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Wednesday, April 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Immigrants on the march

The sleeping giant is awake, and boy, is he angry.

Multiply tenfold the thousands of immigrants and their advocates who marched Monday down Seattle streets and you have an idea of the size of the political dilemma presented by immigration reform.

Congress is feeling the pressure. The House of Representatives passed an immigration bill that would turn millions of Hispanics into felons. The Senate offered a more realistic comprehensive reform that included paths to citizenship but also stronger border security.

But the efforts disintegrated into predictable partisan bickering.

Now on break in their home states, politicians are getting an eyeful as citizens and noncitizens take to the streets over immigration. On Monday, a National Day of Action drew millions of immigrants and their supporters. They took to the streets everywhere, from Washington, D.C., and New York City to Los Angeles and Houston and points in between. In a small farming community in Kansas, 3,000 marched.

Political issues of race have typically played out as differences between blacks and whites. Welcome to the new political face of America. Bolstered by a staggering numerical might, it is a face difficult to ignore.

Political maturity among racial and cultural groups takes time to build and usually requires a seminal issue, such as civil rights, to serve as catalyst. A further challenge for Hispanics is their diversity. I am black. Hispanics can be black or white. Nor is that their identity. They see themselves as Costa Rican, Argentine, Mexican, making it difficult to find an issue to unite around.

Until now. Immigration reform is that unifying issue.

But that was before immigration became the dominant political issue — whether the topic is national security, health care or education reform.

The Washington State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce invokes this duality with calls for secure borders, workplace protections and efforts that reunite immigrants.

The Chamber's demands will play well here. Washington is dependent on immigrant labor. Nearly half a million Latinos live and work in Washington state, making them the largest minority group.

In Western Washington, the issue goes beyond Latinos. Foreign-born scientists, engineers, mathematicians and health-care workers are just as invested in the immigration debate as the farmworkers and hotel maids. American students make up only half the holders of advanced science, math, technology and engineering degrees in this country. Work still has to be done, hence the need to hire from abroad. Indeed, there is a push to double the number of visas available to skilled workers, but any attempt to do so will raise issues of parity.

Immigration rights are part of civil rights, making this an issue for the rest of us. Much of the anti-immigration vitriol reeks of xenophobia and reminds me of the racist invective lobbed at black Americans marching decades ago for civil rights.

African-American leaders are missing an opportunity to show leadership on this front. Too bad, because on issues such as education, jobs and health care, blacks and Hispanics could forge a mighty coalition.

School boards would be a fine starting ground. Typically, African-American school board members have been the gatekeepers on racial equity and disproportionality issues. That ought to change. Hispanic children are as vulnerable to academic failure and dropping out of school as are black children.

In 2004, President Bush won re-election with increased support from Hispanics. But immigration will winnow that support. Democrats are rubbing their hands gleefully, watching Republicans squirm between a rock and a hard place. Republicans can be tough on immigration and alienate this new power group or they can move to the center and tick off their own party.

Democrats aren't safe. They must not only point to the punitive nature of Republican-inspired immigration reform, but come up with a workable alternative.

Voters are a fickle bunch but I doubt they will forget by Election Day the political doublespeak emanating over immigration reform. Hispanics will not and should not forget how their brethren went from "willing workers," as President Bush once characterized Mexican workers entering the U.S. illegally, to being potential felons.

What happens after the marches? I'm looking forward to November to find out.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com

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