How Talk Radio Spurred Immigrant Demonstrations

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For Los Angeles radio producer Luis Garibay, the crusade began with a question, put to Angelica Salas, executive director of the city’s Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. Was the recently passed House bill making felons of undocumented immigrants and those who help them a serious enough threat, he asked her, that Latino deejays should do something to promote opposition to it? “The anti-immigration forces have their echo chambers through FOX News, CNN and talk radio,” she told him. “You guys have to be ours.”

And so it was. For the next two weeks, Garibay's nationally syndicated colleague Eddie “El Piolin” Sotelo and the other major Spanish-speaking deejays in Los Angeles, whose combined local audience exceeds one million, abandoned their usual inane, bawdy banter for an all-protest, all-the-time format, urging listeners to join the march in downtown Los Angeles protesting the bill. Organizers of the L.A. rally and others elsewhere knew the deejays could spread the word not only to the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants but to the legions who count them as friends, relatives and neighbors. But none imagined they'd help generate the huge attendance the demos drew: 500,000 to 1 million in Los Angeles, 300,000 in Chicago, 50,000 in Detroit, among other places.

The groundwork for the protests was laid by activists before the talk jocks joined the effort. The Catholic Church's Justice for Immigrants campaign emboldened priests to encourage attendance by declaring that helping even illegal immigrants was a religious mandate superseding any law. Meanwhile, several prominent national coalition groups composed of service agencies, Latino community activists, religious-based organizations and unions shifted from straight lobbying to aggressive activism. These alliances hoped a national chain of rallies would send the message to legislators that the pro-immigrant faction is formidable.

But first, the Latino community had to get the message about the protests. Enter the deejays. When his nanny told him that she and other babysitters in the neighborhood were inspired to attend the march after hearing so much about it on the radio, UCLA Professor Abel Valenzuela realized how influential the talk shows were. In other cases, chatter on the airwaves about protests elsewhere inspired left-out listeners to become accidental activists. All day long on March 22, Martha Ramirez, a tax preparer and mother of four in Kansas City, Mo., heard a deejay tell a string of curious callers that while other cities would be holding protests during the upcoming weekend, no demonstrations were planned for her hometown. Ramirez, 31, decided to lead a rally herself, and got 2,500 people to join her.

Now the organizers are considering an economic boycott and walkout on May 1— International Workers' Day —during which Latinos wouldn't work, go to school or buy anything, to show off the pro-immigrant force's economic power. Though the idea's already catching fire, Cardinal Roger Mahony, head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, remains cool: "We now have a debate focused on passing humane legislation. Let's stay that course." Having seized the momentum, the big challenge facing immigration activists now may not be holding it, but, rather, harnessing it.

— With reporting by Paul Cuadros/Chapel Hill and Christopher Maag/Cleveland