Osvaldo Carrero Sr. carries his son, Osvaldo Jr., who waves an American… (Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles…)
Waving American flags and pictures of President Obama, thousands of protesters took to the streets Friday in May Day rallies in Southern California to promote immigration reform.
Marchers said they were encouraged by Obama's support for change and his pledge this week to begin laying the groundwork for legislation that would include a path to legalization for the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
"We have a lot of hope," said Ricarda Garcia, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who has attended the marches for several years. But Garcia, 36, a housekeeper, said she also feels a sense of urgency because there is little work for her and her husband, a construction worker. "I feel more necessity now, " she said. "There aren't jobs."
The protests attracted small but jovial crowds who wore T-shirts that said "Legalize America Now" and held signs that said "Obama, Escucha" -- "Obama, Listen." Organizers blamed the relatively low turnout on the swine flu and the reluctance of many to take time off work.
The May Day rallies have taken place for years, with the largest crowds turning out in 2006. This year, organizers with differing priorities held several protests.
An early afternoon march began downtown at Olympic Boulevard and Broadway with the release of 100 white doves and included Aztec dancers and vendors selling bacon-wrapped hot dogs.
Hector Gonzalez, 24, a student at Cal Poly Pomona, said he hoped that the Dream Act, intended to help illegal immigrant high school graduates, would be among the first legislative reforms.
With legal status, Gonzalez said, he could contribute more to the country's ailing economy.
"People like me are here to help Obama," said Gonzalez, who came to the U.S. as a toddler. "I just need a little step forward."
Later in the afternoon, another group of marchers headed from Echo Park down Sunset Boulevard to Olvera Street, where they formed a human "postcard" to Obama with the words: "Workers First."
"It's not just about the rights of immigrants, it's about the workers," said Victor Narro, one of the organizers.
Los Angeles police officers had a strong presence at the marches, which remained peaceful throughout the afternoon. The department drew fierce criticism after the May Day rally two years ago turned violent when police officers used batons and fired rubber bullets to disperse what was a predominantly peaceful gathering.
Walking in front of the crowd along Broadway, LAPD Deputy Chief Sergio Diaz said police had planned extensively for the marches. "We don't want a repeat of 2007," he said.
The prospect of reform legislation has angered anti-illegal immigration advocates, who question why the U.S. would consider legalizing millions of immigrants when so many Americans are out of work.
In Orange County, about a dozen demonstrators waving U.S. flags protested outside the Mexican Consulate in Santa Ana, criticizing the Mexican government for failing to address the poverty and violence that have led to illegal immigration here.
Robin Hvidston an Upland estate manager, said it is unfair that U.S. citizens should have to compete with illegal immigrants for scarce jobs during a recession.
"Teens who want to get jobs in fast food can't because Spanish-speaking adults who are in this country unlawfully take them," she said. "In this economic crisis it's particularly devastating to the American worker."
The raucous gathering drew just as many pro-immigration counter-protesters, who clashed with the Minutemen in shouting matches.
Although most immigrant rights protesters Friday called for an end to raids, arrests and deportations, a small but spirited group of mostly South Asians marching in Artesia said their biggest concerns were labor exploitation and racial profiling.
Sultan Ahmed, a 48-year-old mortgage broker, said Pakistani immigrants like himself are disproportionately pulled over for airport security checks and unduly delayed for citizenship application approvals. "America is a great country, but we should get equal opportunities," said Ahmed, who legally immigrated here in 1988 to join his wife, a U.S. citizen.
Marchers distributed fliers about May Day to shopkeepers. At Kirun Jewelers, Ali Bashir, a 28-year-old Pakistan native and community health advocate, seemed to succeed. As he turned to leave, the owner smiled and called out, "I am with you."
Times staff writers Raja Abdulrahim, Tony Barboza, Ari B. Bloomekatz and Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.