Above Photo: Immigration activists shut down traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, calling on Congress to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. (Noah Berger/Special to The Chronicle)
As morning broke over San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge on Thursday, northbound traffic was brought to a halt when dozens of undocumented mothers, students and their allies risked arrest to engage in civil disobedience.
Just before 7 a.m., protesters exited their cars, carrying banners and calling on Congress to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Traffic piled up in the bridge’s northbound lanes as demonstrators decried the Democrats’ lack of action to pass meaningful immigration reform, stopping morning commuters for about an hour.
Protestors say 20 mins of blockage for 20 years of congressional failures on immigration.
— Deepa Fernandes (@deepafern) September 30, 2021
The coordinated action signaled that the immigrant rights movement is stepping up direct activism, organizers said.
“We are escalating our actions and our undocumented families are risking arrest and possibly deportation to send the message we can no longer wait,” said Luis Angel Reyes Savalza, himself an undocumented immigrant and recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
The early morning traffic blockade was timed to coincide with congressional consideration of the budget reconciliation bill, demanding that Democrats override the Senate parliamentarian who excluded immigration provisions from the $3.5 trillion bill. As of press time, Congress had yet to vote on the bill.
Demonstrators stopped traffic for 20 minutes to symbolize 20 years of failed promises, they said. Eleven of those minutes were dedicated to the country’s roughly 11 million undocumented residents.
— Jessica Christian (@jachristian) September 30, 2021
The protest, organized by the Movement for Citizenship for All (Papeles Para Todos) and the Bay Area Coalition for Economic Justice and Citizenship for All, also centered on climate, economic and racial justice issues. From a truck bed flanked with banners, under the imposing orange towers of the bridge, speakers called on Congress to fund free college, paid family leave and an expansion of Medicare. They also called for a fairer economy.
“We were called essential workers, and yet both the Trump and Biden administrations excluded undocumented families from stimulus relief,” Reyes Savalza told The Chronicle.
The activists’ frustration with Washington has an obvious antecedent: Immigration reform has been a perennial goal for lawmakers and presidents that has always failed, sometimes spectacularly.
There have been attempts in the past two decades that got close, most recently in 2013, when the Senate passed what has become known as the “Gang of Eight” immigration compromise. The massive bill to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants, overhaul the legal immigration system and beef up border security passed with a veto-proof majority of more than two-thirds of the Senate, an overwhelming level of consensus.
But it died in the House, where Republicans grew skittish of backlash for anything perceived as “amnesty” toward undocumented immigrants. That position in the GOP calcified with the rise of former President Donald Trump, who injected hard-line anti-immigration policies into the mainstream of the party.
Even widely popular policies like providing a path to citizenship for the so-called Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, have been difficult to achieve, as the widely supported idea tends to get bogged down by other political interests trying to catch a ride.
With Democrats in full control of Washington, advocates were hoping the party would have learned its lesson during the Obama administration, when immigration reform wasn’t a priority in the key first years of power.
President Joe Biden has so far rested immigration hopes on a procedural tactic that would allow Democrats to attach legalization to a budget bill and bypass the 60-vote threshold in the 100-member Senate to advance legislation. The prospects for that plan are exceedingly grim, as the Senate’s arbiter of procedural rules has now ruled twice, most recently on Wednesday, that Democrats’ proposals don’t pass muster to qualify for the maneuver, known as reconciliation.
Advocates on the left have called on Biden and Senate Democrats to simply overrule the parliamentarian and pass it anyway or do away with the 60-vote threshold requirement altogether, but Biden, a former senator, has resisted.
Spirits were high among the few dozen who stopped commuters Thursday morning, despite potentially harrowing consequences.
*When demonstrators were ready to drive off the bridge, the California Highway Patrol delayed them for another 30 minutes. According to two organizers, five protesters were taken to jail and released with citations, one of them an undocumented demonstrator.
Traffic on the bridge started flowing again shortly before 8 a.m. as the protest wound down.
According to the protest’s organizers, the bridge shutdown was just the beginning of a renewed and more aggressive push for the immigration movement, one that will draw on the mass street protests and strikes of 2006, when millions left work and took to the streets demanding change.
Fifteen years later, things are only worse, protesters said. Deportations removed many who were active in the immigrant rights movement, and then the pandemic ripped through already vulnerable immigrant communities.
Mayra Pelagio, executive director of Latinos United for a New America, said people are sick of waiting for change.
“There’s a saying in Spanish that goes, ‘Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo (only the people can save the people),’ so it’s up to us to make sure those changes happen,” said Pelagio, who was at the protest. “It’s not going to take folks sitting in Senate to nicely hand things over to us, the change that we need. So we are seeing an increased mobilization.”*