Sundays protests draw hundreds of thousands
Associated Press
Apr. 10, 2006


ST. PAUL, Minn. - Wearing a bright green T-shirt emblazoned with the word "Mexico," 18-year-old Marco Tapia couldn't wait to join the biggest march for immigrants he had ever seen.

The Mexican-born high school senior was among about 30,000 who marched through St. Paul in support of immigrant rights, and among more than half a million people who rallied Sunday in 10 states. Dozens more marches were planned nationwide Monday.

"Hopefully this will change the way America thinks," said Tapia, a high school senior who is living illegally in Minneapolis with his mother and sister. "We're not criminals. We're just regular people like everybody else here."

With an overhaul of immigration law stalled in Congress, demonstrators urged lawmakers to help an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants settle legally in the United States.

The massive turnout at Sunday's protests - police estimated 350,000 to 500,000 in Dallas - continued to surprise organizers and police.

"This is a force, an energy here," said Amir Krummell, a U.S. citizen born in Panama, who marched to Dallas' city hall amid shouts of "Si Se Puede!", Spanish for "Yes, we can!"

In Salt Lake City, a rally expected to draw about 3,000 instead attracted about 20,000, police said, and 50,000 turned out in San Diego. Other demonstrations were held in New Mexico, Michigan, Iowa, Alabama, Oregon and Idaho.

"If we don't protest they'll never hear us," said Oscar Cruz, 23, a construction worker who marched in San Diego. Cruz, who came illegally to the U.S. in 2003, said he had feared a crackdown but felt emboldened by the large marches across the country in recent weeks.

In Birmingham, Ala., demonstrators marched along the same streets where civil rights activists clashed with police in the 1960s and rallied at a park where a statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands as a reminder of the fight for equal rights and the violence that once plagued the city.

"We've got to get back in touch with the Statue of Liberty," said the Rev. Lawton Higgs, a United Methodist pastor and activist. "We've got to get back in touch with the civil rights movement, because that's what this is about."

The rallies also drew counter-demonstrators.

In Salt Lake City, Jerry Owens, 59, a Navy veteran from Midway wearing a blue Minuteman T-shirt and camouflage pants, held a yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flag.

"I think it's real sad because these people are really saying it's OK to be illegal aliens," Owens said. "What Americans are saying is 'Yes, come here. But come here legally.' And I think that's the big problem."

Many groups had been preparing to rally since December, when the House passed a bill to build more walls along the U.S.-Mexico border, make it a crime to help undocumented immigrants and make it a felony to be in the country illegally. It is now a civil violation.

Since then, local and regional protests, supported by popular Spanish-language disc jockeys, quickly merged into national plans after hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in dozens of cities last month, culminating March 25 with a 500,000-strong rally in Los Angeles.

"We don't have a leader like Martin Luther King or Cesar Chavez, but this is now a national immigrant rights movement," said Joshua Hoyt, director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which has helped organize rallies around Chicago.

In Minnesota, Latin dance music blared, Mexican flags waved and even a mariachi band in full costume marched to the state Capitol. Homemade signs dotted the crowd: "I'm a taxpayer." "I'm a worker." "I got rights." "I am not a criminal."

Tapia, who plans to study graphic design at a community college, said life has been hard for his family - especially his mother, who has raised him and his sister working a variety of jobs. He hopes that will change.

"All we want," he said, "is a good American life."


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