Hundreds gather on campus to support immigration rights

Hundreds gather on campus to support immigration rights

Hard at work controlling the impressively large American flag flapping on its pole in a stiff East Central Illinois breeze, Luis Navaez says he thought the flag was an appropriate symbol for a rally advocating immigrant rights.

"My neighbor gave it to me (when) I told her about the march," the Urbana man said as the event, one of many like it that took place nationally Monday, got under way.

A lot of people at the rally probably would have agreed with Navaez's sentiment.

American flags large and small were prominent in the crowd, although there were plenty of Mexican flags, and the odd "Vote for Pedro" T-shirt, as well. Speakers emphasized the role immigrants – Hispanic and otherwise, legal and illegal – have played in the nation's history and play in its economy and society today.

The local rally, sponsored by several groups, including the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, was part of a National Day of Action related to potential federal immigration reforms. A particular focus was HR 4437, a measure the House of Representatives approved in December.

A peaceful march through Campustown, which started at the corner of Neil and Green streets and ended up on the UI Quad behind the Illini Union, drew several hundred people. The crowd appeared to push over 1,000 by the time it got to the Quad.

Champaign and UI police blocked off side streets to clear a path for the marchers, who carried signs reading "The Pilgrims had no Green Card" and "We are workers, not criminals," among other things.

The House measure, not yet law, would make being in the country illegally, and assisting undocumented immigrants, felonies. Many who attended the rally think that's just wrong.

"I feel like it's a human rights issue," said Janet Moreno, a UI junior in horticulture, who was one of the marchers, along with other students, community members and local immigrant families. "I don't think people should be criminalized just for looking for a way to sustain themselves."

"Borders or no borders, this Earth was made for all of us," said Sharon Ganger, a UI law student. "We're all looking for the same thing."

Laura Caldera of Champaign, who spoke at the rally, said the felony provision hits home with her because she has relatives who are undocumented immigrants.

"I don't want to go to jail for helping them," she said. "I don't want my priest to be put in jail for trying to help anybody."

Some speakers leveled their comments at U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, who supported HR 4437.

"We want to get Tim Johnson's attention," said Sonia Rodriguez, one of the rally's organizers.

"They're (Congress) going to look out in the streets today and they're going to see how much support the immigrant community has," Diann Mora, another organizer, said of the marches here and around the country.

Johnson spokesman Phil Bloomer said the congressman supported the House measure as part of a promised, comprehensive package covering immigration reform.

"Enforcement is part of the problem and needs to be addressed and that's what this bill does," Bloomer said. "That was only the beginning. There was the understanding at the time that these other solutions would be part of the package."

He said Johnson also supports the kind of guest-worker program backed by President Bush. A Senate version might allow undocumented immigrants here already to apply retroactively for legal status under some conditions.

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