Thousands turn out to voice side in immigration debate

LOS ANGELES - While demonstrations here and across the country were a fraction of last year's extraordinary protests demanding major immigration reform, participants remain energized and upbeat, if not wary that lawmakers remain gridlocked on addressing what to do with the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

Toddlers, schoolchildren, and workers - immigrants all, whether legal or illegal - took to the streets hoping that a second consecutive year of marches will persuade lawmakers and average Americans that they would like a pathway to residency and citizenship, as well as an end to a recent deportation campaign by the federal government.

Cruz Serrano, 46, an El Salvadoran immigrant who's a legal resident, was waving a U.S. flag from a 6-foot pole outside Los Angeles City Hall as part of a 10,000-person rally. If Congress or President Bush fails again this year in providing comprehensive immigration reform, Serrano said that immigrants like himself will just have to vote like any other American. Serrano will be a citizen next year, after 24 years in the United States, he said.

"Even if they don't listen to us, they'll see we have power for something that's good for everybody," said Serrano, a cashier who took the day off from his $17.90 an hour cashier job at a major grocery chain.

This is a crucial moment to make a political statement, say immigrant advocates, who are calling Congress to focus on creating a fair and accessible path to citizenship as they draft and vote on immigration legislation in the coming weeks.

"We refuse to accept that our future, our families, and our workers, have to be limited," said Ricardo Juarez, a representative of Mexicanos sin Fronteras, which coordinated Tuesday's rally and march in Washington, D.C. "We have a short time - maybe only May - to affect what's happening in the government."

Last year's rallies

A year ago, marches on May 1 drew more than one million people to express their frustration with the country's immigration policies in a nationwide boycott.

In Chicago Tuesday, the sound of the chanting was familiar and so was the sight of more than 100,000 immigrants shoulder to shoulder across the streets of the Loop, a peaceful throng waving flags and hoisting signs.

But after a year of stalemate over immigration reform, the tone of this year's demonstration took a harder edge, with undertones of defiance and disappointment. The festival atmosphere was leavened with speakers and signs insisting that illegal immigrants are here to stay, and challenging the government to deal with them.

Some acknowledged that the lack of action on immigration reform, after hundreds of thousands hit the streets last spring and summer, left them skeptical about what another march would achieve. But with a growing crackdown on undocumented workers across the nation, some asked, what choice did they have but to march?

Nationally, the day kicked off with a series of smaller events, starting at 9 a.m. in Belle Grade, Fla., where up to 5,000 immigrants and their supporters were expected to gather in a rally organized by a local college student, 19-year-old Sonia Barajas.