Hundreds march down Lake Street in show of unity for immigrants
Smarting over a perceived effort by Gov. Tim Pawlenty to make them political scapegoats, hundreds of immigrants and their supporters took to the streets on Sunday, Feb. 12 in South Minneapolis.
The Immigrants’ Rights March began in the parking lot behind the Carne Asada restaurant on East Lake Street and continued down past the Mexican and Somali shops on Bloomington Avenue, ultimately reaching the pews of Holy Rosary Catholic Church on 18th Avenue.
There, speakers representing various civil rights and humanitarian organizations decried current U.S. policy on immigration enforcement. Current policies tear apart families and violate principles of equality for all, they said.
Participants in the march included a broad spectrum of Christian, Jewish and Muslim activists and immigrants wielding signs representing Mexico, Ecuador, and other regions from around the world. Some signs said “I love immigrants for … reinvigorating communities” or “I love immigrants for… diversifying schools.”
The mood, outside on a cold afternoon, was festive but indignant. Aztec dancers provided a fiery drumbeat and vibrant scene. Marchers held signs calling for “legalizing” immigration, reunifying families, and blasting Gov. Pawlenty (who has sought to make immigration enforcement a centerpiece of his campaign for re-election this year).
For Rosa Valenzuela, the march was very personal. She said two weeks ago her brother Moises Meraz was deported to Mexico by immigration authorities, leaving behind his two children for her to support, ages 3 and 5.
Erik Rodriguez, another speaker, said he is there to represent all children of immigrants being denied access to higher education because they cannot qualify for in-state tuiton. The Minneapolis high school student said he hopes to study medicine at the University of Minnesota, but his parents—making around $15,000 a year—cannot afford to pay high out-of-state tuition rates.
Pawlenty has threatened to veto the DREAM Act, which would provide in-state tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants. Pawlenty also made national headlines last December when he called on local police departments to begin enforcing federal immigration law. Historically, immigration enforcement has been left to the responsibility of the federal government, not local agencies, but Pawlenty would like to see this changed. Minneapolis and St. Paul both have laws prohibiting their city police officers from questioning their contacts about their immigration status.
On Dec. 8, Pawlenty’s office released a report which claims illegal immigrants are costing the state of Minnesota up to $180 million a year in services, mostly in the form of K-12 public education. The study, conducted by the state’s Office of Strategic Planning & Results Management, deliberately avoided any analysis of the benefits immigrants bring to the local economy.
“This report does not consider any of the benefits illegal immigrants provide in such areas as labor or tax revenue,” the report’s authors state in the preface, before going on to blame illegal immigrants for costing millions of dollars in public health and education costs.
Recent local media reports estimated that this economic contribution—the benefit side of the equation—could be as high as $300 million.
“The last couple weeks, [Pawlenty] says we spend much money on immigrants,” said José, an Ecuadorian truck driver who did not wish to give his last name. “I don’t think that’s right because all immigrants pay taxes. Where does the money go?”
In addition to costing the state millions of dollars in services, illegal immigrants contribute to unemployment for American citizens and lead to higher crime and prison rates, according to the study released by Pawlenty’s office. Illegal immigrants represented around 6 percent of the state’s prison population in 2005, a figure disproportionate to their share of the state population.
According to the study, the total number of illegal immigrants residing in Minnesota, while still lower than many states, has risen by as much as 500 percent since 1990, and may be as high as 85,000, although true figures are unknown.
With the number of undocumented aliens in the country as a whole estimated to be more than 10 million, a variety of proposals have been circulating through the halls of Congress. One bill that recently passed in the House of Representatives calls for the construction of a new 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border. Alternatively, some politicians, including President George W. Bush, have suggested that the United States should create a new guest worker program to allow millions of immigrants in the country to formalize their status.
“We need to march at the State Capitol and let Governor Pawlenty know where we stand,” said Roger Banks, a researcher with the Council on Black Minnesotans.
Right now, “we’re attacking those in our society that are under the most discrimination, the most racism, the most classism,” said Perry Bellow-Handelman, an organizer with Jewish Community Action, interviewed inside the church. “An attack on anyone’s rights is an attack on all of our rights.”
Several speakers questioned whether the United States has any business enforcing immigration law at all. “There are 200 million illegal immigrants that have come from Europe and live here today,” said Vernon Bellecourt, co-founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM), speaking to the crowd before the march.