On a Friday night in late February, an endless line of families streams into San Jose’s St. Julie Billiart Catholic Church. By the time I take my seat towards the front, I’m looking out at a swelling crowd of more than 650 faces, participants in a prayer vigil in support of immigration reform. As people continue to squeeze into the church, and a live band strikes up a raucous version of Bob Dylan’s "The Times They Are a-Changin,’ " the electric energy brings to mind images of African-American churches in the South during the civil rights movement.
"Bastante gente," says a short and stocky man seated to my right, looking out at the crowd in amazement. Lots of people. I learn that he’s originally from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. "I’m here to support my daughter," he says, motioning to the girl beside him. Nancy Rodriguez Cruz, a 14-year-old high school freshman from the nearby town of Gilroy, is nervously fingering a note card and practicing her lines.
Thirty minutes later Nancy steps up to the microphone, following a woman who spoke movingly about her fear that her undocumented husband could be deported. By now, the audience includes the bishop of San Jose, Patrick McGrath, along with representatives from Democratic Congressmembers Mike Honda and Zoe Lofgren. As Nancy speaks, it becomes clear that while her father is here to support her, she’s also speaking up on his behalf.
"My parents are my heroes–I don’t know what I would do without them," she begins, her voice cracking in an effort to fight off tears. "Every morning I wake up terrified, thinking, ‘What if my parents aren’t home when I get back from school?’ Honestly, I don’t think a kid should be feeling that–they should be worried about their school problems and their homework. And if God gave me my parents, who is anyone to take them away from me?" After Nancy finishes her testimony the crowd breaks into loud applause, and when she returns to her seat she is met by her beaming father. "Very, very proud," he says.
In an age replete with Astroturf movements and manufactured media events, it’s unusual to come across a large political gathering without a member of the media in sight. In San Jose I saw no laptops or bloggers; I scoured the San Jose Mercury News the following morning without finding any mention of the vigil. Indeed, only Spanish-language media covered the event–one television channel, one radio station and a small bilingual newspaper.
But it’s this grassroots organizing–and there has been a lot of it in recent months–that holds the key to the passage of comprehensive immigration reform. The prayer vigil in San Jose was organized by People Acting in Community Together (PACT), just one of more than 750 groups that have joined the Reform Immigration for America coalition. "We have groups in almost every state," says Shuya Ohno, a coalition spokesperson. Since launching last June members have organized more than 1,500 actions and held hundreds of Congressional delegations. "But there are so many other groups doing things on their own," continues Ohno. "The amount of energy is incredible."