Jose Chicas had longed for this moment ever since 1982, when as a young man he fled the civil war in his native El Salvador and crossed illegally into California.
Over all those years of pickup construction jobs for low wages, Chicas kept dreaming that all hardworking immigrants like himself would one day step out of the shadows, cast off their fears of being deported and finally demand respect.
Yesterday afternoon, Chicas stood proudly on the back of a pickup truck watching his dream come true in the brilliant spring sunshine of lower Manhattan.
Around him were hundreds of fellow members from Local 79 of the Laborers' International Union, all signing in with Chicas for their union's contingent at the big immigrant rights rally at City Hall. He carefully distributed the union's bright orange T-shirts to each of them.
By 5 p.m., the throngs from the big City Hall rally stretched north along Broadway for more than 15 blocks, as police seemed surprised by the size of the turnout.
The torrent of chanting faces and flags stretched past Canal St., paralyzing rush-hour traffic in every direction.
The same scene was repeated all across America, as hundreds of thousands of janitors, hotel workers, gardeners, nannies and unskilled factory hands streamed into the streets of more than 100 cities.
Never - not even at the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s - has there been such an outpouring of our nation's huddled masses as during the past few weeks over this immigration debate.
Don't buy for a moment the nonsense that these protests don't matter, that all these marchers are illegal immigrants who can't vote so the politicians can simply ignore them.
When black people shook the South with their protests, they couldn't vote, either.
As for Chicas, it took him 15 years, but he finally obtained a green card in 1997. Now a staff organizer with Local 79, the union of demolition workers, he has become a fervent advocate for legalization of the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants.
And then there is Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat (D-Washington Heights). Espaillat came to this country several decades ago, overstayed his visa and was once an illegal immigrant himself.
Today he is one of the most respected Dominican leaders in this town and helped organize a half-dozen separate contingents from northern Manhattan for yesterday's march.
Then there is Marienela Jordan, who came to New York with her family from the Dominican Republic in 1979, a few weeks after Hurricane David.
"The storm devastated the economy, and there was no work," Jordan told me yesterday. She, too, overstayed her visa and became undocumented for a time. Today, she is not only a citizen but heads the Office of Latino Affairs for Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi.
And so it is with so many legal residents and even American citizens. Having once been branded "illegal" themselves, they are furious at how some Washington lawmakers are eager to turn desperate workers into felons and tear apart whole families in the process.
Backers of an immigration crackdown will tell you there's a huge chasm between legal and illegal immigrants.
Our Native Americans would disagree. They still say all of us were illegal once. The descendants of the original Mexican settlers of Texas and California swear Sam Houston, Davy Crockett and all their progeny should never have been allowed to cross the border.
At least Chicas and the latest 11 million didn't come here with guns, determined to impose their will. They came with hands outstretched and eager to work for whatever someone would pay.
Now that they've stepped out of the shadows, all they want is a little respect from the country they love.
Juan Gonzalez is a Daily News columnist. Email: jgonzalez@ edit.nydailynews.com
© 2006 Daily News, LP