Immigrants march by tens of thousands

Rallies in cities across U.S. oppose legal crackdowns


CHICAGO -- Hundreds of thousands of Latinos turned out for protest rallies across the country yesterday, sending a message to lawmakers as Congress continues to wrestle with overhauling the nation's immigration laws.

In Chicago, the estimated 400,000 demonstrators included hundreds of people from Asia, Europe and Central America.

"This is not just about Mexicans," said Jose Delgado, 43, a construction worker from the Mexico City area who took the day off. "It doesn't matter what color your skin is or what language you speak. It's about all immigrants. My struggle, and my family's struggle, is the same as what the Irish felt, what the Poles felt, what the Chinese felt. Now, we're all in the same boat."

In Denver, an estimated 75,000 people - more than one-sixth of the city's population - marched through downtown. In Atlanta, thousands of immigrants gathered at the Capitol, where lawmakers enacted a bill yesterday that bars illegal immigrants from getting many state benefits and penalizes employers who hire them.

In New York, people poured out of their buildings in the Washington Heights neighborhood to join a procession stretching 12 blocks, past rows of businesses closed for the day. Tens of thousands of people flooded Union Square in Lower Manhattan. Some carried signs: "Before we cleaned your toilet, now we run our business."

Organizers of the rallies had called on immigrants to walk off their jobs and avoid shopping. But the impact of the economic boycott remained unclear.

Employers across the country, in the days and weeks leading up to the protests, had wrestled with how to respond. Some employers had threatened to dock the pay of absent workers. Other companies, particularly those owned by or catering to Latinos, voluntarily shut their doors.

Construction sites in booming neighborhoods in Houston stood silent, while most of the carnicerias and taquerias were closed in Atlanta's Latino neighborhoods along Buford Highway. About half the estimated 100,000 undocumented farm workers failed to show up in fields and orchards owned by members of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

In Arizona, some immigrant activists originally had opposed the boycott. But after recent federal raids on a wood-products company, the activists began urging employees to skip work. Yesterday, only a couple of dozen people waved American flags outside of the closed Phoenix branch of the IFCO Systems pallet company.

"A lot of people are afraid to even come out of their homes," said Antonio Silva, 48, who works at a nearby storage company.

Most of yesterday's rallies were small compared with marches in Los Angeles and Chicago.

Some Chicago activists attributed the large turnout to the fact that none of the leaders involved in the rally there had called for a boycott.

"This isn't about strikes. This is about solidarity," said Tony Avalos, executive vice president of the Teamster Hispanic Caucus.

As marchers held signs calling for amnesty for undocumented workers and an end to immigration raids, they filled the air with chants of "We want to pay taxes" and "We want to own homes."

Often the words were in Spanish, in some cases attempted by those who don't speak the language: One group of protesters, huddled together against the cold, finally gave up and switched to their native Polish.

Nearby, gathered beneath an Irish flag snapping in the wind, members of the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform cheered themselves hoarse. More than 100 students carried signs, written in Korean and Mandarin, that read: "We Vote!"

Latino protesters slapped them high-fives and offered hugs.

"To those who think we can simply close off the borders and deport, let me say this: There is no reason to fear people who have come here for the same reason as generations of Americans," Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, said from a stage set up on the back of a Teamsters union truck. "They want a better future for their children."

Officials from the Chicago Public Schools estimated that as many as one-third of the city's 435,000 students didn't show up for class. At Benito Juarez High School in Pilsen, where nearly all of the students are Latino, 17 percent of the 1,560 kids showed up, said spokeswoman Ana Vargas.

"We did everything we could to encourage kids to come to school today. But we understand that this was an important day, and it's important for their voices to be heard," Vargas said.

Carlos Villasenor, 17, was an infant when his parents came to the United States from Mexico.

The Curie High School junior said he has been preparing for college - although his temporary residency status expires one month after he graduates in June 2007.

"It doesn't matter that I'm on the honor roll. I don't have a Social Security number, so I can't get any scholarships," Villasenor said. "My parents aren't citizens. So do I stay and try to go to college here, where my family lives? Or do I return to Mexico to go to school, and never see them again?"

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