Luis Gonzalez remembers the day his mother said goodbye. With a blessing and the sign of the cross, she left him and his two sisters in Tijuana and set off with a human smuggler across the mountains and into San Diego for what she hoped would be a better life.
Almost 30 years later, the Chandler engineer has joined the immigration movement and is telling his story for the first time.
As the Valley today girds for the largest march ever in Arizona — and perhaps the largest of an expected 60 marches nationwide — professionals will join students and day laborers to put the state firmly on the map as a leading immigration battleground.
An estimated 100,000 people are expected to walk from the Arizona State Fairground to the state Capitol to call for reform that includes a path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants and a guest worker program.
“This is a movement,” said Mercedes Mercado-Ochoa, a member of Unidos en Arizona and the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens. “We want to be reckoned with.”
While Arizona and the Valley have been struggling with immigration for years, the growing Latino population has struggled to become politically active. That changed with the march on the Phoenix office of Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., last month, which drew an estimated 20,000 people and surprised even its organizers.
“Finally, we were able to get the citizens together with the noncitizens,” Mercado-Ochoa said. “Now, everybody’s united.”
But what moved them? And why now? Why here?
Lobbyist and former state senator Alfredo Gutierrez calls it a “perfect storm” of anti-immigrant legislation at the state and federal level, which followed national coverage of Minuteman border patrols and calls from Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, for border walls and deportation of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants — including 500,000 in Arizona.
“Every one of those acts pushed more and more people toward the tipping point,” Gutierrez said. “But 4437 was it.”
HR4437, passed the U.S. House last month and would make it a felony to be in the U.S. illegally. The bill would allow those who aid illegal immigrants to be prosecuted.
Family members, activists, churches, and social service organizations united in protest, forming larger, more cohesive coalitions.
In Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahoney urged priests in his diocese to defy the measure it if became law.
“It was tantamount to the Japanese Internment Act,” he said. “As a people, as we begin to understand the depths of this, we have to mobilize. Not a month from now. We have to mobilize today. And we’re staying mobilized until we get justice for our families.”
Just as sweeping immigration reform proposals in Congress have mobilized Latinos and church leaders, they have caused an outcry among immigration opponents, who plan to stage counterprotests along today’s march route.
Whatever the outcome of the march or the ongoing political debates, there is no turning back the demographic tide, studies show.
“There’s nothing anyone can do to stop it,” said Loui Olivas, associate vice president of academic affairs at Arizona State University and a third-generation Arizonan. “So let’s grow up and get over it.”
Census projections show minority groups — led by Latinos — will become the majority in Arizona by 2035.
Two-thirds of the children of Hispanic immigrants — and 93 percent under age 6 — were born in this country, even if one or both of their parents weren’t, according to a Migration Policy Institute study.
Another study, by the Pew Hispanic Center, indicates that record immigration and high fertility among immigrants will produce some startling results: Between 2000 and 2020, secondgeneration Latinos in U.S. schools will double and their number in the U.S. work force will triple.
Magdalena Schwartz is bringing the next generation to today’s march — her 11-year-old son.
“He wants to march. He wants to make signs. He wants to speak,“ said Schwartz, a Mesa member of Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras. “He said, ‘It’s not right, mommy. Because everybody came to this country from someplace else.’ ”
Luis Gonzalez’s family was separated for just a few days and settled in the San Fernando Valley. The children flourished in public schools. He earned a scholarship to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now works for Phelps Dodge. It took him almost two decades to become a U.S. citizen.
Gonzalez and his wife have two children, ages 5 and 9, and he’s gained a deeper understanding of why his mother left when he was 7 years old.
“She had to leave her children, not knowing whether she would survive or if she would see us again. But in the end, she thought all that was worth the risk,” he said.