Tens of thousands of immigrants spilled into the streets in dozens of cities across the nation Monday in peaceful protests that some compared to the movements led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and farm-labor organizer Caesar Chavez.
“People of the world, we have come to say this is our moment,” said Rev. James Orange of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda in Atlanta, where police estimated that at least 50,000 people marched Monday morning.
At the Mississippi Capitol, 500 demonstrators sang “We Shall Overcome” in Spanish. In Pittsburgh, protesters gathered outside Sen. Arlen Specter’s office to make their voices heard as Congress considers immigration reforms.
Groups in North Carolina and Dallas called for an economic boycott by immigrants to show their financial impact.
The rallies had a noticeable impact on production at Excel Corp. plants in Dodge City, Kan., and Schuyler, Neb., a spokesman for the nation’s second largest beef processor said. He said there was a slowdown, but the company had no intention of taking action against workers who were gone for the day.
“We assume they will be back at work tomorrow,” spokesman Mark Klein said.
Atlanta police estimated that at least 50,000 people, many in white T-shirts and waving American flags, joined a two-mile march from a largely immigrant neighborhood Monday morning.
The protesters had two targets in Georgia: congress members weighing immigration reform and state legislation now awaiting Gov. Sonny Perdue’s signature that would require adults seeking many state-administered benefits to prove they are in the U.S. legally.
Nineth Castillo, a 26-year-old waitress from Guatemala who joined the Atlanta march, said she has lived in the United States for 11 years “without a scrap of paper.”
Asked whether she was afraid to parade her undocumented status in front of a massive police presence, she laughed and said: “Why? They kick us out, we’re coming back tomorrow.”
Hundreds of Latinos in North Carolina were called on to skip work or boycott all purchases Monday to demonstrate the financial impact of the Latino community on area businesses.
“We’re hoping that employers stop to consider what this is all about,” organizer Adriana Galvez said. “That if you need people here to do the work, to buy, then give them a legal channel to get here.”
Sending a strong message
Cruz Luna, his wife and their four children all wore T-shirts reading “God Bless America” at a demonstration in Pensacola, Fla. The two oldest children — ages 8 and 9 — were born in Mexico and are in the U.S. illegally; their younger siblings, ages 4 and 8 months are U.S. citizens.
“We want to send a strong message today, a message that we want the laws to be fair,” Luna said.
In Arizona, police estimated that at least 25,000 demonstrators turned out in Phoenix while several thousand others demonstrated in Tuscon. Miguel Penate, a fast-food restaurant manager who moved from El Salvador six years ago, said being in the country illegally was his only option.
“There’s no way to come legally over here,” said Penate, 25. “If there was, do you think people would like to be in the desert risking their lives?”
Yinka Aganga Williams, who moved to the U.S. from Nigeria six years ago, joined a small group of demonstrators who marched to Specter’s Pittsburgh office.
“This country was built by immigrants, Pittsburgh in particular,” said Williams, 54. “This is supposed to be a land of freedom, that’s why they came.”
In the Midwest, an estimated 3,000 people demonstrated in Garden City, Kan., a farming community that counts fewer than 30,000 residents. In Champaign, Ill., hundreds of demonstrators marched along a busy street to the University of Illinois campus, carrying signs with slogans such as: “The pilgrims had no green cards.”
The demonstrations were mostly peaceful, though in Portland, Maine, one demonstrator clashed with a small group of counter-demonstrators. One of three people carrying signs saying illegal immigrants have no rights was hit in the head.
An event in Harrisburg, Pa., drew a handful of hecklers.
“Go to jail!” shouted William Hazzard, 58, a retired school custodian from Harrisburg. “I’m from Germany and I had to give up my rights as a German citizen. I had to speak English.”
Raymond Marks, 47, an apartment complex service manager, held an upside-down American flag as a sign of distress.
“These people are expecting me to give them rights they don’t deserve,” he said.
Country of dreams
Monday’s demonstrations followed a weekend of rallies in 10 states that drew up to 500,000 people in Dallas, 50,000 in San Diego, and 20,000 in Salt Lake City. Dozens of rallies and student walkouts, many organized by Spanish-language radio DJ’s, have been held in cities from Los Angeles to Chicago to New York over the past two weeks.
Protesters have been urging Congress, whose immigration reform efforts stalled last week, to help the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants settle here legally.
Xavier Suarez, 46, an Ecuadorean immigrant with U.S. citizenship, said others deserve the same right to live and work in America, pay taxes and contribute to society.
“America is a country of dreams. These people have dreams,” said Suarez, who demonstrated in Lake Worth, Fla. “They have family back home in their countries and they’ve been separated for many years. It’s only fair that they are allowed to be together again here, and to help keep this country growing.”