A crowd estimated by police at more than 500,000 boisterously marched in Los Angeles on Saturday to protest federal legislation that would crack down on undocumented immigrants, penalize those who help them and build a security wall along the U.S.' southern border.
Spirited but peaceful marchers -- ordinary immigrants alongside labor, religious and civil rights groups -- stretched more than 20 blocks along Spring Street, Broadway and Main Street to City Hall, tooting kazoos, waving American flags and chanting, "Si se puede!" (Yes we can!).
Attendance at the demonstration far surpassed the number of people who protested against the Vietnam War and Proposition 187, a 1994 state initiative that sought to deny public benefits to undocumented migrants but was struck down by the courts. Police said there were no arrests or injuries except for a few cases of exhaustion.
At a time when Congress prepares to crack down further on illegal immigration and self-appointed militias patrol the U.S. border to stem the flow, Saturday's rally represented a massive response, part of what immigration advocates are calling an unprecedented effort to mobilize immigrants and their supporters nationwide.
It coincides with an initiative on the part of the Roman Catholic Church, spearheaded by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, to defy a House bill that would make aiding undocumented immigrants a felony. And it signals the burgeoning political clout of Latinos, especially in California.
"There has never been this kind of mobilization in the immigrant community ever," said Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "They have kicked the sleeping giant. It's the beginning of a massive immigrant civil rights struggle."
The demonstrators, many wearing white shirts to symbolize peace, included both longtime residents and the newly arrived, bound by a desire for a better life.
Arbelica Lazo, 40, illegally emigrated from El Salvador two decades ago but said she now owns two businesses and pays $7,000 in income taxes each year.
Jose Alberto Salvador, 33, came here illegally four months ago to find work to support the wife and five children he left behind. In his native Guatemala, he said, what little work he could find paid $10 a day.
"As much as we need this country, we love this country," Salvador said, waving both the American and Guatemalan flags. "This country gives us opportunities we don't get at home."
On Monday, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to resume work on a comprehensive immigration reform proposal. The Senate committee's version includes elements of various bills, including a guest worker program and a path to legalization for the nation's 10 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants proposed by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.)
In addition, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has introduced a bill that would strengthen border security, crack down on employers of illegal immigrants and increase the number of visas for workers. Frist has said he would take his bill to the floor Tuesday if the committee does not finish its work Monday.
Ultimately, the House and Senate bills must be reconciled before a law can be passed.
President Bush has advocated a guest worker program and attracted significant Latino support for his views.
In his Saturday radio address, Bush urged all sides of the emotional debate to tone down their rhetoric, calling for a balanced approach between more secure borders and more temporary foreign workers.
Largely in response to the debate in Washington, hundreds of thousands of people in recent weeks have staged marches in more than a dozen cities calling for immigration reform.
In Denver, police said Saturday that more than 50,000 people gathered downtown at Civic Center Park next to the Capitol to urge the state Senate to reject a resolution supporting a ballot issue that would deny many government services to illegal immigrants in Colorado.
Hundreds rallied in Reno, the Associated Press reported.
On Friday, tens of thousands of people were estimated to have staged school walkouts, marches and work stoppages in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Atlanta and other cities.
In addition, several cities, including Los Angeles, have passed resolutions opposing the House legislation. At least one city, Maywood, declared itself a "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants.
Despite the significant opposition to the crackdown on illegal immigrants shown by the turnout in recent rallies, a recent Zogby poll found 62% of Americans surveyed wanted more restrictive immigration policies, and a Field Poll last month found that the majority of California voters surveyed believed illegal immigration was hurting the state.
"Polling has consistently shown that Americans don't want guest workers or amnesty," said Caroline Espinosa, spokeswoman for NumbersUSA, a Washington-based immigration control group that says its e-mail list of 1 million and 140,000-member roster of activists have more than doubled in the last year.
Espinosa said current levels of both legal and illegal immigration would push the U.S. population to 420 million by 2050, "leading to a tremendously negative impact on the quality of life in the United States."
According to a U.S. Census Bureau survey a year ago, the nation's 35.2 million immigrants -- legal and illegal -- represent a record number. California led the country with nearly 10 million, constituting 28% of the state's population overall and one-third of its work force.
The swelling number of immigrants has clearly influenced the political calculus of those involved in the issue, including political and religious groups. The Republican Party, for instance, is split among those who want tougher restrictions, those who fear alienating the Latino vote and business owners who are pressing for more laborers -- mostly Latin Americans -- to fill blue-collar jobs in construction, cleaning, gardening and other industries.
Some Republicans fear that pushing too hard against illegal immigrants could backfire nationally, as with Proposition 187. Strong Republican support of that measure helped spur record numbers of California Latinos to become U.S. citizens and register to vote. Those voters subsequently helped the Democrats regain political control in the state.
"There is no doubt Proposition 187 had a devastating impact on the [California] Republican Party," said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political consultant. "Now the Republicans in Congress better beware: If they come across as too shrill, with a racist tone, all of a sudden you're going to see Republicans in cities with a high Latino population start losing their seats."
The effects of the nation's growing Latino presence also are evident in religious communities. This week, for instance, the president of the 30-million-member National Assn. of Evangelicals is scheduled to issue a statement supporting immigration reform, including a guest worker program. It will be in concert with the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, conference president.
Rodriguez, whose Sacramento-based group serves the nation's 18 million evangelical Christian Latinos, said it took "a lot of persuasion" to broker the joint statement with Ted Haggard, president of the evangelicals group. Rodriguez said he warned the group that failure to support comprehensive immigration reform would have long-term political repercussions.
Latino evangelical Christians voted for Bush at a 40% higher rate than Latinos overall, he said, but they would probably turn away from conservative candidates and causes without support on immigration.
"I had to do a lot of asking: Will Hispanics ever vote for conservative candidates again, or partner with white evangelicals if they were silent while our brothers and sisters and cousins were being sent out of the county on buses?" Rodriguez said.
Churches were just one force behind Saturday's rally.
Several immigrant advocates said that the ethnic media were a significant factor in drawing crowds. News outlets repeatedly publicized it and even exhorted marchers to wear white shirts. Churches announced the rally too. Although a police spokeswoman estimated the crowd at 500,000 based on helicopter surveillance, rally organizers said it was closer to 1 million.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa briefly addressed the rally.
"We cannot criminalize people who are working, people who are contributing to our economy and contributing to the nation," Villaraigosa said.
In contrast to demonstrations 12 years ago against Proposition 187, Saturday's rally featured more American flags than those from any other country. Flag vendors were soon overwhelmed by demonstrators holding out dollar bills.
Father Michael Kennedy, a longtime immigrant advocate and pastor of Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights, said that past demonstrations were more heavily Mexican or Mexican American, but the House bill had rallied protesters across religious, national and ethnic lines.
One was Korean immigrant Dae Joong Yoon, executive director of the Korean Resource Center in Los Angeles. Yoon said the Korean community was more inflamed over the House bill than Proposition 187 because it would penalize not only undocumented immigrants but also businesses that hired them and anyone who helped them.
He said the Korean-language media has intensified coverage of the House bill in recent weeks.
"The Korean community is shocked and outraged over this inhumane legislation," Yoon said. "Everybody would be affected by it."
The Associated Press was used in compiling this report.