So, on a beautiful spring day, with an estimated 200,000 people breaking into raucous chants of "¡Sí Se Puede!" on the National Mall, there was reason for optimism. "I walked and walked and walked," a man behind me excitedly told his wife and daughter in Spanish. "Finally I found the end of the crowd–way back there!" He pointed toward the Washington Monument and the general direction of his travels, but all his family could see was a solid wall of people, many of them teenagers proudly wearing Undocumented and Unafraid T-shirts.
Yet while the March for America was, as Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change told the crowd, "the biggest mobilization on any issue since Barack Obama was inaugurated president," it was also something of a disappointment. "My wife said it didn’t even make the news," a friend told me as we traveled back to New York City that evening. "How is that possible?" It was possible, of course, because television cameras were glued to the negotiations in the House over the healthcare bill, certainly a momentous occasion. As a result, many Americans had no idea that nearly a quarter-million people–overwhelmingly Latino immigrants–had turned out to press for action.
But for those attending the demonstration, it was clear that the same energy that animated marchers in 2006 is definitely back. The feeling among the crowd was a healthy mix of hope and anger, along with an unmistakable sense of mission.
"Obama promised us he would be on our side," said Juan Carlos, a slender Mexican immigrant who had come from Chicago with members of his church, referring to the president’s pledge to move on immigration reform in 2010. "We’re here to make sure he keeps his promise." I heard the same comment from a number of people, and countless homemade signs echoed the sentiment–but this wasn’t message discipline as much as a widely and deeply held belief. Now, following the large but largely overlooked demonstration, the trick will be harnessing that belief into sustained political action in the coming months.
Despite the unfortunate timing, it’s important to remember how quickly grassroots organizing and sharp public criticism have forced Obama to shift his tone. Less than two months ago, in his State of the Union address, Obama made only the most general allusion to immigration reform, stating blandly that we should "secure our borders, enforce our laws and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation." Translated, it was easy enough to read this as: immigrants’ rights are not a priority.
On Sunday afternoon Obama’s tone was decidedly more urgent when he addressed the crowd via a prerecorded video appearance on the large screens. "I pledge to do everything in my power to forge a bipartisan consensus this year," he said. "This won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight."