LOS ANGELES — Angry over recent raids and frustrated with Congress, thousands of people protested across the country Tuesday to demand a path to citizenship for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
From Phoenix to Detroit to Miami, thousands of people carried American flags in the streets.
Organizers say immigrants feel a sense of urgency to keep immigration reform from getting pushed to the back burner by the 2008 presidential elections.
“If we don’t act, then both the Democratic and Republican parties can go back to their comfort zones and do nothing,” said Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “They won’t have the courage to resolve a major situation for millions of people.”
In Chicago, thousands of demonstrators carried American flags, signs and placards, including one that read “We may not have it all together, but together we can have it all.”
‘We're not criminals’
Melissa Woo, a 22-year-old American citizen who immigrated from South Korea, carried a Korean flag over her shoulder as she criticized politicians for “buckling at the knees.”
“Us immigrants aren’t pieces of trash, we’re human beings,” she said. “To be treated as less than human is a travesty.”
Thomas Rodriguez, of Aurora, Ill., stood in Union Park wearing a shirt that said: “We are hard workers. We’re not criminals.”
The 38-year-old has had no legal status since he came to the United States from Mexico in 1989 and is an employee at a Japanese restaurant in Chicago.
“Recent raids have worried me,” he said. “We worry deportations are leaving too many young people without parents.”
Flags in Detroit, mariachi in Phoenix
In southwest Detroit, hundreds of people wore red and white, and carried American flags to a rally.
“Most of the undocumented people come here as a necessity of survival,” said Rosendo Delgado, of Latinos United, one of the groups organizing the march. “For them, it’s the only choice.”
A mariachi band played in Phoenix as marchers walked from the fairgrounds toward the state Capitol.
“We want just reform,” said Mayela Ruiz, another illegal immigrant. “I’ve been here 15 years. I’ve worked hard, paid my taxes. I’ve had no problems with the law and I’m afraid to leave my house. I want a law that would allow me to work and live in freedom but not like a slave.”
A few dozen counter-protesters across the street from the Capitol got in a shouting match with some at the rally.
“I want to send them back,” said Phoenix resident George Propheter, who held up a large handwritten sign that read “Hell No.” “I’ve been in the city for 40 years. They’ve completely destroyed our city.”
In Washington, D.C., about 400 members of Asian groups from across the country were set to make a lobbying push with lawmakers.
Lower turnout than expected
This year’s turnout was expected to be lower than the 1 million people who gathered for last year’s May 1 activities. Slideshow: Immigrants in action
No rallies were planned in Atlanta, where 50,000 marched last year, because many immigrants were afraid of the raids and of a new state law set to take effect in July.
The law requires verification that adults seeking non-emergency state-administered benefits are in the country legally, sanctions employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, and requires police to check the immigration status of people they arrest.
“There’s a lot of anxiety and fear in the immigrant community,” said Jerry Gonzalez of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.
Oaklanders march to City Hall
In Oakland, Calif., about 2,000 people marched to City Hall.
“Nothing has happened since last year,” said Gloria Ramos, 51, a social worker at a children’s nonprofit who left her native Mexico for Oakland 32 years ago. “Things are getting worse for our people — more discrimination, less benefits.”
In New York, groups planned an “American Family Tree” rally, where immigrants would pin paper leaves on a large painting of a tree to symbolize the separation of families because of strict immigration laws.
The event is a response to a White House immigration reform proposal in March, said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.
That plan would grant illegal immigrants three-year work visas for $3,500 but also require them to return home to apply for U.S. residency and pay a $10,000 fine. It has been roundly criticized by immigrant groups.
Howard Dean weighs in
Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean called the bill “insane” because it would require many illegal immigrants to return home before applying for citizenship.
If all those individuals decided to go home on their own, “imagine what will happen to our economy?” he told a group of more than 100 party supporters at Miami’s Parrot Jungle Island.
He originally planned to address demonstrators in Miami but said he canceled because of scheduling conflicts. He planned to meet privately with rally leaders.
About 400 people gathered in downtown Los Angeles a few hours before a march was set to begin. Many were dressed in red, white and blue and waved American and Mexican flags. Los Angeles County is home to about 1 million illegal immigrants, by far the largest concentration in America.
In L.A., ‘they feel terrorized’
Los Angeles public school teacher David Cid said he came to support his students, many of whom are suffering because of recent raids that have impacted their families.
“They feel terrorized,” said Cid, who declined to give more details about where he works to protect his students.
Despite divisions over tactics and other issues, immigration groups and supporters said the diverse events will show the movement is stronger than ever.
“Just because the 12 million people who don’t have legal residency don’t attend a march doesn’t mean they don’t want it,” said Eduardo “Piolin” Sotelo, a popular Spanish-language disc jockey. “I tell my listeners that no matter what they do, just don’t stop doing something.”
After last year’s protests, reform legislation stalled in Congress and bipartisan proposals for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship have gotten more conservative.
Organizers said Tuesday’s turnout will be lower because stepped-up raids in recent months have left many immigrants afraid to speak out in public — a major change over rallies in 2006 when some illegal immigrants wore T-shirts saying “I’m illegal. So what?”
“These raids have torn apart families,” said John Crockford, a member of the Central California Coalition for Immigrant Rights.
In Fresno, organizers planned a rally focusing on children whose parents had been deported. The San Joaquin Valley is home to thousands of seasonal workers who work illegally each year in the fields and construction industry.
In Los Angeles, marches were set to include demands for a legalization program, a stop to the raids and an anti-Iraq war message. City and transportation officials were planning for as many as 500,000 people in downtown, believing it could be the largest in the city so far this year.
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