MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to keep talking about immigration. As we mentioned, from March through May of 2006, mass immigration protests were held throughout the U.S. Some 500,000 people rallied in Los Angeles. All in all, protest and rallies were held in 140 cities and 39 states. So we wondered just what is the legacy of those marches on March 1, 2006? We've invited several guests to talk about that.
Jose Antonio Vargas has become one of the most visible voices among activists seeking a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented. Fermin Vasquez is a DREAMer. He was brought to the U.S. without authorization when he was a child, and he helped organize the 2006 march in Los Angeles. And we're also joined by Jessica Vaughan. She's director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit group that advocates a more restrictive immigration policy. And I welcome you all, and thank you so much for being here.
JESSICA VAUGHAN: Thank you for having us.
JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Oh, thank you for having us.
MARTIN: So let me start with your memories from 2006, if that's OK. Fermin, you were just a teenager. Do you remember what gave you the idea to help organize the marches at that age?
FERMIN VASQUEZ: It was the first time I had come out to a march. And I did so because I thought it was important for young people like myself and my family to come out and - you know, not only to be heard but also to be seen on the streets. You know, you had folks promoting the march on the radio, on the streets, flyers, on social media. So it was a very vibrant march and a vibrant movement that was forming. But it was in response to the anti-immigrant legislation at that time.
MARTIN: So Jose Antonio Vargas, what about you? When the 2006 marches happened, you were still not out about being undocumented. And in fact, I've heard you say that coming out of the closet as a gay man was less daunting than coming out as undocumented. So I was wondering back in 2006 when you were still not out, what was it like for you watching those marches?
VARGAS: Well, actually, I was at The Washington Post. And, like, as someone who is undocumented but in the closet about it and not wanting to talk about it, I just really did not want anything to do with it. And I'm embarrassed to say that now by the way because I remember what a wake-up call that was. I mean, I have - you know, having grown up in the Bay Area in California, I mean, this was in many ways the first real visible flexing of muscle of the Latino community - not only the undocumented community but our U.S. citizen, you know, relatives, right? I mean, it showed how integrated undocumented people are in American life. What the marches did was start something which we have not been able to stop in the past few years, which is more and more undocumented people coming out in all facets of life.
MARTIN: Jessica, what about you? Do you remember - as I mentioned, you're looking at this from a very different perspective. Do you remember where you were and what you were doing in 2006? Do you remember if you had any reaction to those marches at that time?
VAUGHAN: Yes, I do. In 2006, I was working at the Center for Immigration Studies. So these protests were of interest, of course. But to me, it - they seemed pretty irrelevant to the policy debate at the time, except to the extent that they served to maybe harden views on both sides. You know, I really don't think the marches have made much of a difference in policy terms.
Since they're still going on 10 years later and we still haven't seen policies enacted that the participants in the marches want to see, you know, I think it's pretty clear that they have not been effective in achieving comprehensive immigration reform.
While they may have felt empowering to the people who took part, there were also people who had a negative reaction to these marches and were upset by the Mexican flags being flown. And, you know, of course - you know, that was a big strategic error on the part of the protesters that they haven't repeated since. People told them, like, look, you know, it doesn't do any good to march through the streets flying the flags of other countries if what you tell people that you're wanting is to become part of America.
So, you know, I think there was actually some backlash as a result of the marches. And that persists today, where for a lot of people the marches are a symbol of our continued failure to enforce immigration laws.
MARTIN: Immigration has always been polarizing in this country. And a lot has been said about the tone of the conversation right now. What does each of you think needs to happen to move the conversation forward from this point? Jose, do you want to start?
VARGAS: Well, I would actually argue, you know, since coming out five years ago, I have done more than 600 events in 48 states across the country. The conversation is moving forward. It's moving forward in smaller communities, right, in all these different states. It's not moving forward nationally. But I think what I've realized is once people hear stories, once people hear facts, once people actually face you, right, there's a conversation that starts that moves people intellectually and emotionally.
And I'm personally - you know, our work is focusing on that - on moving that - instead of doing the same old, same old D.C. conversation that happens...
VARGAS: It doesn't get us anywhere.
MARTIN: Jessica, what do you think needs to happen going forward? Because it's clear that - you know, that really it seems to be kind of in stasis right now. What do you think needs to happen to get the conversation moving forward?
VAUGHAN: Well, I want to say, first of all, that for me personally, the issue has never been that I didn't know that there were people like Jose and other hard-working, intelligent, motivated people who were here illegally who wanted to be able to stay. I've met Jose in person and many others who are involved in this movement and been very impressed with their dedication and their intelligence and motivation. That's not the problem.
You need to do more than just march in the streets and chant. What you need to do is make a compelling case for your policy objectives. And that's really what's lacking. And so to move forward, what we need to do is get to a point with immigration enforcement where people are satisfied that the laws we have are going to be enforced and that any amnesty or expansion of immigration is not going to just provide more incentive for people to come here illegally. And it's only when we get to that point that people believe our immigration system has integrity that we can talk about an amnesty or changing the categories that we have.
MARTIN: OK, Fermin, what about you? I'm going to give you the final word here, brief final word. What do you think needs to happen to get this conversation moving forward?
VASQUEZ: For me, I think that we're stronger when we recognize the humanity of other people. We are stronger where we embrace other cultures and other people coming into our country. I think that's what's made America great. We are going to continue to march. We're marching for hope, not hate. We're marching to be recognized in this country and build a future based not on fear but on hope, a future based not on hate but on love. And that's our message to the American public that we're - this is our country. We're here to stay, and we contribute every day.
MARTIN: All right, well, thank you for that. Thank you all so much for joining us. It was a rich conversation. We just heard from Fermin Vasquez. He's communications specialist for SEIU. He joined us from his home in Los Angeles earlier. We heard from Jose Antonio Vargas. He's the founder of Define American. It's a nonprofit organization which advocates for immigrants to tell their stories. He's also in Los Angeles. And Jessica Vaughan is director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, also nonprofit. She joined us from her home in Boston. Thank you all so much for speaking with us today.
VAUGHAN: Thank you.
VARGAS: Thank you.
VASQUEZ: Thank you, appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.