Several hundred immigrant supporters and religious leaders from across the country marched to the Southwest Washington headquarters of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency yesterday, strumming guitars, beating drums and waving colorful homemade banners exhorting President Obama to halt immigration raids and promote legislation offering illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
Although the demonstration featured many speeches in Spanish and cries of "Sí se puede!" -- Yes we can! -- the crowd was also notable for its diversity. Suely Neves, 26, of the Boston group Deported Diaspora had come on behalf of her fellow Cape Verde immigrants. Standing next to her, Indian American immigrant Dimple Rana, 28, said she was concerned about the fate of the Cambodian refugees she works with in Lowell, Mass.
"I've seen a lot of good friends deported because of minor prior convictions," Rana said as groups waving banners from Florida and New Orleans chanted behind her.
Many of the demonstrators had come to town to celebrate Obama's inauguration, and the mostly religious representatives who addressed the crowd portrayed the event as a chance to spiritually "cleanse" the agency of the Bush administration's stepped-up enforcement approach. At the same time, they urged Obama to make good on his campaign promise to push through a legalization plan similar to one that former president George W. Bush twice tried unsuccessfully to get through Congress.
Margarito Esquino, an activist for indigenous rights in El Salvador, lit incense and waved condor feathers toward the sky, shouting in Spanish, "O Great Spirit, we ask you to get rid of all the badness in this building and bring in the good!"
Rabbi David Schneyer, of the Am Kolel Sanctuary and Renewal Center in Beallsville, blew on a shofar, a ram's horn traditionally sounded for the Jewish new year.
The Rev. Frederick Hancock of Gethsemane United Methodist Church in Capitol Heights performed a libation ceremony meant to evoke African ancestral rituals, pouring grape juice -- symbolizing wine -- onto the roots of a potted plant as he called for strength from civil rights icons such as Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez.
Many participants said they believe Obama's first priority must be to right the economy, even if that means delaying an overhaul of immigration law for months and even years. But they are also eager for the administration to declare an immediate moratorium on deportations and immigration raids.
Antonio Bernabe, an organizer with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles and one of several immigrant activists who met with Obama's transition team in recent weeks, said he was very optimistic based on its response. Still, he said, demonstrations remain necessary.
"The anti-immigrant groups are already moving, and we have to assure Obama that . . . [the raids] are not acceptable," he said.