WASHINGTON—Hundreds of thousands of immigrant rights supporters rallied in Washington and dozens of other cities on Monday in a nationwide show of unity to assert a claim on the American dream and demand new legal protections.
Waving U.S. flags and chanting "Yes, We Can" in Spanish, predominantly Hispanic protesters marched past the White House to an afternoon rally at the National Mall. Similar demonstrations took place in New York, Fort Lauderdale, Philadelphia and other places large and small.
Reminiscent of the civil rights protests and anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s and 1970s, the coast-to-coast rallies displayed what organizers described as an emerging social and political force as immigrants find their voice.
"You're what this debate is about," Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., co-sponsor of a leading immigration bill in Congress, told demonstrators on the National Mall just blocks from the U.S. Capitol. "Some in Congress want to turn America away from its true spirit. They believe immigrants are criminals. And they're wrong."
A crowd that stretched five blocks down the mall cheered with gusto and waved American—and a few Mexican and Central American—flags in response.
President Bush is pushing Congress to enact the most comprehensive immigration overhaul in two decades amid growing signs that lawmakers may be unable to reach consensus before they adjourn in October. A compromise bill embodying much of what Bush said he wanted collapsed in the Senate last week, forcing senators to shelve the plan until they return from a two-week recess on April 24.
Organizers of the Washington rally estimated turnout at nearly a half-million. Police declined to provide an estimate.
Monday's rallies were the latest in a series of demonstrations that erupted several weeks ago to protest a House-passed bill that would make illegal immigration a felony and—if strictly interpreted—could mean jail sentences for anyone offering assistance to illegal immigrants. Sponsors of the House bill say the legislation has been misinterpreted and have promised to agree that illegal immigration would be a misdemeanor.
The demonstrations were billed as a "National Day of Action" to mobilize against the House bill and build support for a measure that would put many of the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants on track toward permanent legal status and eventual U.S. citizenship.
Guierine Donis, wearing a T-shirt and visor that read "Stop HR-4437" to a rally in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said the House would deprive immigrants of "education and all the rights we deserve."
Other rallies were held over the weekend, one drawing as many as 500,000 in Dallas. Student walkouts and boycotts of businesses in Latino communities were also planned in several cities.
In Philadelphia, 7,000 people filled Love Park in Center City on Monday, waving flags and chanting "God Bless America" over and over again. Participants wore T-shirts proclaiming "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and carried banners with such messages as "The only people that are not immigrants are the native Americans."
Many asked what would happen if today's illegal immigrants went home.
"Who is going to wash your car? Who is going to cut your grass?" asked Kelphala Sessay of Philadelphia, who hails from Sierra Leone. "Who is going to fix your cars or do your domestic work?"
Although the demonstrations were predominately Hispanic—reflecting the Latin American roots of nearly 80 percent of the illegal immigrant population—they also embraced a diverse mix of Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners and other nationalities and ethnic groups. Thousands of the demonstrators were believed to be illegal immigrants who at least theoretically were risking the threat of deportation by stepping forward.
Josh Bernstein, director of federal policy for the National Immigration Law Center in Washington, called the demonstrations "historic in scope" and perhaps the first time in recent memory that illegal immigrants have spoken out in their own behalf. "These communities feel embattled," he said. "They've taken a lot of abuse over the past several years."
Demonstrators in the nation's capitol began gathering in Latino neighborhoods of Northwest Washington hours in advance, then marched along 16th Street, past the White House before reaching the National Mall late in the afternoon. Many wore white T-shirts symbolizing peaceful protest and hoisted placards reading, "We're Not Criminals," and "Working is Not a Crime."
"The People united will never be defeated," demonstrators chanted in Spanish.
Jaimie Garay, a 37-year-old engineer who came to United States from El Salvador in 1984 to escape a devastating civil war, said immigrants hoped to dispel stereotypes and erase anti-immigrant sentiments that have spread throughout the country in the post-Sept. 11 era.
"They're confusing us with terrorists," he said. "We're not terrorists."
Garay's entry into the United States more than two decades ago followed a path similar to that of others from Latin America. He paid $2,000 to a "coyote," a smuggler, to cross the border from Mexico, and made his way inward in the back of a vegetable truck with 70 others. He has since become a U.S. citizen.
"We want to be here and achieve the American dream," said Claudia Sanchez, 16, using a phrase often heard among demonstrators. Her Salvadoran parents have lived in the United States for 17 years and both have green cards as permanent legal residents. Her father is a painter, her mother a supermarket cashier.
While the nationwide protests demonstrated the collective political force of immigrants and their advocacy groups, their increased visibility could further antagonize critics. What to do about Illegal immigrants is one of the country most divisive issues.
Many U.S. citizens, particularly those in border states, says illegal immigrants are overburdening social services and taking jobs that would otherwise go to U.S. workers.
"These protests are productive for us because they show how chaotic it can be," said Shannon McGauley, president of the Texas Minutemen, whose members stand vigil along the U.S.-Texas border in an attempt to stop illegal immigrants. Congress's first priority, he said, should be to shore up the nation's borders.
But Hector Flores of Dallas, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the nation's oldest and largest Hispanic Organization, expressed hopes that the demonstrations will send Congress a message to strengthen laws for immigrants. "It shows that they want to be part of the American family," he said.
(Philadelphia Inquirer correspondent Mitch Lipka and The Miami Herald correspondent Jerry Berrios contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): immigration
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): immigration
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