By Ronda Kaysen
By 2 o’clock on Monday a large crowd of Chinese restaurant workers, house cleaners, nurses, students, garment workers and fishmongers had gathered at Chatham Square in Chinatown. They stood atop concrete planters and park benches, shielding their eyes from the bright April sun. They crowded beneath the Kimlau Arch, named for a Chinese-American lieutenant who fought in World War II, waving American flags and flashing signs scrawled in both English and Chinese that read, “We are America.”
“I wish to have a nice job, I wish to have a nice life,” said Aihua, a 60-year-old Chinese homecare worker who illegally immigrated to New York City six years ago. Although she now has a Social Security card, her status is uncertain because she recently split with her husband, who had helped legalize her status. Because of her precarious situation, she was reluctant to give her last name. “I like America,” she said.
The demonstrators had gathered as part of a nationwide day of protest against a United States House of Representatives bill that would criminalize illegal immigrants, crack down on those who assist or hire them, tighten border control and ramp up deportations. A Senate bill that would have given undocumented immigrants the chance to become citizens fell apart last week.
New York City’s protest was one of the smaller demonstrations in the country, but it was hailed as the most diverse and represented one of the largest showings of Chinese immigrants in the country. Thousands of Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans turned out to voice their support for the illegal immigrants toiling in the city’s garment, restaurant, hotel and construction industries.
“We might not be a large number, but we’re in the crowd,” Margaret Chin, deputy executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, a Chinatown-based advocacy group, told The Villager. “Chinatown is a very important part of New York’s economy.”
Of the 357,200 Chinese-Americans living in New York, 261,500 of them were born in China, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Chinese immigrants make up the second largest immigrant group in the city after Dominicans. Chin estimated that New York’s Chinese population is the largest in the country.
“The Chinese people are really, really tough,” said Sheng an Jial, a 25-year-old political science student at Lehman College in the Bronx. “We do a lot of jobs that Americans won’t do.” Jial, a U.S. citizen who immigrated here nine years ago, clutched the side of a long banner that read in Chinese, “We are fighting for America.”
As the Chatham Square group marched toward City Hall, their numbers swelled into the thousands. Pedestrians stood on the sidelines, unable to cross the streets, tourists gawked from double-decker red buses and traffic snarled, narrowing to a single lane on Broadway.
“We oppose the new law,” said Katy Chau, a naturalized U.S. citizen and a social worker for immigrants. “They are going to send the parents back. How about the kids? The kids are here. They should think about something good for the whole community.”
At Chambers St., the group joined other protesters marching into Lower Manhattan from across the Brooklyn Bridge and down from Washington Square Park. Scores of Mexican workers unloaded from yellow school buses draped with Mexican and American flags.
As the crowd swelled — estimates varied from 70,000 to 125,000, and one union reported that 300,000 people attended — the demonstrators stretched north to Canal St., west to Church St. and south to Vesey St. Police shut down many streets in Lower Manhattan, paralyzing the Financial District in gridlock. The protest attracted both of New York’s senators, Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, along with several labor leaders.
Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, who attended the rally, attributed the failure of the Senate’s compromise bill to disarray in the Republican Party.
“It remains to be seen when we come back from the two-week recess whether we can put together a halfway reasonable bill,” he told The Villager. “I haven’t given up on that yet.”
David Zapata and Diana Pacheco leaned against the black iron gate of City Hall Park on Monday clutching Colombian flags. Both emigrated from Colombia illegally with their families as teenagers and are now U.S. citizens. Pacheco, a 19-year-old psychology student at Hunter College, recalled being frightened that she and her family might be returned to Colombia, where they fled civil war. “It was kind of scary,” she said. “They were always afraid of being deported.” Her family eventually received amnesty as political refugees.
Zapata, an 18-year-old premed student at Queens College, saw the recent demonstrations as the beginning of a new civil rights movement led by immigrants.
“We just want equality,” he said.
Of the protesters The Villager spoke with for this article, many were naturalized citizens who had come out in force to support those here illegally. Protesters carried signs that read, “Today we march, tomorrow we vote.”
The PEW Hispanic Center estimates that 7 percent of the country’s illegal immigrants live in New York City, comprising about 500,000 people.
Illegal immigrants “are very worried about the law,” said Shing Kwong, senior leader of Local 2325, which represents Legal Aid attorneys, speaking through a translator.
“They come here in very hard ways and are very nervous” about being deported, Kwong said. “When they arrive here, they want to have a better life.”
Copyright 2006 The Villager