Demonstrators flying banners of immigration reform marched in cities across the nation yesterday to demand citizenship and a share of the American dream for millions of illegal immigrants who have run a gantlet of closed borders, broken families, snake-eyed smugglers and economic exploitation.
Singing, chanting and waving placards and American flags, a sea of demonstrators — police estimates ran as high as 500,000 — marched in downtown Dallas in the largest of the protests. Some 20,000 rallied in San Diego, 7,000 in Miami, and 4,000 each in Birmingham, Ala., and Boise, Idaho.
Thousands of people march through downtown Omaha, Neb., Monday, April 10, 2006, where protesters carried flags from the United States, Mexico and other nations. Thousands of immigrants gathered at rallies across the state Monday as part of a national day of action billed as a 'campaign for immigrants' dignity.' (AP Photo/Dave Weaver)
Thousands more gathered in Salem, Ore., and other cities in peaceful, forceful displays of support for the cause of immigrants.
"It's a good feeling that we are finally standing up for ourselves," Robert Martinez said at the rally in Dallas.
"For years, we never say nothing," said Mr. Martinez, who crossed the Rio Grande illegally 22 years ago and eventually became an American citizen. "We just work hard, follow the rules and pay taxes. And they try to make these laws. It's time people knew how we felt."
While yesterday's rallies were an impressive extension of the growing immigrant protests that have spread across the country in recent weeks, organizers said they were only a tuneup for nationwide demonstrations today, billed as a National Day of Action for Immigrant Justice. Events in more than 120 cities are expected to draw more than two million people.
On a gentle spring Sunday basted by golden sunshine and blue skies, crowds gathered in ebullient moods, spreading over downtown streets and parks in cities large and small. The demonstrators were mostly Hispanic, but they included people of Asian, European and African backgrounds.
Most wore white shirts to symbolize peace. Many carried American flags or the flags of Mexico and other countries of Central and South America and Asia. At the rally in Dallas, "God Bless America" and "This Land Is Your Land" blared on loudspeakers, as well as the music of Mexico, as marchers chanted "Sí, se puede" ("Yes, we can") and "U.S.A., all the way."
"We never anticipated it getting this big," said Lt. Rick Watson, a spokesman for the Dallas police. "The estimates were anywhere from 20,000 to 200,000, and they kept coming and coming." Many businesses in Dallas closed for the day, some churches held services early to accommodate marchers, and the Dallas Symphony canceled an afternoon performance.
The Dallas protesters were young and old. Some were families pushing baby strollers. Some walked with canes, others rolled along in wheelchairs. There were members of unions, churches, civil rights organizations and business groups, but many were strangers to one another. Some spoke passionately about their desire to be Americans, to vote and to hold a job without fear.
"We are here to support American values," said Juan Gomez, 40, who arrived in Dallas from Peru 10 years ago and is vice president of United Voices for Immigrants and a teacher of English to immigrant adults. "America was built with immigrants."
"We live the values of this country," he said.
Passions were similar in Birmingham. "This is holy ground," the Rev. Derrill Wilson of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference told people gathered at Kelly Ingram Park, where the police turned fire hoses on black children during the civil rights protests in 1963. "Here you stand up for yourselves. Stand up for everyone. And most of all, stand up for your children."
Out in the crowd, many spoke about paths to citizenship, rights and protections in the workplace. But Mario Limas Hernandez, a mechanic, talked of another right — to be with his family. He said that although he was an American citizen, his wife was not; she and their children had been sent home to Mexico.
"One of the rights of citizenship is that you get to live with your close family," he said.
The crowds at many of the protests also cheered speakers who denounced a system that has driven more than 11 million illegal immigrants into shadowy lives of subterfuge, and who called for a new deal that would extend basic rights to them and a chance of eventual citizenship. Organizers said the protests would not stop until Congress passed laws to improve their lives.
Much of the anger yesterday and at the protests in recent weeks was directed at a bill passed by the House of Representatives last December. It would have authorized a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border; raised the crime of illegal immigration to a felony; and criminalized giving assistance, including food and water, to illegal immigrants.
One of the smaller protests yesterday was a gathering of 700 people in Massapequa Park, N.Y., outside the office of Representative Peter T. King, a Republican who was a co-sponsor of the House bill. Mr. King was not there, but a small band of his supporters were. "We pay our taxes," one of their placards declared.
A campaign in Congress to enact the most sweeping immigration changes in two decades reached a bipartisan compromise last week that Democrats and Republicans hailed as a breakthrough.
The Senate bill would open doors to citizenship for most illegal immigrants if they paid fines and learned English. It would also create a guest worker program for 325,000 people a year to meet the needs of business, and would tighten border security to satisfy conservatives.
But the agreement was derailed on Friday by feuding over amendments and other issues, casting its future in doubt as lawmakers recessed for two weeks. Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, pledged in an interview on "Fox News Sunday" to have the measure ready for debate when Congress resumes.
Both Democratic and Republican leaders have sought to court the Hispanic vote. While Hispanics cast just 6 percent of the ballots in the 2004 election, birth rates and other factors suggest a much higher proportion in future elections. The nation's 42 million Hispanics account for about one in seven people in this country, and for about half of the recent growth in population.
In San Diego, which is near Tijuana, Mexico, and is the nation's busiest border crossing, about 20,000 demonstrators gathered at Balboa Park and marched downtown to a rally. Many carried signs proclaiming "We are Americans" and "We march today, we vote tomorrow."
American flags predominated in the crowd. Advocates of the protests there and elsewhere have recently voiced concerns that the presence of many Mexican flags might set off a backlash, and organizers said they scrambled to find as many American flags as possible.
In Miami, where protesters gathered against a backdrop of skyscrapers, Maria Rodriguez, 39, said: "This is the people bringing the flags. It seems that they heard the message: American people want flags. We'll, let's give them flags! It's really spontaneous. It's not about the flag. It's about people getting a chance."
Dressed in an Uncle Sam costume in the Miami crowd, Oribe Piñeiro, 32, who arrived from Uruguay six years ago, said he had never achieved legal status here and was still waiting to apply for a work permit. He also said he was alone in this country, caught in a trap, while his family was in Uruguay.
"My mother is 74 years old," he said, "and I don't know when I will be able to see her again because I can't leave the country. I am stuck in a golden cage."
Orlando Fernandez, 51, who arrived in Miami 26 years ago on the Mariel boat lift and works for a nonprofit organization that helps the poor, said there was hope for immigration legislation.
"This is a year of elections, and politicians want to gain popularity with this problem," he said, adding, "We are all immigrants here, except for the American Indians."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company