Page last updated at 10:47 GMT, Tuesday, 4 July 2006 11:47 UK

US immigrants: Reviving a dream?

By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News, Washington

More than 40 years ago, members of a minority group that had faced persecution in the US since before its founding decided they had had enough.

Martin Luther King at the National Mall in Washington, 1963
Washington in Martin Luther King's day...
Led by figures such as the Rev Dr Martin Luther King, African-Americans demanded equal rights through legal action and civil disobedience.

Their boycotts and their marches - and the brutal response they sometimes elicited - forced America to look at itself and make a change.

A generation later, new marchers are out on the streets of the United States.

This time they are largely Latinos - many of them illegal immigrants concerned that Congress is moving to expel them.

Some of the new demonstrations, such as one in Washington a few days after the anniversary of King's assassination, have consciously echoed slogans from the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

But how much is the current movement like the earlier one?

Julian Bond is a veteran of the 1960s movement and chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).

... and now.

"Some people from the 1960s think it's not fair to compare anything to the black civil rights movement," he told the BBC.

But, he said, he believed America was seeing the birth of a new movement.

"There isn't an exact parallel," he admitted, but he said the goals of marchers were the same: full citizenship.

"The first group was expecting the citizenship their birth gave them. The second group is insisting on citizenship by virtue of their being here."

Lessons of the past

Flavia Jimenez of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group, said today's demonstrators had studied the examples of Bond and King.

"We have learned a great deal from our predecessors, who had to deal with many of the same issues that affect Latinos - the notion of a worker who contributes and is not visible in society, a person who strives to make a better life and is not given opportunities."

Federico van Gelderen
Federico van Gelderen worries a tactical mistake has been made
But businessman Federico van Gelderen is not convinced it is wise for today's illegal immigrants to emulate the example of the 1960s.

An Argentine by birth, he now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he is active in Hispanic affairs.

"The demonstrations were a mistake," he said, arguing that they created a backlash.

"It is one thing to read about 12 million [illegal immigrants]. It is another thing to see them in your street."

He is also concerned that the demands of the marchers were not specific enough.

"You need to have a very precise agenda, such as access to health care or college. You need to go by the numbers - how many people does each issue affect?

"Working from your heart is great, but pouring people onto the streets, risking what you have, is not a responsible action."

Paying a price

There is some scattered evidence that a few employers fired workers for taking part in pro-immigrant demonstrations.

Mr Bond said if the activists were serious about trying to change society, they had to be "willing to suffer", but also to fight back.

"They have to rally their communities to sanction those who punish them.

"There are all kinds of civil disobedience available to them: Marches, blocking traffic, economic sanctions. But again, these are things that have costs associated with them and they have to be willing to take the risk."

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