AUGUSTA – The rhetoric was fiery, the speakers were passionate and the pleas for compassion and justice were almost desperate.
But the faces where mostly white.
About 50 people, many of them state lawmakers, gathered on the steps of the State House Monday to take part in the National Day of Action for Immigrant Justice, an event which drew large crowds across the country in support of immigrant rights and in opposition to a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives that makes illegal immigration a felony and proposes a 700-mile fence along the U.S. border with Mexico.
â€˜Rally for justice’
“This is a rally for justice,” said Rep. Ross Paradis, D-Frenchville. “We stand in unison with all the people around the country.”
In Washington, New York City and at least 100 other cities, hundreds of thousands of people gathered Monday to lend their voice to the outcry against Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner’s Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, which passed the House of Representatives, 239-182, on Dec. 16, 2005.
Adding to the frustration, a bipartisan agreement in the U.S. Senate, hailed by several of the speakers at Monday’s rally in Augusta as superior to the House bill, collapsed Friday. That bill would have softened the Sensenbrenner’s proposal and created an avenue for citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. and created a new guest worker program.
“I come from Irish heritage,” said Rep. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who told of his childhood in California when three generations of his family marched together with Cesar Chavez for farm-worker rights. “There was a time in this country when the signs said â€˜Irish need not apply.’ It was wrong then and it’s wrong now.”
One of only two immigrants to speak at the Augusta rally, Emma Garcia, a professor at Colby College, said she came to the United States when she was 14 years old.
“We’re here to live our lives, try out best and be part of a community,” Garcia said.
Rep. Larry Bliss, D-South Portland, said people who come to the United States are just looking for a fair shake.
â€˜Land of opportunity’
“People are coming here because this is the land of opportunity,” Bliss said. “The idea that we should just cast everyone out is vicious and un-American.”
Two recent polls show that illegal immigration is a growing concern on the minds of the U.S. public.
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that people are as likely to list immigration as a major problem facing the country as they are to talk about the economy, and a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 75 percent of respondents don’t think the government is doing enough to stop illegal immigration.
Last week, the Maine House of Representatives killed a proposal to require people seeking a driver’s license to prove that they are either U.S. citizens or legal residents.