SILER CITY–Around 2 p.m. Monday, Ilana Dubester greeted a small band of walkers with the Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace. The pilgrims, who are marching throughout Holy Week in numerous North Carolina cities, had stopped in front of the offices of El Vinculo Hispano (The Hispanic Liaison).
Dubester, Vinculo Hispano’s interim director, and a room full of volunteers were busy making final arrangements for what she called an “historic shake-up of Siler City.”
In a few hours, thousands of Latinos and their supporters would pack the streets of this Chatham County community for a solidarity march and rally for immigrants’ rights and justice. The Siler City event was part of more than 100 similar marches and rallies held throughout the nation in response to efforts in Congress to crack down on illegal immigration.
“They’ve never seen anything like this before in their lives, and they don’t know what’s coming,” said Dubester, a seasoned activist among Latinos who couldn’t stop smiling. “There’s no stopping us now.”
More than 4,000 people, most donning white shirts and waving U.S. flags, crammed into the streets for a march to the same town hall where white supremacist David Duke once delivered an anti-immigrant speech.
A planned counter-protest that was rumored to include the Ku Klux Klan never materialized. Instead, lines of Latinos streamed into the streets from every direction. Hand-lettered placards bobbed up and down with messages like “Immi-grant Not Criminal,” “All Americans are Immi-grants,” “We Want Licenses,” “No Human Being is Illegal” and “Because We Produce, We Demand.”
At 4 p.m., the marchers began a mile-long procession to the rally site. At each corner, more marchers joined the walk as the crowd chanted: “Si, se puede” (“Yes, we can”).
Phyllis Lindsey, of Pittsboro, cheered as the march passed her. “We’ve got to love everybody, everybody. It doesn’t matter who you are, you’ve got to love ’em.”
But not everyone was glad to see the marchers. Hannah Elmore of Bonlee, a 19-year-old Central Carolina Community College student, stood with a group of young people who watched the line of marchers pass by.
As the crowd chanted in Spanish “The people, united, will never be defeated,” Elmore said she was against illegal immigrants having the same rights as citizens. “If they want our stuff, our rights, then I think they should be legal,” she said. “We just have so many jobs that we need, and there’s just so many Mexicans here that are taking up our jobs. I think it’s a big problem. I think there’s too many.”
Scores of Highway Patrol officers and police, many from departments outside of Chatham County, lined the perimeter of the permitted rally site that was cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape.
Rene Rodriguez, a Honduran, came to the rally from Charlotte. He held a placard that said: “Your ancestors where immigrants.”
“We come and work. We pay taxes,” he said. “We’re American, too.”
Rodriguez also represents a problem for progressives. He called George Bush “a good president. He’s for the immigrant.”
Dubester, a Brazilian who came to the United States in the late 1980s when it was easier to get citizenship, said she also voted for Bush, but now regrets doing so.
A lot more Latinos are “seeing the light about President Bush and his promises to us that he has not fulfilled at all,” Dubester said.
Many Latinos are sorry they voted for Bush, she said. “I am one of those who voted for him; I’m so sorry. And we’re not here to advocate for Republican or anti-Republican or Democrat or anything like that, but we’re certainly here to advocate courage on behalf of our representatives to do what is right for the people. And sending 11 million immigrants back home is not feasible for the American economy. … In North Carolina, one-third of construction workers are Latino. Tell me what would happen if that third was to be sent back home? … It would paralyze this country.”
Dubester, who has lived in Chatham County since 1991, said “comprehensive immigration reform” was a matter of justice.
“This is us getting together in a national movement to say we are here, and we matter. We are here, and we are human, and we have rights. And we’re not just here to break our backs and break our bones, building your houses, cutting your chicken and taking nothing back, nothing in return. This is the same as slavery.”
Dubester said Monday’s action was intended as a display of power among Latinos, and politicians should take note. Scores of Latino children, most of them U.S. citizens, were at the rally with their families.
“In North Carolina, 55 percent of Latinos are documented, and of that, 41 percent are U.S. citizens,” Dubester said. “We have a long memory. We’ll remember who helped us, and who didn’t help us. And these children here today will remember who helped us and who didn’t help us, and that’s where the balance will show.”
State AFL-CIO president James Andrews said he was at the rally to show that organized labor stands “shoulder to shoulder” with Latino workers, documented or not. “They are workers, and as long as they are workers they should be treated as such.”
Exploitation in the workplace affects everyone, Andrews said.
“America has a great opportunity to get it right,” he said. “We have a great opportunity to grow a middle class, rather than trying to grow an underclass.”
Ajamu Dillahunt, of Black Workers for Justice, said the wall some people are proposing to be erected along the U.S.-Mexican border is “a wall of death.” During his speech, which he delivered in Spanish, Dillahunt was interrupted constantly by applause. “The enemies of immigrants say that you must obey the law. We say that not all laws are just laws or fair laws. There were laws that prohibited black people from voting, from attending schools with whites, from riding in the front of the bus. They were wrong, and we fought against them; we disobeyed them.”