Hundreds of thousands of people demanding US citizenship for illegal immigrants took to the streets in dozens of cities from New York to San Diego yesterday in some of the most widespread demonstrations since the mass protests began around the US last month.
Rallies took place in communities of all sizes, from a gathering of at least 50,000 people in Atlanta to one involving 3,000 people in the farming town of Garden City, Kansas, which has fewer than 30,000 residents.
Demonstrators in New York City held signs with slogans such as “We Are America”, “Immigrant Values are Family Values” and “Legalise, Don’t Criminalise”. One sign said: “Bush Step Down”.
“We love this country. This country gives to us everything,” said Florentino Cruz, 32, an illegal worker from Mexico who has been in the US since 1992. ”This country was made by immigrants.”
The protesters have been urging lawmakers to help an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants settle legally in the US.
A bill passed by the house would crack down on illegal immigrants and strengthen the US border with Mexico. A broader overhaul of immigration law stalled in the senate last week.
Yesterday’s demonstrations followed a weekend of rallies in 10 states that drew up to 500,000 people in Dallas and tens of thousands elsewhere.
Dozens of other rallies, many organised by Spanish-language radio DJs, have been held nationwide over the past two weeks, including one with more than 500,000 people in Los Angeles.
In the US capital, thousands of immigrants, their families and supporters marched yesterday from Hispanic neighbourhoods past the White House, then converged on the National Mall.
In North Carolina and Dallas, immigrant groups called for an economic boycott to show their financial impact. In Pittsburgh and other cities, protesters gathered outside lawmakers’ offices. At the Mississippi Capitol, they sang We Shall Overcome in Spanish.
In Atlanta many in white tee-shirts, waving American flags, joined a two-mile (three-kilometre) march from a largely immigrant neighbourhood.
The Reverend James Orange from the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda compared the march to civil rights demonstrations led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr and farm-labour organiser Cesar Chavez.
“People of the world, we have come to say this is our moment,” Orange said.
Thick crowds gathered in New York’s Washington Square Park before marchig to City Hall. Many waved flags, both American and of countries of their origin. Korean-Americans beat drums nearby.
Another group marched from Chinatown, and a third demonstration took place in Brooklyn.
Police declined to estimate the size of the crowds, but organisers said 125,000 people were present at City Hall.
One of the Korean drummers, Grace Nam, 35, who is an American citizen, said: “We just need to make our voices heard. You want to live in a place where people are treated with dignity.”
Peter Lanteri, director of New York’s chapter of the Minutemen, a volunteer border watch group, said he thought it was “ridiculous” that illegal immigrants were protesting for their rights.
“Illegal is illegal, and they break our laws to come here,” Lanteri said by telephone. “We want the illegal immigration stopped and the borders secured.”
Supporters in San Diego planned to hold a ceremony to honour immigrants who died while illegally crossing the border.
In Phoenix, police estimated that at least 50,000 people marched from the state fairgrounds to the Capitol for a rally. Exit ramps were closed and traffic on freeways through downtown was backed up for miles. At one point, the crowd stretched more than two miles.
Maria Santiago, 53, an outreach co-ordinator for non-profit health clinic in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said she sees many illegal immigrants seeking access to healthcare.
“These are people that are willing to take any job, clean bathrooms, scrub floors for a measly penny so that they have an opportunity to live in this country ... and yet we want to send them back because they want a better life?” Santiago said.