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Multitudes Rally Across U.S. For Illegal Immigrant Rights

By Rachel L. Swarns


Waving American flags and blue banners that read “We Are America,” throngs of cheering, chanting immigrants and their supporters converged on the nation’s capital and in scores of other cities on Monday calling on Congress to offer legal status and citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants.

The demonstrators marched under mostly clear blue skies in largely festive rallies with Spanish-language music blaring, street vendors selling ice cream and parents clinging to mischievous toddlers. The rallies were the latest in recent weeks in response to a bill passed in the House that would speed up deportations, tighten border security and criminalize those here illegally.

A proposal that would have granted citizenship to the vast majority of illegal immigrants collapsed in the Senate last week.

Monday’s gathering of thousands of demonstrators in New York, Atlanta, Houston, Madison, Wis., and other cities suggested that the millions of immigrants who have quietly poured into this country over the past 16 years, most of them Hispanic, may be emerging as a potent political force.

Over and over, construction workers, cooks, gardeners, sales associates and students who said they had never demonstrated before said they were rallying to send a message to lawmakers. Ruben Arita, a 30-year-old illegal immigrant from Honduras who joined the demonstration in Washington, said he was marching for the first time because he wanted to push Congress to grant citizenship to people living here illegally and to recognize their struggles and their humanity.

“We want to be legal,” said Arita, a construction worker who has lived here for five years. “We want to live without hiding, without fear. We have to speak so that our voices are listened to and we are taken into account.”

Academics and political analysts say the demonstrations represent the largest effort by immigrants to influence public policy in recent memory. And the scope and size of the marches have stunned politicians on Capitol Hill as well as the church and immigrant advocacy groups organizing the demonstrations, leading some immigrant advocates to hail what they describe as the beginnings of a Hispanic civil rights movement.

Some Republicans in Congress say the demonstrations have also recalibrated the bitter debate on immigration legislation, forcing lawmakers to take into account the group’s political muscle.

“Immigrants are coming together in a way that we have never seen before, and it’s going to keep going,” said Jaime Contreras, the president of the National Capital Immigration Coalition, a group of business, labor and immigrant advocacy groups that organized the rally in Washington and helped coordinate the other national protests.

“This is a movement,” said Contreras, who came to the United States from El Salvador as an illegal immigrant. “We’re sending a strong message that we are people of dignity. All that we want is to have a shot at the American dream.”

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who favors granting citizenship to illegal immigrants, said Monday: “I think everybody sees the immigrant community as an emerging force. I think everybody is quite sensitive that they don’t want to be on the wrong side, politically, of this group.”