Marching for immigrant rights

Protesters ask citizenship for millions in U.S. illegally


WASHINGTON -- Chanting "U-S-A" and "Si, se puede!" - Spanish for "Yes, we can!" - tens of thousands of immigrants rallied on the National Mall yesterday, joining protests across the country calling for new laws to help pave a path to citizenship for millions of illegal residents.

"We are all Americans!" Jaime Contreras, the president of the National Capital Immigration Coalition, which organized the event, told the roaring crowd. "Today we march, tomorrow we vote!"

Protesters wore white shirts and carried American flags of every size, mindful of criticism of the prevalence of foreign flags at other events over the past few weeks. Some draped the flags of Mexico, El Salvador and other Latin American countries over their shoulders; others wore T-shirts or hats to reflect their native countries but waved the stars and stripes as they cheered.

Ranging in age from infant to senior citizen, they carried handmade signs, and pre-printed placards handed out by liberal advocacy groups and labor unions, bearing slogans such as "We Are America."

The march in Washington was perhaps the largest of a nationwide web of protests yesterday, which drew hundreds of thousands of marchers from Seattle to Chicago to Miami. On Sunday, a rally in Dallas drew 350,000 to 500,000 people, and tens of thousands gathered in cities such as San Diego and Minneapolis.

Their anger was focused mostly on legislation passed by the House late last year that calls for a fence along the border between Mexico and the United States and makes it a felony to be in this country illegally. It offers no way for illegal immigrants to become citizens, which opponents say is unfair to the estimated 12 million illegal residents.

Holding the flag of his native El Salvador above his head, William Benavides said he had come to the heart of the U.S. capital to fight for his own rights and those of others in his community.

"Mr. Bush and the Senate has to hear the voice of immigrants," said Benavides, who lives in Washington and is here legally.

Last week, a compromise seemed possible in the Senate on a measure that would create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, making a distinction between recent immigrants and those who have long-standing ties to this country.

One of the authors of a bipartisan immigration overhaul, Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, was among those addressing the four-hour rally, which began in late afternoon and continued past sunset on a sunny, mild spring day.

The Massachusetts senator invoked the names of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in likening the fight over immigration to the civil rights movement. Summoning King's exhortation to "let freedom ring" during his famous 1963 speech at the other end of the Mall, Kennedy said that "freedom did ring, and freedom can ring again."

"It's time for Americans to lift their voices now, in pride for our immigrant past and pride for our immigrant future," Kennedy said. "We stand for the future. We stand for our families. We stand for our faith. And I stand with you."

After a deal collapsed last week, it is uncertain whether the Senate will be able to agree on legislation, or if immigration hard-liners in the House will accept it.

The issue has opened a major rift between Republicans who want a crackdown on immigration and those who favor a more moderate approach and fear that the party could lose votes among minorities by pushing to curtail immigration.

Yesterday, the White House and Republican officials again sought to pin the immigration impasse on Democrats, with Bush aides saying he backs bipartisan efforts to enact a "comprehensive" measure that includes both border security improvements and a guest worker program.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said protesters should direct their complaints toward Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who "is the one who is standing in a way of comprehensive reform moving forward."

Anti-immigrant groups reacted angrily to the rallies.

"Americans are outraged. These are people here illegally who are demanding rights that millions of hardworking, law-abiding Americans have fought to preserve," Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said in a statement.

But Contreras and other speakers at the rally said all immigrants have earned their opportunities by working hard and paying taxes.

Contreras said current policies are unfair - and some of the proposals under consideration in Congress are worse.

Several area officeholders also spoke at the rally, including Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat.

For participants - many of whom were taking part in their first U.S. political rally - the march was a chance to speak directly to policymakers.

Diony Miranda, who said she came to Washington legally from El Salvador a decade ago, pushed her 11-month-old son Gabriel in a stroller as she waited for the march to begin. Her three daughters, ranging in age from 7 to 11, were with her, each clutching a small American flag.

"We have to say to these people, we are all citizens, and we have a value," Miranda said.

Alberto Vanegas, an electrician from Silver Spring, said he was amazed by the turnout. He is originally from Colombia and is here legally.

"This is for pride, for me and for everybody," he said.

Sun reporters Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Julie Scharper contributed to this article.

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