Across the U.S., ‘We Are America’

Times Staff Writers

Legal and illegal, carrying signs in English and Spanish, hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters took to the streets Monday in the nation’s capital and in dozens of cities around the country, spreading a sea of white T-shirts and American flags across city parks and TV screens in an effort to persuade lawmakers to grant foreign-born workers more rights.

Chanting, “Si, se puede” -- “Yes, we can” -- and carrying signs declaring, “We Are America,” marchers at the centerpiece rally on the National Mall in Washington said they hoped to send a message to Congress and the rest of the country that they wanted to be a part of the nation where they work.

“We came here to protest. They want to pass a law to treat immigrants like terrorists,” said Gilberto Castro, 34, who came to the U.S. illegally in 1998, obtained a work permit and now makes a living selling vitamins. “I would like other people to have the same opportunity, like amnesty, for other people to get their papers.”

Organizers said the Washington rally drew 500,000 protesters, though others said the crowd was much smaller.

The demonstrations across the nation were a culmination of a growing immigrant rights movement that began last month in response to House legislation passed in December that would make it a felony to be in the United States without a valid visa or to aid anyone who was.


Some rallies in recent weeks appeared to backfire, with Republican lawmakers and others complaining that marchers carried more Mexican flags than American, suggesting that immigrants did not want to integrate into U.S. society.

By contrast, organizers of Monday’s demonstrations appeared to make special efforts to lead recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance and to discourage marchers from carrying flags from other countries, for example -- to send the message that immigrants wanted to be Americans.

In most places, American flags dominated the crowds, although a sprinkling of flags of other countries, including Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras, was visible. The marchers wore white T-shirts, they said, as a sign of peace.

“We love this country,” said Solomon Tekle, a 40-year-old from Ethiopia who said he had been denied asylum and now works illegally in construction jobs in Baltimore. He wore a T-shirt reading, “Land of the Free.”

“We work, work hard. We pay taxes,” Tekle said. “We need help, not to kick us out.”

Diezir Quintanilla, 15, came to the National Mall with her sister and parents, all wearing T-shirts she had made with a silk-screen image of the Pilgrims and the message: “Your ancestors -- Immigrants, too.”

“They have to give us our rights,” she said, explaining that she and her sister are citizens, but her parents, from Peru, are not.

Flor Villazoro, 35, a house cleaner originally from El Salvador, planned to work a double shift today so she could attend the Washington rally.

“I’m here working for a good future for my baby,” Villazoro said in slightly accented English, carrying her 21-month-old daughter, Melanie. The child’s T-shirt read, “I am not a criminal,” and she had a small American flag.

“I’m legal. But if I try to help someone who has no papers, I’m a criminal,” Villazoro said. “For years, I was very quiet -- only work and pay taxes. Now it’s necessary to protest.”

Juan Carlos Ruiz, coordinator for the National Capital Immigration Coalition, said organizers, in trying to estimate the size of the crowd on the Mall, tried to count the numbers arriving on buses and exiting the subway. They lost count at 400,000, he said.

“The Mall is full from corner to corner,” Ruiz said.

No official crowd numbers were available, but other estimates indicated that the size was smaller than the organizers’ figure. A police official who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Washington Post that at least 100,000 people were present. The National Park Service stopped giving official estimates after a dispute over the number attending the Million Man March in 1995; the park service said that about 400,000 were present, whereas independent analyses using aerial photos and grids put the figure at more than 870,000.

More than 600,000 protested the Vietnam War in a 1969 rally on the Mall; about 250,000 attended the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I have a dream” speech in 1963. In recent years, the largest unofficial crowd estimate was 750,000 for the 2004 March for Women’s Lives.

Crowds at the immigration rallies in other cities appeared to be smaller than in Washington, with police reporting 50,000 each in Atlanta and Phoenix and 20,000 in New York.

* In Houston, as many as 10,000 marchers wearing red, white and blue followed an Uncle Sam figure through downtown streets. Catalina Del Toro, 55, waved a sign that read, “Who would cook for you, clean for you? Do you want our job?” Del Toro, who works for a cleaning service, said she crossed into Texas illegally 31 years ago and became a U.S. citizen in 1992. She said she has a daughter and son in Mexico.

“I clean everyone’s house,” Del Toro said. “Some people don’t want to do that job. We work here and live and should be treated fair. But we’re not. That isn’t right.”

* In Boston, an estimated 10,000 people marched from Boston Common to Copley Square, about half a mile away. At the behest of a consortium of Latino churches in the area, newly installed Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley delivered a prayer to the immigration rights protesters.

“It is only reasonable that the people who maintain our economy have a fair opportunity to become citizens,” Boston City Councilor Felix Arroyo said.

* In Atlanta, marchers wearing white T-shirts, many promoting Latino construction companies and businesses, gathered at Plaza Fiesta shopping mall on Buford Highway and marched a two-mile loop through residential streets.

Samuel Rodriguez attended the march with colleagues from La Banderita tortilla factory after agreeing to work Sunday instead of Monday.

“We came here for opportunity and we work hard, but now we’re being targeted,” he said. “It’s time for us to support each other.”

Rodriguez, who moved to the United States from Mexico 14 years ago and works in the sales department of the tortilla factory, said the recent demonstrations across the U.S. had motivated Georgia’s Latinos to organize.

“Everyone is on the same page for the first time,” he said. “It’s great.”

There were counter-demonstrations in some cities, including Washington, where a handful of people protested illegal immigration.

Bearing a sign that read, “Keep walking, just 1,800 miles until you’re home,” Erin Carrington, 22, was one of a few counter-protesters on the National Mall. Carrington said she believed that the laws in place were effective enough and that Americans should support them.

“I think that when illegal immigrants come here and expect to have entitlements given to them just as U.S. citizens that it’s totally preposterous,” she said. “There’s plenty of ways to enter our country legally while respecting our laws, and people who do so end up better in the long run, anyway.”

Congress is at a pivotal point in deciding whether and how to permit millions of illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship.

The Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, estimated last month that there were 11.5 million to 12 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States.

Some proposals, including the bill passed by the House, would amount to a crackdown on illegal immigrants and those who employ them. The measure would make it a felony to illegally cross the border or overstay a visa.

Other proposals, including a Republican-drafted compromise that is stalled in the Senate, would offer a path to legalization and eventual citizenship for illegal immigrants who had been in the country more than five years.

More recent arrivals would have to leave the U.S., at least for a short period of time, to apply for legal status.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a leading proponent of granting illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, delivered the keynote address in Washington in a mixture of English and Spanish.

“Gracias por demandar justicia para todos los inmigrantes,” Kennedy said in Massachusetts-accented Spanish, drawing cheers from the crowd. “Thank you for demanding justice for all immigrants.”

Kennedy, a stalwart of the civil rights movement, said the mobilization of immigrants in recent weeks recalled the efforts of African Americans to gain equal rights in the 1960s.

“More than four decades ago, near this place, Martin Luther King called on the nation to let freedom ring. Freedom did ring -- and freedom can ring again,” Kennedy said. “It is time for Americans to lift their voices now -- in pride for our immigrant past and in pride for our immigrant future.”

Times staff writers Johanna Neuman, Greg Miller, Matthew O’Rourke and Jin Yan in Washington; Lianne Hart in Houston; Elizabeth Mehren in Boston; and Jenny Jarvie and Richard Fausset in Atlanta contributed to this report.