Let my people stay

“First of all, I thank you, my undocumented friends, for having given your best to build up the United States.”

— the Rev. Russell B. Hilliard Sr.

Dressed in a pair of work jeans and a gleaming white T-shirt, Luis says he’s here in North Carolina illegally, far from his home in the Mexican state of Sonora. After working in California on a temporary visa that has since run out, he left for Western North Carolina late last year to meet up with family and take advantage of the area’s lower cost of living.

Immigration march
photo by Jon Elliston

Smiling and waving a miniature American flag, Luis declines to give much more information about himself for fear of deportation. “I come here to work. I work very hard — and I pay all my taxes,” he emphasizes. “I want to become legal and own my own business one day, too. I’m not your enemy,” he adds with a smile.

And for his part, Luis feels he’s already an American, his dues paid not only by his taxes but by his sweat and toil.

Luis is one of thousands of aliens — some legal, some undocumented — from Mexico, Cuba, Central and South America and elsewhere who took part in the We Are One America march and rally in downtown Asheville on May 1. Along with a smattering of Anglos, local religious leaders and others, they walked from the Basilica of St. Lawrence to the Federal Building and then on to a boisterous but peaceful rally at Pack Square. More than a million Latinos are said to have marched, massed and boycotted in cities across the country that same day.

Loudly and proudly, in songs and in speeches, these people have proclaimed that their contributions to this country are significant and that immigration-reform efforts now under way in Congress should be fair, comprehensive and humane. While some in Congress favor an amnesty for current undocumented workers, others want an enforcement-only bill that would toughen border control and could result in mass detention and deportation of illegals.

“We are calling on our Congress and president to offer a real solution for America’s broken immigration system to [provide] broader legal, realistic paths to citizenship,” reads a statement from the march’s organizing committee. “Paths which address reduction of the family backlogs so that families can be reunited in a timely fashion and not have to wait 10 years or more for immigration applications to be processed and approved.”

Stemming the tide

Not everyone was ready to sign on to that agenda, however. In a mass e-mail to the media and various local organizations before the march, Asheville City Council member Carl Mumpower said the federal government has let illegal immigration grow too large.

“Our government’s willingness to ignore our porous borders and the harmful impact of the resulting flood of unskilled Hispanics so that we can buy cheap chickens represents a shortsighted policy with dramatic long-term consequences,” he wrote.

“Arguments in favor of supporting illegal immigrants,” added Mumpower, “ignore the realities of our overwhelmed social-service system, costs to our health-care delivery system, the dominant role of illegals in hard-drug distribution, the exhaustion of limited resources in our public schools, and a general erosion of our country’s legal, cultural and economic foundations of success.”

Mumpower also blamed businesses for contributing to the problem.

“The solutions to our porous borders are to be found not in fences, jails or beefed-up border patrols,” he wrote. “Few Americans blame Mexicans for wanting to escape the dysfunction and limitations for most who live there. It is those Americans and businesses who choose to employ illegal aliens who create the attraction and opportunity that fund the flood. When we start arresting, fining and/or jailing those who sidestep the self-correcting nature of a free economy by hiring illegals at bargain rates, we will stem the tide and compel many to return.”

Notwithstanding Mumpower’s objections, the marchers encountered no opposition, though local talk-radio shows fielded calls from people complaining about the event and illegals in general.

United they stand

According to We Are One America of WNC — a coalition of individuals, churches and local Hispanic organizations that organized the local event — some 3,500 people attended the march and rally. But other estimates placed the crowd at more than 5,000. Neither the city nor the Police Department estimates the size of crowds, said city Public Information Officer Lauren Bradley.

“We were really pleased,” coalition spokesperson Edna Campos said in an interview two days later. “We’re now in the process of thinking about where we should take this momentum.”

During the rally, a variety of speakers interspersed with short musical acts thanked the assembled masses and urged them to remain resolute.

“First of all, I thank you, my undocumented friends, for having given your best to build up the United States,” said a speaker reading a thanksgiving prayer penned by the Rev. Russell B. Hilliard Sr., pastor emeritus of the Fountain of Life First Hispanic Baptist Church of Asheville. “I come … to thank you for the hard work you have done and do, for the dangers you face bravely, for your desire to build a better America and to build up your own lives and families.”

NAACP chapter President John Hayes, who brought greetings from national chairman Julian Bond, said, “I can’t help but say how beautiful you are … as you stand here and say, ‘We, too, are Americans.'” The NAACP, said Hayes, stands behind them in supporting immigration reform “without a primary focus on enforcement. That includes no 700-mile wall [and] no mass deportation and criminalization of undocumented workers.”

Asheville City Council member Robin Cape told the crowd: “We have a war on everything these days, and now we think we have a war on immigration.” And in one of the biggest applause lines of the entire event, she added, “We have to realize we are one world, and we will have to live or die together.”

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