CHICAGO — Activists said outrage over Arizona's controversial immigration law "awakened a sleeping giant" Saturday as rallies demanding federal immigration reform kicked off in cities across the country.
More than 70 protests were planned by immigration rights activists in major cities, including in Phoenix, where the governor signed the toughest immigration law in the nation eight days ago.
In New York, labor organizer John Delgado said anger over the law — which requires local law enforcement to question people about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they're in the country illegally — drew more than 5,000 people to a rally at Manhattan's Foley Square.
"She's awakened a sleeping giant," Delgado said, referring to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the law.
In a sea of American flags and banners painted with "We Are All Arizona" and "Overturn Arizona Apartheid," tens of thousands of marchers, dressed in white, turned out in downtown Los Angeles.
Singer Gloria Estefan kicked off the massive downtown march. Estefan spoke in Spanish and English atop a flatbed truck, proclaiming the United States is a nation of immigrants. She said immigrants are good, hardworking people, not criminals.
Cardinal Roger Mahony stood on the truck chanting in Spanish, "Si, se puede," or "Yes we can."
Organizers believe opposition to the law could be the catalyst to draw tens of thousands to rallies in dozens of cities. Four years ago, more than a million people across the country united to protest ultimately unsuccessful federal legislation that would have made being an illegal immigrant a felony.
The movement fractured and annual May 1 rally attendance dropped sharply as attempts to reform federal immigration policy fizzled. In 2006, nearly half a million people took to Chicago's streets. Last year, fewer than 15,000 participated in the rallies, held May 1 because it's a traditional day of protest and International Workers Day.
But immigration reform advocates have seen a flurry of activity since Brewer signed the Arizona measure into law last week.
Slideshow: Activists protest in support of immigrants "What happened in Arizona proves that racism and anti-immigrant hysteria across the country still exists. We need to continue to fight," said Lee Siu Hin, a coordinator with the Washington, D.C.-based National Immigrant Solidarity Network.
Activists are mobilizing through online social networking, churches and ethnic media. They have called for a boycott of Arizona businesses and protested outside Arizona Diamondbacks baseball games.
Supporters say the law is necessary because of the federal government's failure to secure the border, and they pointed to an attack Friday on a sheriff's deputy in southern Arizona as proof something had to be done.
The Pinal County Sheriff's Office said Deputy Louie Puroll was shot and wounded after coming across suspected drug smugglers about 50 miles south of Phoenix. Brewer and others immediately chimed in, saying the attack shows a growing problem with a porous border.
"The horrendous violence we see by narco-terrorists is uncontrolled, and our own federal government refuses to fulfill its responsibility to secure our border," Brewer said in a statement.
Critics of the law say it's unconstitutional and encourages racial profiling and discrimination against immigrants or anyone thought to be an immigrant. But they say that without federal legislation to address the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S., other states may follow Arizona's lead.
"If Republicans and Democrats do not take care of this albatross around our necks, this will in fact be the undoing of many, many years of civil rights struggle in this country," said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, where organizers expect 100,000 to march downtown Saturday.
President Barack Obama once promised to tackle immigration reform in his first 100 days, but has pushed back that timetable several times. He said this week that Congress may lack the "appetite" to take on immigration after going through a tough legislative year. However, Obama and Congress could address related issues, like boosting personnel and resources for border security, in spending bills this year.
Activists aren't alone in their opposition to Arizona's law.
California legislators have mulled canceling contracts with Arizona in protest. Denver Public Schools has banned work-related travel to Arizona. And several legal challenges, preventing the bill from going into effect this summer, are in the works.
'Time to come together'
Immigrant rights activists and politicians also say they're stepping up other forms of action. U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Chicago Democrat who has sponsored a House immigration bill, said he plans to participate in civil disobedience at the White House on Saturday. In Chicago, several college students plan to "come out" as illegal immigrants on a downtown stage.
Video: Arizona immigration debates rages In Ann Arbor, Mich., more than 500 people held a mock graduation ceremony for undocumented immigrant students near the site of Obama's University of Michigan commencement speech.
"It's time to come together and show that undocumenteds have dignity. They're human," said Douglas Interiano, a spokesman for Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance, which is helping plan Saturday's march in Dallas.
He projected up to 100,000 could march in Dallas, with similar events planned in El Paso, Houston, Austin and San Juan.
About a dozen people at the Dallas event carried signs depicting Brewer as a Nazi and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his tough illegal immigration stance, as a Klansman. Organizers were asking sign holders to discard the placards.
"Given what's happening in Arizona now it's crucial for us to speak out and denounce what's happening," said Veronica Mendez, a Workers Interfaith Network organizer in Minneapolis, where there's also a Saturday rally. "We all have the same hopes and goals."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.