Walk the Walk

Can shoe leather and signs change immigration law?

Paul Kerr knows how to assemble a big crowd. As a longtime activist and director of the Center for Human Rights, a Dallas-based immigration advocacy group, he's credited with organizing the largest street demonstration in Dallas history--a fact he admits has received little circulation outside Spanish-language media.

With help from a grassroots coalition of immigrant and labor groups, Kerr last April put together a peaceful, if noisy, march that drew an estimated 10,000 people to downtown Dallas. The protesters' ambitious (to some, pie-in-the-sky) demand: immediate amnesty for as many as 11 million Mexican and Central American immigrants working illegally in the United States.

Immigration activist Paul Kerr is a whiz at organizing marches, but his critics say that's not enough to change U.S. policy.
Immigration activist Paul Kerr is a whiz at organizing marches, but his critics say that's not enough to change U.S. policy.

To Kerr, the issue is an emotional one. He bristles at the thought that immigrants lacking legal status face the threat of deportation and separation from family. "For me, it's a sin, a violation of what the United States is all about, to deny these basic inalienable rights to people because they immigrated here," he says.

One year later, the demand for a broad amnesty remains unmet. It's unclear if it ever will be, in light of strong opposition to immigration nationally and divisions within the Hispanic community. Especially frustrating to Kerr and other advocates is that President Clinton during his last days in office broke his vow to veto a funding bill that lacked a provision that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to remain in the country while they applied for residency.

But such setbacks haven't stopped Kerr. On March 31, birthday of migrant farmworker champion Cesar Chavez, Kerr's Dallas Coalition for Dignity and Amnesty, along with similar groups in other major Texas cities, will reprise its march from Cathedral Guadalupe to the Kennedy Memorial in downtown Dallas.

Kerr again expects a big turnout. To get the word out, he has conducted numerous interviews with Spanish-language radio and television stations in Dallas, which devote unabashedly favorable attention to the amnesty issue. A recent El Heraldo headline blared, "Todos juntos por la amnistia." Translation: "Everyone together for amnesty."

Another draw is Kerr's strong ties to labor, immigrant and activist groups. His coalition has won endorsements from more than 30 organizations, including the Mexican-American Democrats, the AFL-CIO and the United Farmworkers of Texas.

Maria Dominguez heads another local group that works closely with Kerr. With about 600 members, Familias Unidas fights for relaxed immigration rules and has a mostly Mexican membership. (There are similar groups for Salvadorans, Hondurans and other nationalities.) "People should have the liberty of working and being with their family without being scared something bad will happen," she says. "God didn't set boundaries, so why should the state?"

Opponents of amnesty argue such a measure would encourage illegal immigration and send a signal abroad that the United States doesn't seriously enforce its immigration laws. They say a 1986 amnesty intended to close the books on illegal immigration only increased it. But supporters say another amnesty is essential to safeguard rights of undocumented immigrants drawn to America's robust labor market.

"Anything less than that, people will be exploited and considered indentured servants with no rights," says Robert Alonzo, president of the Mexican American Democrats and a former state representative. In light of the 1986 amnesty, Alonzo also insists another broad grant of relief is a realistic possibility. "If [illegal immigrants] were to become legal, it's not going to take anything away from people in this country," he says.

Meanwhile, formerly staunch immigration foe Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, recently went to Mexico to discuss a guest worker proposal with President Vicente Fox, who wants legal status for Mexicans working abroad. Hispanic leaders in the United States fear Gramm's proposal would revive the abusive "bracero" agricultural guest worker program that operated from the 1940s to the '60s, a charge Gramm's staff denies. Yet the Gramm plan may prove more politically palatable than amnesty.

Certainly, another large march downtown would boost the profile of the Center for Human Rights, which Kerr operates with help from volunteers on a budget of about $2,000 a month. The small center takes on issues ranging from voter registration to fighting torture in immigrants' home countries, the death penalty and abuse in jails.

A Nebraska native who came to Dallas to earn a doctorate in religious studies at Southern Methodist University, Kerr got sidetracked onto the Central American struggles of the '80s and even studied liberation theology in Costa Rica. He started the center in December 1999 after getting fired from his job as executive director of Proyecto Adelante, a since-shuttered immigration and social services agency.

Facing insolvency, Proyecto Adelante shut down last August after 18 years of service, despite high demand locally for immigration services. Citing paid staff that mushroomed from 10 to 35 workers and high rent after a move from a 1,000-square-foot office to a 10,000-square-foot location, Proyecto officials blamed Kerr for overextending the agency. But Kerr has no regrets. "They were nostalgic for an organization that only helped poor people poorly," he says.

Observers say Kerr's wide following stems from his devotion to immigrants and strong ties to their nationality based associations. "He's got credibility in the immigrant community, no doubt about it," says political consultant Joe May. "He's put the nucleus of the network together."

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