Candido Hernandez, 26, trekked through the mountains from Mexico more than two decades ago and now works construction to support his three U.S.-born children.
Carmen Vazquez, 50, cleaned homes in Los Angeles while relatives raised her daughter in El Salvador before she became a legal resident and the two were able to reunite here several years later.
Maria Ortega, 30, came from Mexico to look for better opportunities and found work at a plastics factory after presenting false documents.
The three were among a festive crowd police estimated at 500,000 that marched through downtown Los Angeles to City Hall on Saturday to support immigrants rights and oppose a pending federal bill that would make illegal immigration a felony.
The march stretched more than 20 blocks along three streets, tying up traffic through midafternoon. There were no arrests.
“This was a massive protest,” said Los Angeles Police Department spokeswoman Sandra Escalante, who said the crowd peaked at just over half a million by 11:30 a.m. “I can’t recall a larger one.”
Amid a sea of American and Mexican flags, protesters waved banners in Spanish that read, “We aren’t criminals” and “The USA is made by immigrants.”
“I love this country as if it were my own, for the opportunities it has given me,” said Laurentino Ramirez, 32, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who makes minimum wage at a Los Angeles garment factory.
Ramirez took the day off to attend the march with 20 relatives. He worries about being deported and separated from his two children. If he became a permanent resident, Ramirez said, he could get a driver’s license and a higher-paying job.
The marchers passed kazoo and ice pop vendors and carts steaming with hot dogs. Music blared over loudspeakers, Aztec dancers performed and peddlers hawked flags. A circle of drummers stopped frequently along the procession to play and shout. Many of the participants were immigrants -- both legal and illegal -- from Mexico and Central America. Some had recently crossed the border, while others have been in the United States for decades. Construction workers, business owners, families with young children and people in wheelchairs joined the march, coming from San Francisco, San Diego and other parts of the state.
Jorge Valdovinos, 43, of Fresno came with his wife and three children to show that he and other immigrants have made significant contributions to the U.S. economy.
“It’s outrageous, because this country is built by immigrants,” said Valdovinos, a permanent resident who owns a financial services company.
Julio Cruz, 20, said he does not want to return to Mexico because his infant daughter is hospitalized here.
In Mexico, Cruz made about $3.50 a day. Here, he said, he earns considerably more in construction.
“I came here to work,” said Cruz. “I didn’t come here to be out in the streets.... I don’t think it would be too much to ask for legal documents so that I could keep working.”
The rally was organized and funded by unions, religious organizations and immigrants rights groups, including Service Employees International Union Local 660; United Farm Workers; Hermandad Mexicana, an organization that assists immigrants; and the Korean Resource Center in Los Angeles.
It was publicized through Spanish-language media, which encouraged participants to wear white for peace and carry American flags to show patriotism. The organizers bused in participants who lacked transportation and helped guide them along the route.
The march started at 9th Street and followed Broadway, Main and Spring streets before converging at City Hall. Speakers demanded a path toward legalization and denounced congressional legislation that would tighten border enforcement and crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers.
“We’re not going to let them treat us like modern-day slaves,” Angela Sanbrano, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, said to the crowd in Spanish. “You have all sent a very clear message to the president. We’re going to fight for just laws that recognize what immigrants have done for this country.”
Organizers said the massive mobilization shows that immigrants’ voices must be heard.
“People are really upset that all the work they do, everything that they give to this nation, is ignored,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition of Humane Immigrant Rights, which helped organize the march.
“Instead,” she said, “there are all these proposed laws against them.... This is unacceptable.”
One bill proposes adding 700 miles of fencing along the southern border, which Mexican immigrant Ortega said will only make the journey for illegal immigrants riskier.
Ortega, who has three children, paid a coyote to take her through the mountains nine years ago. “The people aren’t going to stop coming; there will be more deaths.”
Ortega said she also worries that police will be given more power to enforce immigration law. “Instead of trusting them, we are going to fear them,” she said.
Ana Velasquez, 46, worked as a seamstress after arriving from El Salvador 26 years ago. She became a citizen after the 1986 amnesty and believes others should have the same opportunity.
“I want justice for the people who have been here and deserve to be here,” Velasquez said as she marched on Broadway. “I’m very grateful for the chance to be in this country.”
Times staff writers Hector Becerra and Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this article.