The demonstration occurred as a government shutdown and fight over raising the debt limit gripped the nation’s capital and the rest of the country, with the GOP House leadership saying it will not hold a vote on the immigration bill or anything else, for that matter, that a majority of GOP members opposes.

Democrats said the protests show that supporters of immigration reform will not be deterred by Republican intransigence and that they are prepared to continue the battle until the House leadership puts the immigration bill up for a vote.

“Let them vote,” hundreds chanted repeatedy during the demonstration. 

The bill the GOP has put on hold includes a long, although as some say, “torturous” path to citzenship for the 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. 

It also would immediately bring them under U.S. labor laws, preventing or lessening the dual exploitation of workers by venal and vicious employers: Hiring the undocumented and paying them rock-bottom wages, threatening them with deportation if they unionize – and using the threat of hiring the undocumented to force native-born workers to accept lower wages and benefits and worse working conditions. 

The big march in D.C. and the prior marches on Oct. 5, including several busloads of CWA members who showed up at GOP House Speaker John Boehner’s district office in Springfield, Ohio, that day, are designed to put pressure on the Republicans to budge, CWA President Larry Cohen said. 

This is what democracy looks like,” he said, gesturing to the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual crowd during an interview. 

The public pressure also has indirect focus, another union leader said: The mass movement will grab the attention of Republican moneymen and political operatives. They in turn will pressure the House GOP to pass comprehensive reform, or lose their party’s backing and cash.  “It’s a bank shot around the Tea Party,” the unionist said. 

The political machinations, however, were not much on the minds of the marchers.  They were there to show enormous public backing for legalizing the undocumented.  “I’m human.  I want people to have good pay, a good job, good health care and respect on the job,” Clyburn said.  “We’ll help people get this if immigration reform is passed.” 

 “It’s personal for me,” said a marcher named Lauro – he declined to give his last name – from New York City who was carrying a large Laborers Local 79 banner.  “It’s for my family, and it’s for my guys” in the union.  “I immigrated 16 years ago myself.” 

“How long will we be here?” Cohen asked.  “One day longer.  There’s a very deep passion.”

John Wojcik contributed to this story.

Photo: Eight Democratic members of Congress, along with immigration rights activists, were arrested yesterday when they blocked a street near the Capitol. Among the lawmakers arrested, seen in this photo from left to right, are Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), John Lewis (D-Ga.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.). AP


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.