Immigrants push for reforms at rallies nationwide

Sunday, May 3, 2009
A man carries his message on a mannequin during a march and rally for immigration law reform Friday in Los Angeles. Organizers are urging passage of an immigration law that provides a path to citizenship for the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. (Reed Saxon ~ Associated Press)

MIAMI -- Thousands of immigrants and their families marched in cities from coast to coast, hoping to channel the political muscle Hispanics flexed last fall as President Obama won election. This time, they hoped to jump-start an old cause: forging a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S.

Crowds were dampened in many areas, though, as the swine flu scare kept numerous people home Friday. The area hardest hit by the swine flu is Mexico, also the native home of many rally participants.

In Miami, more than 300 minority rights activists joined with union officials in one of the first local immigration rallies to be endorsed by the AFL-CIO. Participants waved signs for immigration reform in Spanish, English and Creole. They also sought temporary protection for the state's large community of Haitian immigrants, whose native island has been devastated in recent years by hurricanes and floods.

They chanted "W-I N-O-U K-A-P-A-B," Creole for "Yes We Can."

In Colorado, a march was planned Saturday in Greeley, a rural town 60 miles north of Denver, and the site of a 2006 federal raid at a meatpacking plant in which 261 undocumented workers were detained.

"We wanted to make the undocumented workers the protagonists, to give them a voice," said one Greeley organizer, Alonzo Barron Ortiz.

Activists' hopes have been buoyed by Obama's election and a Democratic-controlled Congress, in part because they believe the Hispanic vote, about two-thirds of which went to Obama, helped flip key battleground states such as Colorado and New Mexico. Many Hispanics strongly back comprehensive immigration reform -- and believe Obama owes them for their support.

On Friday, thousands attended events in Houston, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Denver, Chicago, New York and other cities. They said a sizable role played by immigrants in the economy merits immigration reform.

"If we don't have the conversation, the economy isn't going to get any better," said Sergio Inocenzio, a 48-year-old juice plant worker who marched in Yakima, Wash., and has lived in the United States his entire life. "We're not here to take anything. We're here to work."

Organizers had hoped crowds would equal or exceed those of last year, which was down from 2006 when a stringent immigration bill poised to pass in Congress drew large-scale protests. But early reports suggested turnout was far lower than in previous years.

The rally in New York City drew a diverse crowd that included Chinese, Ecuadoreans, Mexicans, Salvadorans and Pakistanis. Among them stood a smattering of those who oppose immigration reform.

And one of the largest gatherings assembled outside the White House, where more than 2,000 people rallied to call for change in immigration policy.

The White House announced this week that it would refocus its resources on prosecuting employers who hire illegal immigrants. And a Senate Judiciary subcommittee took up immigration this week for the first time in the new Congress.

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