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THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE

Thousands Participate in Protests Throughout State

Twenty marches, including events in Fresno, L.A., Santa Ana and Sacramento, draw immigrants and politicians.

April 11, 2006|Anna Gorman and J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writers

Thousands of Californians -- dishwashers and janitors, high-ranking politicians and clergy members -- gathered Monday throughout the state to protest a congressional bill that would make illegal immigrants felons.

The 20 California marches were part of a "National Day of Action" organized to demand reforms that would legalize about 11 million undocumented immigrants.

One of the largest rallies in California was in Fresno, where about 10,000 people turned out in what a police spokesman called "by far the largest event we have ever had in the city."

The protest, police spokesman Jeff Cardinale said, was extremely well-organized. Participants even cleaned up their litter at the end of the march, he said.

In Los Angeles, a late afternoon march in downtown Los Angeles attracted more than 2,500 people. And as several thousand protesters marched outside the state Capitol, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rejected what he called "false choices" by both sides in the roiling debate.

The governor also chastised Congress for leaving on its annual spring recess without completing its work on immigration.

"I hope when they come back from their little break, that they act very quickly," the governor said. "This is, like, extremely important that the United States secures its borders and also has a guest-workers program."

In Los Angeles, a jovial crowd of immigrants, labor leaders and advocates gathered at La Placita Church for a candlelight vigil and procession.

Filling the Olvera Street plaza, protesters chanted, "Si Se Puede!" ("Yes We Can") and held signs that said "Liberty and Justice for All."

"They want to criminalize us," said Juana Sosa, 23, an undocumented immigrant from Michoacan, Mexico. "We need to fight for our rights."

Sosa, who works at a market cutting vegetables, said she and others deserved to become legal residents because they are doing jobs that Americans won't do.

The procession drew a much smaller crowd than the March 25 rally in Los Angeles, when about 500,000 protesters took to the streets. Monday's event seemed more like a celebration, with couples dancing, children shaking noisemakers and families snacking on churros.

Politicians and religious leaders called on Congress to enact legislation that would acknowledge the economic and social contributions of immigrants.

"We clean your toilets, we clean your hotels, we build your houses, we take care of your children," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said. "We want you to help us take care of our children as well."

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, an outspoken proponent of immigration reform, said he supported legislation that would provide a path toward citizenship, value workers' rights and promote family reunification.

"We are America, the nation of immigrants seeking a better life for ourselves and our children," Mahony said in English and then in Spanish. "We are all God's children, united for a just immigration reform."

Several participants said they believed that legislators were listening to the throngs of immigrants who were protesting across the nation. "We are getting their attention," said Jose Diaz, 21, a naturalized citizen from Zacatecas, Mexico. "They are going to think twice before they pass any bill."

In San Francisco, hundreds of protesters packed into a small square to hear impassioned calls for amnesty from legislators, labor leaders, community activists and an evangelical minister.

A day of erratic rain turned docile just in time for the late afternoon rally and march through the city's largely immigrant Mission district.

"I think of the little children who will have to be separated from their parents and we cannot allow that," Assemblyman Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) hollered. "Thousands and thousands of people will take to the streets, and until we have amnesty for everyone, we will have amnesty for no one."

In Orange County, hundreds of immigrants, including janitors and dishwashers, filled a plaza in downtown Santa Ana on Monday afternoon.

"I've never been to something like this before," said Azucena de la Cruz, 31, who was at the rally with her 5-year-old daughter. "But I heard about it on television and I wanted to be here so our message gets out and we get some respect."

Many of the speakers, including labor leaders and teachers, urged the crowd to remember a May 1 boycott, when immigrants are being urged to boycott work, school and shopping.

"Tell your bosses, we won't be at work on May 1," said Nativo Lopez, an immigrant advocate who helped organize the event. "Tell your school principals the kids won't be at school. Tell them we will be on the street marching."

Javier Bonales, vice president of Teamsters Union Local 396, said it was time to awaken those who want to intimidate immigrants.

"We are not criminals," he said. "We are asking politicians to take us into account."

At the Sacramento rally, several thousand demonstrators marched in the rain at the state Capitol, marking one of the city's largest political protests this year.

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