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May Day March Likely to Backfire on Protesters

By Peter Brown

If the folks who want to allow illegal immigrants to become legal residents and eventually citizens are lucky, the planned May 1 general strike to pressure Congress in their direction will be a bust.

That's because even more than mass demonstrations, the work, school and shopping boycott is likely to backfire -- pushing public opinion toward stricter border security without making it possible for such immigrants to remain in the United States legally.

Of course, some immigrant-rights activists understand the potential backlash, which is why there has been division within that community over the wisdom of the May 1 protest.

But for many within their movement, the symbolism of trying to show Congress just how powerful illegal immigrants are by trying to closing down the U.S. economy for a day is too much to pass up.

In some sense, just how immediately successful they will be - in other words, how many of the 12 million illegal immigrants and their supporters don't work or shop on May 1 - will become apparent Monday.

But the larger question is what effect such a demonstration will have on members of Congress - and as importantly on their voting constituents -- is a much more complicated matter.

There is little doubt that the recent massive demonstrations by millions demanding legalization of undocumented immigrants and a path to citizenship pressured some members of the U.S. Senate to support such proposals.

Yet, in the long run, the bigger question is how the American people felt about those earlier demonstrations and how a May 1 general strike is likely to play in Peoria.

May 1 was picked by organizers because it has been the international workers day, a holiday once celebrated with pomp and circumstance in China and Russia before they decided money was more important than ideology. The symbolism of its choice for the immigration economic boycott may not go down well in much of this country.

Now, there is not a lot of polling data on how the past protests have influenced public opinion.

The best available at this point is a Florida poll this month by Quinnipiac University that asked voters whether the earlier demonstrations made them more or less sympathetic to the immigrants' cause.

Of course, it is only one state, but the answers are worth considering given Florida's status as the nation's premier political battleground.

Twice as many voters, 38 percent, said the previous protests had made them less sympathetic to the immigrants' cause, while 17 percent said made them more likely to support such goals. The rest said the marches had no effect on their views.

It would be instructive to remember the political history of divisive social/racial matters such as immigration. The same is true about black political candidates:

They tend to do better in public opinion polls than they do at the ballot box.

The assumption is that some voters say what they consider to be the politically correct thing to pollsters, but vote differently when they get into the booth, either out of fear, resentment, or honest policy differences that they are reluctant to discuss with a stranger soliciting their opinion on the telephone.

The Quinnipiac survey of Floridians did not ask why voters had been turned off by the immigration protests.

But anecdotal evidence, based on interviews in news stories, suggests many Americans were put off by the initial presence of Mexican flags, and the sense that those who were breaking the law by their presence in the United States were demanding the law be changed for them.

There has been a loose coalition urging support for the May 1 economic boycott, and published reports have indicated that some anti-war groups, for instance, have pushed the protests as a way to rally opposition to the political status quo.

Now, with President Bush's poll numbers in the tank and surveys showing most Americans see the country headed in the wrong direction, the status quo might not seem all that popular with most voters.

But American history is not one in which change has occurred in the streets.

General strikes are not a U.S. tradition, as in many other countries in Latin America and Europe. The French government recently caved to such protestors recently over efforts to change employment rules.

The May 1 protesters will certainly get headlines. Whether they get results is the bigger question.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at

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