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500,000 Pack Streets to Protest Immigration Bills

The rally, part of a massive mobilization of immigrants and their supporters, may be the largest L.A. has seen.

March 26, 2006|Teresa Watanabe and Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writers

A crowd estimated by police at more than 500,000 boisterously marched in Los Angeles on Saturday to protest federal legislation that would crack down on undocumented immigrants, penalize those who help them and build a security wall along the U.S.' southern border.

Spirited but peaceful marchers -- ordinary immigrants alongside labor, religious and civil rights groups -- stretched more than 20 blocks along Spring Street, Broadway and Main Street to City Hall, tooting kazoos, waving American flags and chanting, "Si se puede!" (Yes we can!).

Attendance at the demonstration far surpassed the number of people who protested against the Vietnam War and Proposition 187, a 1994 state initiative that sought to deny public benefits to undocumented migrants but was struck down by the courts. Police said there were no arrests or injuries except for a few cases of exhaustion.

At a time when Congress prepares to crack down further on illegal immigration and self-appointed militias patrol the U.S. border to stem the flow, Saturday's rally represented a massive response, part of what immigration advocates are calling an unprecedented effort to mobilize immigrants and their supporters nationwide.

It coincides with an initiative on the part of the Roman Catholic Church, spearheaded by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, to defy a House bill that would make aiding undocumented immigrants a felony. And it signals the burgeoning political clout of Latinos, especially in California.

"There has never been this kind of mobilization in the immigrant community ever," said Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "They have kicked the sleeping giant. It's the beginning of a massive immigrant civil rights struggle."

The demonstrators, many wearing white shirts to symbolize peace, included both longtime residents and the newly arrived, bound by a desire for a better life.

Arbelica Lazo, 40, illegally emigrated from El Salvador two decades ago but said she now owns two businesses and pays $7,000 in income taxes each year.

Jose Alberto Salvador, 33, came here illegally four months ago to find work to support the wife and five children he left behind. In his native Guatemala, he said, what little work he could find paid $10 a day.

"As much as we need this country, we love this country," Salvador said, waving both the American and Guatemalan flags. "This country gives us opportunities we don't get at home."

On Monday, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to resume work on a comprehensive immigration reform proposal. The Senate committee's version includes elements of various bills, including a guest worker program and a path to legalization for the nation's 10 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants proposed by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.)

In addition, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has introduced a bill that would strengthen border security, crack down on employers of illegal immigrants and increase the number of visas for workers. Frist has said he would take his bill to the floor Tuesday if the committee does not finish its work Monday.

Ultimately, the House and Senate bills must be reconciled before a law can be passed.

President Bush has advocated a guest worker program and attracted significant Latino support for his views.

In his Saturday radio address, Bush urged all sides of the emotional debate to tone down their rhetoric, calling for a balanced approach between more secure borders and more temporary foreign workers.

Largely in response to the debate in Washington, hundreds of thousands of people in recent weeks have staged marches in more than a dozen cities calling for immigration reform.

In Denver, police said Saturday that more than 50,000 people gathered downtown at Civic Center Park next to the Capitol to urge the state Senate to reject a resolution supporting a ballot issue that would deny many government services to illegal immigrants in Colorado.

Hundreds rallied in Reno, the Associated Press reported.

On Friday, tens of thousands of people were estimated to have staged school walkouts, marches and work stoppages in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Atlanta and other cities.

In addition, several cities, including Los Angeles, have passed resolutions opposing the House legislation. At least one city, Maywood, declared itself a "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants.

Despite the significant opposition to the crackdown on illegal immigrants shown by the turnout in recent rallies, a recent Zogby poll found 62% of Americans surveyed wanted more restrictive immigration policies, and a Field Poll last month found that the majority of California voters surveyed believed illegal immigration was hurting the state.

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