Immigrants Hope Protests Will Spur Congress To Offer Citizenship Path

Tuesday, May 1st 2007, 9:38 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Immigration rallies held nationwide Tuesday produced only a fraction of the million-plus protesters who turned out last year, as fear about raids and frustration that the marches haven't pushed Congress to pass reform kept many people at home.

In Los Angeles, where several hundred thousand turned out last year, about 25,000 attended a downtown rally, said police Capt. Andrew Smith, an incident commander. In Chicago, where more than 400,000 swarmed the streets a year earlier, police officials put initial estimates at about 150,000.

Organizers said those who did march felt a sense of urgency to keep immigration reform from getting pushed to the back burner by the 2008 presidential elections.

``There's no reason a pro-immigration bill can't be passed. That's one of the messages being sent today,'' said Chicago protester Shaun Harkin, 34, of Northern Ireland, who has lived in the United States as a legal resident for 15 years.

Melissa Woo, a 22-year-old American citizen who immigrated from South Korea, carried a Korean flag over her shoulder in Chicago as she criticized politicians for ``buckling at the knees.''

``Us immigrants aren't pieces of trash, we're human beings,'' she said. ``To be treated as less than human is a travesty.''

Organizers had long predicted lower turnouts for this year's marches, saying an increase in immigration raids in recent months have left many immigrants afraid to speak out in public. That's a change since rallies in 2006, when some illegal immigrants wore T-shirts saying ``I'm illegal. So what?''

Others believe that the marches have not pushed Congress to pass immigration legislation, and many groups are now focusing on citizenship and voter registration drives instead of street demonstrations.

Organizers said smaller crowds do not mean the movement to win a path to citizenship for 12 million illegal immigrants has lost momentum.

``People are saying we need to get together to demonstrate unity,'' said Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. ``But with so much happening, and so many concrete victories, you couldn't say the movement is weakening.''

After last year's marches, the Senate passed a sweeping bill that would have provided a path to citizenship for many of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants. But the bill was never reconciled with the then-Republican-controlled House, and legislation has languished since last summer. Subsequent bipartisan proposals have gotten more conservative.

Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean told immigrant supporters in Miami that a reform bill currently before Congress was ``insane'' because it would require many illegal immigrants to return home before applying for citizenship.

``This is a government that can't find a 6-foot-4 terrorist. How is it going to find 12 million people?'' he told a group of more than 100 party supporters at Miami's Parrot Jungle Island.

In Los Angeles, home to the largest concentration of illegal immigrants at about 1 million, public school teacher David Cid said he came to support his students, many of whom are suffering because of recent raids that have impacted their families.

``They feel terrorized,'' he said.

In fiscal year 2006, federal immigration officials deported 195,024 people nationwide, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement data. Six months into the current fiscal year, 125,405 have already been deported.

No rallies were planned in Atlanta, where 50,000 marched last year, because many immigrants were afraid of the raids and of a new state law set to take effect in July. The law requires verification that adults seeking non-emergency state-administered benefits are in the country legally, sanctions employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, and requires police to check the immigration status of people they arrest.

``There's a lot of anxiety and fear in the immigrant community,'' said Jerry Gonzalez of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

While fear about raids kept some people at home, anger about the sweeps brought others out. From Phoenix to Detroit to New York, thousands of people carried American flags in the streets.

About 15,000 people marched in Phoenix and another 2,500 in Tucson, waving signs reading ``Stop the roundups'' and ``The sleeping giant woke up forever.''

``We are not criminals,'' said Roberto Organo, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who said he has lived in the U.S. for 15 years. ``We are looking for work to support our families. It's OK for government to enforce the law but they have to give us a chance.''

A few dozen counter-protesters across the street from the Capitol got in a shouting match with some at the rally.

``I want to send them back,'' said Phoenix resident George Propheter, who held up a large handwritten sign that read ``Hell No.'' ``I've been in the city for 40 years. They've completely destroyed our city.''

At one of several activities in New York, about 1,000 immigrants rallied at Washington Square park. They and their supporters added names to a painting of a tree meant to symbolize the American family and the crucial role of immigrants in U.S. history. People in the crowd then attached leaves containing names of family members to the tree.

``These people are hard-working people,'' said Djounedou Titi, a West African immigrant who has lived in the U.S. for eight years. ``They deserve credit. And the only credit this country can give to them is citizenship.''