updated 4/28/2007 9:12:14 PM ET 2007-04-29T01:12:14

Hundreds of immigrants and their supporters marched through a Mexican-American neighborhood on Saturday calling for lawmakers to create a far-reaching immigration policy that allows undocumented workers to keep their families intact.

About 300 to 400 participants beat drums, blew whistles and carried signs and banners, along with U.S. and Mexican flags. One sign read “Today we march, tomorrow we vote.”

Five-year-old Grace Bandercan had a more personal message on her sign: “Mommy and I are Americans, but please don’t deport Daddy.”

Grace’s father, Hugo Bandercan, is an immigrant construction worker who pays his taxes and is trying to obtain resident status. Her mother, Elizabeth, is a school teacher who said the family lives in constant fear of Hugo’s deportation, citing the burdensome and lengthy process of gaining permanent status.

“They need to remember the human side of things,” said Elizabeth Bandercan, referring to immigration enforcement officials. “We just want to live as a family.”

Student, labor and other activist groups also took part in the mile-or-so march from Immaculate Conception Catholic Church to a local park for the Families for Freedom rally.

One of the organizers, Lorenzo Cano of the Coalition in Defense of the Community, said he supports the push for comprehensive immigration policy but wants it to be just.

“Mainstream America has sanctioned the pervasiveness of undocumented immigrants,” Cano said.

Shouting match between protesters
A group of about 20 counter-protesters gathered near the rally chanting “USA! USA!” and holding placards with slogans such as “Texas is not a Mexican colony” and “Employers of illegals ... traitors to America!”

Some demonstrators on both sides shouted obscenities at each other. A dozen Houston police officers on horseback and less than 50 others on foot stood between the counter-protesters and the rally to keep order.

Also Saturday, President Bush urged lawmakers in his weekly radio address to come together on immigration. Bush called it “a critical challenge” before the nation, which is home to an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

“We need a system where our laws are respected. We need a system that meets the legitimate needs of our economy. And we need a system that treats people with dignity and helps newcomers assimilate into our society,” Bush said.

Saturday’s rally was a prelude to nationwide marches and rallies by immigration activists planned for Tuesday. The activists are calling for a repeat of last year’s boycotts and marches for immigrants’ rights, which drew more than 1 million people to the streets in dozens of cities.

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