Raising their banners

RAISING THEIR BANNERS: Immigrants and supporters gather at Olympic Boulevard and Broadway in one of two Los Angeles marches that attracted hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Feeling power in their numbers, hundreds of thousands of people marched peacefully, even joyously, through the streets of Los Angeles on Monday as part of a nationwide demonstration of economic and political clout by immigrants -- legal and illegal.

Thousands of businesses were shuttered on the "Day Without Immigrants" as workers and their families, most of them from Mexico, participated in a boycott of work and commerce, rallying to demonstrate their importance to the U.S. economy and to demand changes in immigration law that would give illegal migrants a path to citizenship.

A crowd estimated by Los Angeles police at 250,000 marched to City Hall in the morning, after which many determined demonstrators made their way, on foot or by subway, to MacArthur Park for a larger march along Wilshire Boulevard. Police estimated that crowd at 400,000 and reported few problems.

"I want to come out of the shadows," said Josefina Cordoba, 46, of El Sereno, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who joined six family members on the City Hall march. A cleaning woman who earns $70 a day, she said it was worth losing a day's wages to make her case. She clutched a small poster that summed up the sentiments of many: "We Just Want a Taste of the American Dream."

The demonstrations in Los Angeles were the largest among the immigrant rights' protests held around the nation, including gatherings in Chicago, New York and Houston. And the boycott apparently received substantial support -- nearly stopping commerce at the nation's largest port complex. Elsewhere in the region, at least 15,000 people marched in Santa Barbara, 10,000 in Santa Ana, 8,000 in Huntington Park and a few thousand in the Inland Empire, according to official estimates.

In San Ysidro, about 1,000 protesters on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border blocked lanes into the United States for about an hour at midday, bringing traffic to a standstill. Eventually, protesters were pushed back by Mexican police, who arrested about two dozen people.

The demonstrations followed a massive March 25 rally in downtown Los Angeles that drew half a million people, primarily to protest an immigration bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives that would have made illegal immigration a felony.

With that bill's prospects apparently dimmed, Monday's protesters appeared emboldened and ready to amplify their political voice. A major theme of the day was summed up by signs that read: "Ahora marchamos, manana votamos" -- (Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote.)

"If you want something, you have to fight for it," said Jaime Torres, 19, an illegal immigrant from Jalisco, Mexico, and a student at Los Angeles City College. "We have to be respectful, but we have to raise our voices."

The boycott was felt in patches throughout Southern California. In some areas with large Latino populations, nearly every business was closed for the day; in other spots, especially those served primarily by large national chains, most if not all were open.

Traffic was a snarled mess in areas close to the demonstrations, primarily in downtown Los Angeles and along the Wilshire corridor. But in much of Southern California, the day without immigrants turned out to be a day -- or at least a morning -- without traffic.

"From the Hollywood sign to downtown took me 10 minutes," said Graham Marriott, 58, of Toluca Lake. "It was like driving to the office on a Sunday at 3 a.m. It was great. It should happen more often."

Not everyone was happy with the demonstrations. Although many U.S. citizens embraced the immigrants' cause, others were indifferent or hostile.

"It's interesting that the rest of us didn't get a day off from paying for services," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports much tougher enforcement of immigration laws. "We've got only a partial picture what life would be like if we didn't have millions of illegal immigrants here."

At a closed Burger King in Pomona, the management posted a sign in English and Spanish: "Sorry, Our Employees Didn't Report to Work. Thank You for Being a Loyal Customer."

Above the announcement, someone scrawled: "Fire Them."

At the Northridge Fashion Center Mall, at least one patron said she was sympathetic to immigrants but didn't understand the point of the protests.

"Are we supposed to see what it's like without immigrants?" asked Kim Kelly of Porter Ranch. "Because nothing seems different today for me."

The city picked up her trash on schedule in the morning, she said. "But," she added. "I'm wondering if the gardeners will come."