CHICAGO — Thousands of immigrants and activists gathered in cities across the country Thursday to demand comprehensive immigration reform, including citizenship opportunities for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
Turnout has fallen sharply since the first nationwide rallies in 2006, when more than 1 million people — at least 400,000 in Chicago alone — flooded streets and brought traffic to a standstill.
Activists hoping to reignite the immigration debate in time for the presidential elections say this year's efforts are focused less on protests and more on voter registration and setting an agenda for the next president.
Nevertheless, they planned to take to the streets from Miami to Dallas to Los Angeles for May Day protests.
"We come to let Washington know we're still here. We're still fighting," said Jorge Guzman, 34, as crowds swelled in Chicago's Union Park before a march to a federal plaza downtown.
Guzman, a legal immigrant from Mexico, was among a group of about 100 marchers from the Chicago suburb of Waukegan, where tension mounted after city officials applied for a federal program that would train local police to help enforce immigration laws.
He carried a giant hand-painted banner depicting a man being handcuffed by immigration agents and a little girl crying and saying, "Where is my family?"
Immigration reform did not resonate with voters in primary elections who overwhelmingly cited the economy as their top concern. Immigration legislation has stalled and been defeated in the Senate, and presidential candidates have not extensively addressed the issues.
Democratic presidential rivals Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton supported a 2006 bill, sponsored by Republican candidate John McCain, that offered illegal immigrants legal status on conditions such as learning English. All three also have supported a border fence.
In Washington, D.C., immigrant rights groups and social justice organizations were demanding that Prince William County, in northern Virginia, rescind its anti-illegal immigration measure. They also want raids and deportations to end, and are calling for worker centers to be established in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.
Seeking immigration reform
Activists also plan to deliver a letter to the Republican and Democratic national committees, asking the presidential candidates to enact immigration reform.
In Tucson, Ariz., a march organized by a coalition of immigrant advocate organizations and labor union locals was expected to address border and immigration issues, ethnic and racial justice and education, health care and jobs.
In Milwaukee, factory worker Miguel Tesillos, 29, was among hundreds who lined sidewalks waiting for the march to begin.
"Our people, we pay taxes, we pay the same as a citizen," said Tesillos, has a permanent residency card. "Maybe the new president can see this point, and do something for us," he said.
In Chicago, as the crowd of about 1,000 marchers passed several union halls, union members came outside to cheer.
Margarita Klein, 48, of Chicago, a union organizer, noted that May 1 is International Workers' Day worldwide.
"It's a historic and significant day," Klein said. "Immigrants' rights are workers' rights. It's not two separate issues."
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