'Today we march, tomorrow we vote': fearful US Latinos flex political muscle
LOS ANGELES, March 28, 2006 (AFP) - The explosion of protests against tough US immigration reforms marks an unprecedented flexing of Hispanic political muscle that has left the Washington administration scrambling to react.
"Today we march, tomorrow we vote," was the warning chanted by many of the 500,000 protesters who brought the second largest US city of Los Angeles to a standstill Saturday when they marched against the proposed crackdown on illegal immigration.
Fears over what they see as a racist assault on their community, the US Hispanic community -- spurred in confidence by the sheer numbers of their growing ranks across the United States -- has hit the streets with a peaceful force rarely seen since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, experts said.
"In the last few days we have seen a landmark show of numbers by the Hispanic community," Louis DeSipio, a political science professor at the University of California at Irvine told AFP.
"It's fear, anger and frustration motivating this," he said of the 32.4-million-strong US Latino community who make up more than 12 percent of the US population.
The bill to be debated by the US Senate this week targets the more than 11.5 million illegal immigrants in the United States by proposing that it become a criminal offense to be in the country illegally.
"This bill is scaring people in a way they haven't been scared for a long time and the increasingly sophisticated Latino and immigrant community leadership has been able to effectively channel this into protests," he said.
The demonstrations have spread way beyond the traditionally Hispanic immigrant communities of Western cities such as Los Angeles to hubs as far away as the northwestern cities of Detroit, Milwaukee and the southern city of Atlanta where tens of thousands of people have been marching since last week.
The sheer scale of the protests has caught the administration of President George W. Bush off guard, leaving him to scramble to placate both sides of an ideological battle, experts said.
The controversy is threatening to further split the Republican Party between conservatives who support a crackdown on illegal immigrants, and those who see a need for their labour that keep the machinery of major US cities and the country's agricultural system humming, experts said.
"It's ironic because immigration has long been one of the major issues that has energized the Republican Party base," said University of Southern California political science professor Sherry Bebitch Jeffe.
"But now we are seeing this rift between ideological conservatives and economic conservatives.
"The Republican split could well persuade many of the party faithful not to go out and vote in the next election, while the Latino community and the labor movement are now energizing the Democratic base, which could be good for that party," she said.
The immigration law, proposed by conservative Republicans already approved by the US House of Representatives, could also punish employers hiring illegal entrants as well as churches and social workers giving succor to illegals.
But Bush on Monday flew in the face of the more hardline elements of his divided party, pushing for a compromise including a guest worker program that would allow some undocumented workers to remain in the country legally.
Earlier, the struggling Bush said there had to be a "civil" debate about planned changes to immigration laws, which have caused new divisions between the White House and the Republican Party.
One of the keys to the political impact the protests are achieving is the close link between the Latino community and the labor movement, political analysts said.
"It's not only Latinos who are marching in the streets, its unions too: firefighters, farm workers and Hispanic students who had thought of US law as protecting them and are now starting to see it as a threat to their future," said Andres Jiminez, director of the University of California's California Policy Research Center.
"Working people are tired of having to be afraid, of being ill-treated and are now worried that the law will turn them into criminals," he told AFP.
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