The annual nationwide rally to promote workers rights swelled in size Saturday as tens of thousands of people in cities across the country took to the streets to protest Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigration and to call for a national policy overhaul.
"Si se puede," was the chant in Milwaukee, Ann Arbor, Phoenix and Washington, D.C. An estimated 6,500 marched in New York, 8,000 in Chicago, 20,000 in Dallas and 50,000 in Los Angeles.
Carmen Regalado, 38, waved a Cuban flag as she stood along the south lawn of the state Capitol with more than 1,000 others. The Rocklin resident was born in the U.S. after her parents fled the island in the 1960s after Fidel Castro seized power.
She said she felt compelled to forgo her usual Saturday morning of gardening to join the chorus after Arizona passed a law requiring police to question people they suspect of being illegal immigrants. Supporters of the law, including Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, say the state had to act because the federal government has failed in securing the country's borders.
"It's disappointing that this is happening in 2010," said Regalado, who teaches about the Civil War and Chicano movement as part of her high school U.S. history course in Elk Grove. "This nation was founded on immigrants."
The five—months—pregnant Regalado said she also worries the law could affect her unborn son should he ever travel to Arizona. Regalado's husband, Manuel Jimenez, grew up in Guadalajara and moved to the U.S. 12 years ago to work as an electrical engineer.
Labor rallies are routinely held May 1 — International Workers Day. Unions have taken up the immigration issue in recent years as a survival tactic to attract foreign—born membership. Leaders also argue that inclusiveness improves conditions for all workers.
Four years ago, more than a million people marched in protest of federal legislation that would have made illegal immigration a felony. That bill ultimately was defeated. Francisco Castillo, 30, of Sacramento brought his 3—year—old son to Saturday's Capitol rally. He said he decided the display of American and Mexican flags, as well as the sounds of Latin music and noisemakers, was more important than their routine of watching cartoons.
Castillo emigrated from Nicaragua at age 5, before receiving citizenship in the early 2000s. He was supported by a single mother who worked two jobs — one boxing chocolates, another packaging cookies.
His mother now works as a housekeeping supervisor. Castillo works for the state. "The immigrant community contributes enormously," he said.
In Los Angeles, where the largest crowd gathered, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa danced to the music of a live band before speaking in English and Spanish, according to the Los Angeles Times.
He recounted the story of his grandfather, who immigrated to the city in the early 1900s, then expressed support for the thousands of illegal immigrants who have documented children fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A smattering of counterprotesters showed up at some rallies. A barricade separated about two dozen counterprotesters from the immigrant rights rally in San Francisco, according to the Associated Press. The counterprotesters there carried signs that read, "We Support Arizona" and "We Need More Ice At This Fiesta," an apparent reference to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
In Sacramento, the gathering had a festive air with ice cream vendors and a taco truck hawking quesadillas and tortas. Many carried signs stating, "We work for America," "It stops in Arizona," and "Human rights have no borders."
After several speakers called on President Barack Obama to make good on his promise to rework immigration policy, the crowd marched to the John E. Moss Federal Building.
There, demonstrators filled the entrance and the grassy median in the center of the street, uniting their voices to chant "Yes, we can," in Spanish. They observed a moment of silence for those who have died crossing between Mexico and the United States.
Jesus Moreno, 39, a high school Spanish teacher from Yuba City, said he believes passage of the Arizona law may eventually be a good thing.
"If it didn't happen, people would still be asleep," he said. "Now it's the responsibility of us to wake them all up."