Immokalee Workers Swell Crowd in Ft. Myers to 75,000


[The following article appeared April 11, 2006, in the Orlando Sentinel (of Orlando, Florida) with the headline “Marchers descend on Fort Myers to protest House bill.”

[Over the past half dozen years or more, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has led mostly immigrant farm workers, especially tomato pickers, in a successful boycott of Taco Bell that resulted in a raise for tomato pickers, whose wages had been frozen for twenty years. The Immokalee Workers are currently taking on McDonalds, demanding that it too should provide more income to the extremely low-paid workers who bring the tomatoes to McDonalds’ table.—Labor Standard]

As many as 75,000 demonstrators marched Monday on Fort Myers in one of the nation’s largest protests for immigrant rights.

The protest grew from a gathering that initially drew a few thousand but burgeoned as the day went on. By 2:30 p.m., the crowd had grown to 10,000.

By evening, the Naples Daily News and The News-Press of Fort Myers reported, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office estimated that the crowd had swelled to 75,000—by far the largest demonstration in Florida during Monday’s nationwide day of protests.

Many of those who converged on Fort Myers came from the town of Immokalee, a farming community in rural eastern Collier County. They traveled in vehicles normally used to take them to work in the fields.

Veronica Ramirez, 19, a native of Mexico City, was one of hundreds who came from Immokalee. She said she had participated in marches before but never one so big.

“It gives you motivation to keep fighting,” said Ramirez, who has worked in the tomato fields since she came to the United States two years ago.

Ramirez said she is still very worried that even if an immigration-reform bill was passed allowing immigrants who have been in the country at least five years to legalize their status, she will still be illegal.

“I have been working hard, as hard as people who have been here five years,” Ramirez said.

Other protests in Florida were small by comparison: A rally in Lake Worth drew about 5,000; about 2,500 turned out in Homestead; and about 1,500 in DeLand.

Florida, home to as many as 880,000 illegal immigrants, had kept a low profile in the controversial debate, which has seen hundreds of thousands of people [read: millions] take to the streets in California and Texas. That started to change during the weekend, with protests drawing thousands in Orlando and Miami—but nowhere near the size that converged Monday on Fort Myers.

A group largely made up of Mexican immigrants gathered in front of the Volusia County Courthouse on Monday afternoon.

They waved U.S. and Mexican flags and chanted in English and Spanish—holding signs with statements such as “La solución es la legalización,” or “Legalization is the solution,” and “Stop the ignorance, we are not criminals.”

“Power is in numbers,” Marcos Crisanto, a farmworkers activist, told the cheering crowd. [Emphasis added.]

It was part of a coordinated effort across the nation that brought as many as 500,000 protesters to Washington, D.C., chanting Si, se puede—“Yes, we can”—and carrying signs declaring, “We are America.”

Organizers of the march on the National Mall tabbed attendance at a half-million; police would give no official estimate. Protests in Atlanta and Phoenix drew an estimated 50,000 each, while a New York City march drew 20,000.

[Note by Labor Standard: Phoenix organizers announced 127,000 (not “50,000”).]

The protests came after partisan disagreements in the Senate on Friday left in doubt the future of a compromise bill that could provide U.S. citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.

The House bill, passed in December, would make being an illegal immigrant a felony, make it a crime to help them and called for building a [700-mile] fence along the nation’s [2,000-mile] border with Mexico.

There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States.