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Gary Younge
With these protests, have America's Hispanics finally broken their terror?

Over recent weeks, Hispanic migrants have been flocking to another call - not to work, but to arms. Throughout America millions of Hispanics, in big cities and small towns, have taken to the streets to protest against anti-immigration legislation and for their right to stay in the country. Half a million came out in Los Angeles and also in Dallas, 300,000 in Chicago, 200,000 in Washington DC - right down to 3,000 in Garden City, Kansas (population 30,000).

Such numbers over such a broad swath of the country hold huge symbolic importance locally and globally. It has yet to be seen whether that symbolism can be translated into a political and electoral force with ramifications beyond this moment and this issue. Globally, the demonstrations mark the first example of mass resistance to the west's desire to criminalise migrant labourers and to fortify the borders against those trying to get in.

The bill they were marching against would see a 2,000-mile fence built along the US-Mexican frontier, and all 11 million undocumented workers on the wrong side of it declared illegal and deported. In some respects, the border between the US and Mexico exemplifies the physical interface between the developing and developed world. The average wage is four times higher on one side. But the tension exposed by these disparities is by no means unique to the US. It was present in the British elections last year, when Tony Blair stood before the white cliffs of Dover pledging to tighten immigration controls. It was evident in the Italian elections, where the centre-left challenger, Romano Prodi, responded to Silvio Berlusconi's anti-immigrant rants by saying: "You cannot need the workers during the day, then go and hunt them at night."

Yet that is precisely what the west has been doing - demonising migrant labourers politically and targeting them legally, even as it depends on them economically. This has made anti-immigration legislation difficult to challenge. Not because migrants are hard to reach - businesses find them easily - but because they are difficult to organise as their fates are vulnerable to the whims of their employers and of the state. The result was a community that, until recently, was hidden in plain sight. "A community that had essentially been trying to remain invisible suddenly concluded that their invisibility was only making them more vulnerable," Frank Sharry, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, told the Washington Post. The sheer presence of so many Latinos on the streets was in itself a political fact to be reckoned with.

"All books about all revolutions begin with a chapter that describes the decay of tottering authority or the misery and sufferings of people," wrote the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski in his book, Shah of Shahs, about Iran's revolution. "They should begin with a psychological chapter, one that shows how a harassed man breaks his terror and stops being afraid. This unusual process demands illuminating." And so it has been in recent weeks. Children walked out of school; their parents walked off the job. "The foreman said everybody has to show up today, but we came anyway. We have to march," Dionicio Morales, a bricklayer from Guatemala, told the Los Angeles Times. "There won't be any brickwork there today."

One key difference between the US and western Europe is the large social crossover between documented and undocumented immigrants, making the latter less isolated. Roughly one in four illegal migrants lives in a family with someone who is legal - so to attack them is to attack many Latino families. Another is the power of America's assimilationist traditions and immigrant heritage. America has always been keener on immigration than it has been on immigrants. Immigration evokes the mythology of personal reinvention, social meritocracy, ethnic diversity and class fluidity at the heart of the American dream. Immigrants evoke hostility as people who take jobs and don't speak the language.

This is not new. In 1886, the same year the Statue of Liberty was dedicated as the beacon of the "hungry, tired [and] poor yearning to breathe free", a mob in Seattle chased most of the Chinese labourers out of the city. But these contradictions, combined with a fierce sense of patriotism and often a sentimental attachment to "the old country", do provide more political space for a worthwhile immigration debate than is possible in Europe, which imagines itself ethnically pure.

The marches worked hard to find and occupy that space. In some cities demonstrators recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Throughout the country they carried banners stating "We Are America" and "Today we march; tomorrow we vote". If they do, they could reconfigure American politics. Compared to black and white voters, Hispanic turnout is low; but in terms of partisan allegiance it is more in play. Bush picked up 45% of the Latino vote in 2004 - a serious dent in those numbers could cost the Republicans Congress.

So Latinos have got the politicians' attention; whether they will be able to keep it until election day is another matter. It would be premature to refer to this as a movement, but it certainly has the potential to become one. The diverse and dispersed grassroots groups that called the demonstrations in each city represent a pre-existing network that thrives under the Anglo radar. But the turnout took even the organisers by surprise - in Los Angeles they had expected just 20,000.

So we now know that this network can be mobilised on an impressive scale and with relatively few resources. But on what agenda and to what effect? Uniting against an immediate legislative assault on their communities is one thing; but finding the political consensus and organisational cohesion to rally round a programme or plan of action is another. Calls for a national Latino strike on May 1 have already sparked division, with some claiming the organisers are overplaying their hand.

For migrants were not the only ones mobilising recently. One rightwing talkshow host called for them to be placed in the New Orleans Superdome and then shipped back to where they came from. But first they would have to finish the repairs to the Superdome. And it would take Hispanic labourers like Mercedes Sanchez to do it.

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