Once more, with feeling – marching on Washington for immigration reform


I wish I could be in Washington today, with the immigrant March for America – just as I wished I could be there in 1963, for the first grand March on Washington in my lifetime.

The 1963 march was Dr. Martin Luther King’s march, with 250,000 people from all over the country spilling out from the Lincoln Memorial down the Mall. Organizers called it the “March for Jobs and Freedom,” a name now almost buried in the history books. The 1963 march had been preceded by a smaller, 25,000-person march in 1958, called the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom.

Today’s march is called the “March for America,” a march by immigrants and allies asking for change in the broken immigration system. Many Minnesotans are among the marchers, including the busloads of people who set out from El Colegio about 6 a.m. on Saturday. Among the specific changes advocated by the marchers:

  • improving the economic situation of all workers in the United States;
  • legalizing the status of undocumented immigrants working and living in the United States;
  • reforming visa programs to keep families together, protecting workers’ rights, and ensuring that future immigration is regulated and controlled rather than illegal and chaotic;

  • implementing smart, effective enforcement measures targeted at the worst violators of immigration and labor laws;
  • prioritizing immigrant integration into our communities and country; and
  • respecting the due process rights of all in the United States.

Marching on Washington is a long U.S. tradition. Washington is the seat of political power, the place to go for redress of grievances or for help in times of trouble.

Coxey’s Army marched on Washington in 1894, an army of unemployed workers seeking help during a severe four-year depression that began with the bank failures and Panic of 1893. Populist Jacob Coxey organized a second march in 1914, and, in 1932, Father James Renshaw Cox organized 25,000 unemployed workers to march, demanding a public works program, during the Great Depression.

During the same year, 20,000 World War I vets and family members organized as the Bonus Army, and marched on Washington demanding that the Hoover administration give them early payment of the bonuses they had earned. Police opened fire, killing some of the marchers, and President Hoover ordered the army to drive the rest from the city at bayonet-point.

Women marched on Washington in 1913, demanding the right to vote.

In 1925, the Ku Klux Klan marched on Washington, 35,000 strong.

In 1943, rabbis marched, demanding action to stop Hitler’s genocidal destruction of Europe’s Jews.

Marchers opposed the Vietnam war in April and November of 1965, and in the larger 1967 March on the Pentagon, as well as the 1968 Jeanette Rankin brigade march, and the 200,000-person Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam on October 15, 1969, followed by the 600,000-person National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam Moratorium one month later.

Since then, marches have become much more frequent, with causes that vary widely – from anti-war and anti-racism protests to Tractorcade (1979-opposing U.S. farm policy) to the Million Man March (1995-to “convey to the world a vastly different picture of the Black male”) to ProjectMARCH (2006-for colon cancer screening) to the Over 9000 Anonymous March (2008-protesting the Church of Scientology.)

Last year saw three Tea Party events, of varying sizes. Yesterday (March 20) protesters marched against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And today, as health care reform goes to a vote in the House of Representatives, immigrants and allies are marching for their turn, marching for reform, marching for what may be an even tougher fight than health care.

President Obama has pledged his support – repeatedly. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) is the point person on immigration reform. He introduced a bill in December, which is the starting point for work on immigration reform. The acronym for his bill, HR 4321, is CIR ASAP, which stands for both the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act for America’s Security and Prosperity and Comprehensive Immigration Reform As Soon As Possible. In his press release about the introduction of the bill, Gutierrez said:

We have given. And we have waited. And we have compromised. But there are some fundamentals that simply cannot be negotiated away and cannot be waited for one minute longer:

The ability of a mother to stay with her son.

For an honest person to work hard.

For all families in our country to be safe.

Our families. Our jobs. Our security.

Three simple principles. Three American principles. Not just for immigrants, but for all of us. Every American will benefit from this bill, from the heightened national security, from the commitment to family unity, from the common-sense approach to jobs and our economy.


Families. Jobs. Security. Today’s March for America is one more step on that road.

illustration courtesy of Rini Templeton