More Than 500,000 Rally in L.A. for Immigrants' Rights
Los Angeles Times
March 25, 2006

By Teresa Watanabe and Anna Gorman

Joining what some are calling the nation's largest mobilization of immigrants ever, hundreds of thousands of people boisterously marched in downtown Los Angeles Saturday to protest federal legislation that would crack down on undocumented immigrants, penalize those who help them and build a security wall on the U.S. southern border. Spirited crowds representing labor, religious groups, civil-rights advocates and ordinary immigrants stretched over 26 blocks of downtown Los Angeles from Adams Blvd. along Spring Street and Broadway to City Hall, tooting kazoos, waving American flags and chanting "Si se puede!" (Yes we can!). The crowd, estimated by police at more than 500.000, represented one of the largest protest marches in Los Angeles history, surpassing Vietnam War demonstrations and the 70,000 who rallied downtown against Proposition 187, a 1994 state initiative that denied public benefits to undocumented migrants.

The marchers included both longtime residents and the newly arrived, bound by a desire for a better life and a love for this county.

Arbelica Lazo, 40, illegally immigrated from El Salvador two decades ago but said she now owns two business and pays $7,000 in taxes annually.

Jose Alberto Salvador, 33, came here illegally just 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 only $10 a day. "As much as we need this country, we love this country," Salvador said, waving a stick with both the American and Guatemalan flag. "This country gives us opportunities we don't get at home."

Saturday's rally, spurred by anger over legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last December, was part of what many say is an unprecedented effort to organize immigrants and their supporters across the nation. The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is to take up efforts Monday to complete work on a comprehensive immigration reform proposal. Unlike the House bill, which beefed up border security and toughened immigration laws, the Senate committee's version is expected to include a guest worker program and a path to legalization for the nation's 10 to 12 million undocumented immigrants.

In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have staged demonstrations in more than a dozen cities. The Roman Catholic Church and other religious communities have launched immigrant rights campaigns, with Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony taking a leading role in speaking out against the House bill and calling on his priests to defy its provisions that would make felons of anyone who aided undocumented immigrants. In addition, several cities, including Los Angeles, have passed resolutions against the House legislation and some, such as Maywood, have declared itself a "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants.

"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."

One of the marchers Saturday, Jose Alberto Salvador, 33, left his wife and children behind in Guatemala four months ago to cross the border into the United States so he could earn enough money to return home and buy a house.

Jorge Valdovinos, 43, is a legal immigrant from Mexico who has three US-born children and works as a financial advisor.

Amid a sea of American and Mexican flags, protesters chanted "Si Se Puede!" and waved banners in Spanish that read, "We aren't criminals" and "The USA is made by immigrants."

"I love this country as if it were my own, for the opportunities it has given me," said Laurentino Ramirez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who works at a garment factory. "The law is unjust for those who don't have papers. We come to work. We don't come to do harm to anyone."

Many of the marchers were immigrants themselves - both legal and illegal -- from Mexico and Central America. Some had just crossed the border, while others had been here for decades. There were construction workers and business owners; families with young children and people in wheelchairs. Throughout the afternoon, protesters heard speakers demand a path toward legalization and denounce HR 4437, which would tighten border enforcement and crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers.

The rally was organized by numerous unions, religious organizations and immigrant rights groups and publicized through Spanish-language media, which encouraged participants to wear white to symbolize peace and bring American flags. The mostly peaceful march stretched over 26 blocks, shutting down streets and tying up traffic around downtown for hours. Police estimated the crowd at 500,000, more than five times the size of the 1994 rally against California's Proposition 187, which would have denied services to undocumented immigrants. Participants said the massive mobilization shows that immigrants' voices must be heard and that they are contributing to the country's economy.