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Heartland uprising

Politics | Massive protests by illegals create a backlash that is spreading far away from the Border Belt

Issue: "A few good men," May 6, 2006

Homemakers for America founder and president Kimberly Fletcher knows when she got passionate about illegal immigration. It was when she turned on the television earlier this spring to see illegal immigrants on the news marching with Mexican flags. "When you see people marching in the streets encouraging others to be truant, disrupting traffic, vandalizing property, yelling out anti-American comments, waving Mexican flags in aspirations of becoming citizens of this country-that tends to get people upset."

What is she doing about it? Ms. Fletcher and a few other grass-roots leaders in Ohio recently formed SOS Borders, a neophyte organization hoping to ignite the grass roots against illegal immigration. But why an organization more than a thousand miles away from normal immigration battlegrounds like Texas or California? "We get asked that a lot. I think people in the heartland are waking up."

Across the country, the large-scale illegal immigrant protests that drew hundreds of thousands in Los Angeles, Dallas, and New York, as well as thousands in cities like Des Moines have touched off emotions far outside the Border Belt. But even as plans for a nationwide series of illegal immigrant protests scheduled for May 1 were finalized, organizers admit their efforts to raise awareness of the plight of illegal immigrants are having unintended consequences.

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Polls indicate large numbers of Americans are finding their voice on the issue. A CBS News survey in April indicated that while almost all Americans regard illegal immigration as a problem, nearly 62 percent of Americans say it's a serious problem-up 11 percent from January, which was before immigrant protests. To help Congress kick-start immigration reforms that stalled last month, President George W. Bush invited leaders of both parties to the White House on April 25, saying, "I strongly believe that we have a chance to get an immigration bill that is comprehensive in nature to my desk before the end of this year."

Conservative leaders like Ms. Fletcher want to make sure a bill sent to the president's desk focuses on border security first rather than including provisions for a guest-worker program. "We don't think you can have an intelligent discussion about immigration until our borders are secure," said Ms. Fletcher. "If your toilet is overflowing, you don't mop up the water. You turn off the spigot first, then you mop up the water."

Tim Holloway, executive director of BattleGround PAC and another leader with SOS Borders, agrees. He said his interest was ignited specifically by seeing illegal immigrants march under the banner of Mexican flags. "It was in the back of my mind, but those protests brought the issue to the forefront," he said. "Clearly people, even people here in Ohio, are starting to lose patience and tolerance on this issue."

It's not the response protest organizer Ricardo Diaz wanted. Mr. Diaz helped organize the first immigrant protest, a showing of roughly 2,000 near Philadelphia's historic Liberty Bell, in order to protest specifically against the House version of immigration reform. Calls for amnesty are not part of the intended message, Mr. Diaz said. Since then, Mr. Diaz and his group, El Paro, have struggled both to create a coherent message and to inspire a group of people not used to translating private displeasure into public demonstration.

Mr. Diaz said he was shocked by the lack of public response when the House of Representatives approved H.R. 4437, the Rep. James Sensenbrenner-led immigration proposal that includes stiffened sanctions against immigrants and penalties against those who aid illegals. "Here we see the monster coming from the other side of the mountain and nobody was doing anything about it," Mr. Diaz said. But why would they, Mr. Diaz said, describing many Latinos as "Republicans in brown" who would rather work and be with their family than make waves in a protest scene usually dominated by liberals.

Mr. Diaz, whose new group, A Day Without Immigrants, is lead sponsor of the May 1 demonstrations, said the protests should send a clear signal: "We're saying no to felony categorizations, no to arresting anyone who helps immigrants. Those things are crazy in our mind."

He admits, though, that while grassroots organizers in the Latino community have been able to draw numbers, they've struggled to contain the message. He called the prominence of Mexican flags at the immigrant protests "a mistake." He said it would have been disrespectful to ask illegal immigrants risking deportation by protesting publicly to lay down the flags. Ahead of the latest round of protests this month, Mr. Diaz said organizers asked protesters to bring American flags to the demonstrations. "It's already been difficult to control the message," he said.

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