Correction: The date of the march in the first paragraph after the quotation was incorrectly listed as March 16. The correct date of the march is March 21.
“Yes, there is a place called America that still welcomes those ‘yearning to breathe free.’ A country where if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can pursue your dreams. A society where out of many, we are one – ‘one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.'” – Barack Obama, April 23, 2010
Those are beautiful words. On March 21, overshadowed by a looming health care vote, immigrants’ rights advocates from all over the country fought for the power of those words, marching in our nation’s capital.
Today, Arizona’s draconian new immigration enforcement law has the issue back in the news and onto the president’s agenda. So here’s what everyone missed at the march:
- More than 200,000 people, nearly as many as marched on Washington in 1963 to hear Martin Luther King Jr. talk about his dream. During the rally prior to the march, we stretched back from just in front of the capitol building to just in front of the Washington Monument.
- Faith. The first part of the rally was an hour-long prayer meeting, at which leaders from every faith community spoke. As King spoke more than 40 years earlier, so it was on that day: the “beloved community” standing together for simple justice. Ladies on the bus ride to Washington read Christian devotionals and shared their insights with each other.
- Exuberant, hilarious young people marching for the Dream Act (a path to citizenship for good students) and leading the chants. When told to stay to the left of a subway barrier by a policeman, they launched into an impromptu “to the left, to the left” from “The Cupid Shuffle” while cooperating. The policeman enjoyed a good belly laugh.
- The chants. My favorite was “Obama, escucha, estamos en la lucha!” It means “Obama, listen, we’re in the fight!” I pray that Obama is as well.
- The bus ride. We rode all Saturday night to Washington, marched and rallied all afternoon, and rode all Sunday night back to Georgia. No frills, little sleep, but plenty of conviction and commitment.
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- The issue. Contrary to popular belief, those without papers are not simply unwilling to fill out the right forms. In reality, families have to wait 10 years for their visas to be approved. If your children were hungry now, would you wait? If you did, some of your children, if they survived, would likely no longer be minors and thus ineligible for papers. My buddy, Jorge, the best student I ever taught, told how he fulfilled a promise he made to God when his visa was approved: he crawled to church, with tears in his eyes and blood on his knees. The church was several miles from his home.
- Good behavior and good will. Marchers shared their water, picked up trash and directed traffic so that cars would not get caught in the march. Locals cheered for us and served out free lemonade.
- The immigrant rights anthem, the old civil rights spiritual “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” with a Latin beat, sung in two languages.
Despite Arizona, indeed because of Arizona, we will keep our eyes on the prize, we will ride buses all night and march and not grow weary in doing good, for at the proper time (and my prayer is that now is the time) President Obama and Congress will listen, care and act on behalf of all the decent, hard-working, well-behaved people who just want a chance at the American Dream.
Sean McKenzie of Calhoun, Ga., has a doctorate in political theory from the University of Florida. He marched in Washington with GALEO, the Georgia Association of Elected Latino Officials. He is also a member of CCIR, Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, which is run by Sojourners Magazine.