Immigrant rights rallies staged Sunday to commemorate the anniversary of last year’s massive Los Angeles march and to call for reform legislation were marked by low turnout and a rowdy counterdemonstration denouncing illegal immigration.
Nearly 5,000 immigrants and their supporters gathered at the Los Angeles Sports Arena for an event dubbed Justice for Our Families, featuring mariachi music and speeches by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other politicians.
Carrying American flags and waving banners that read, “We are America,” the participants signed pre-written letters to Congress calling for legalization of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants and an end to deportations and raids. Organizers said they received about 6,000 signed letters.
Although the crowds fell far short of the 10,000 expected, participants were hopeful that this would be the year for immigration reform.
Last week, Reps. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced a bill that would include a path to citizenship, create a new worker program and overhaul the nation’s visa system.
“The government has to listen to us,” said Raymundo Aguilar, 40, a tree trimmer who sneaked across the border more than two decades ago. “We aren’t just a few; we are millions.”
Like many other illegal immigrants at the rally, Aguilar said he pays taxes and contributes to the economy and simply wants a way to work here legally.
Berenice Bautista, a 15-year-old undocumented immigrant and sophomore at Wilson High School, gave a tearful plea to the Sports Arena audience to keep pushing for reform.
“We might not see anything overnight, but the process is already underway,” said Bautista, who came from the Mexican state of Michoacan when she was age 2. “We can’t give up.”
The energy and crowds didn’t compare to last year’s protest, when more than 500,000 people took to the streets over proposed legislation that would have criminalized undocumented immigrants and those who help them.
“My proudest moment as mayor of Los Angeles was greeting a half million families during last year’s march,” Villaraigosa told the crowd at the Sports Arena. “We are saying that in this great and generous America, there ought to be a pathway to citizenship.”
Organizers from community and immigrant rights groups attributed the disappointing turnout in part to the fear and uncertainty felt among undocumented immigrants and to a backlash against them following last year’s protests.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but I’m cautiously optimistic that we can get it done,” said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Central American Resource Center. “We are going to have to do a lot of outreach.”
Although the rally at the Sports Arena remained peaceful, a nearby counterdemonstration staged by anti-illegal immigration activists became raucous as they traded insults and racial epithets with proimmigrant protesters. About 150 officers from the Los Angeles Police Department marched between the two groups as they headed down Broadway toward City Hall.
About 200 anti-illegal immigration activists started their march at Olympic Boulevard and Broadway, carrying American flags and signs reading “Mexican gangsters belong in Mexico” and “Deportation? Si, se puede!”
“What do we want? Deportation,” they chanted. “When do we want it? Now.”
“I would not be welcomed into their country, and they are not welcome into mine,” said Barbara Coe, founder and chairwoman of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform.
“It’s a double standard,” said Debra Bedoy, 54, of Upland, who wore a “Save Our State” pin and carried a bottle of pepper spray. “If you’re an American citizen and break the law, you get a ticket or you get arrested. But for illegal immigrants who come here and are breaking a federal law, it’s overlooked. Nobody does anything.... We’re fed up.”
A crowd of about 60 immigrant rights supporters gathered on an adjacent corner of the two major downtown streets, making their own voices heard by waving Mexican flags, stomping on an American flag and, in at least one case, burning it.
“Racists!” they yelled at the anti-illegal immigrant groups.
Their numbers grew as downtown workers joined in. Celina Rivera, 43, a Salvadoran immigrant who works in a bridal shop on 8th Street near Broadway, came out to see what was going on. “America is free!” she yelled.
In a separate rally, several hundred gathered outside La Placita Church near Olvera Street, intending to march to the downtown federal building and immigration offices and encircle them by joining hands in a human chain to demand an end to deportations. When they reached the buildings, they held hands but could make it only halfway around the buildings.
Concern about recent federal immigration raids around the country ran deep among marchers.
Waldir Ramaz, 39, a truck driver from Compton, carried his 5-year-old daughter, Lauren, on his shoulders as he marched. Ramaz, a legal resident from Guatemala, fears for his Mexican wife, Rosalina, 35, an undocumented immigrant for 18 years.
She “goes to work nervous and comes home nervous” that she will be picked up by authorities, Rosalina said.
Many of the immigrants who attended the rallies Sunday said that they wanted an opportunity to become legal residents. Others expressed opposition to the government’s proposed fee hikes for green card and citizenship applications.
Lidia Vidal, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who also participated in last year’s marches, said she was disappointed that more people did not turn out. She also expressed frustration that even though there were gains by the immigrant rights movement, reform legislation still had not passed.
“We marched, we voted and nothing,” said Vidal, 34, who has two U.S.-born children and has been here 17 years. “I still don’t have papers.”
Hilda Bautista and Ricardo Gutierrez, both undocumented immigrants from Oaxaca, Mexico, said their hopes for citizenship rest with their three U.S.-born children rather than Congress.
“As they grow older, so does our hope that one day they’ll be able to vote and elect people who will pass laws that protect us immigrants,” said Gutierrez, 45, a custodian at UCLA. “In the meantime, it’s important to keep reminding the lawmakers that we’re here.”
Filmmaker Martin Escalante, 23, who went to the Sports Arena, explained the low turnout succinctly: “Sequels are never as good as the original.”
Times staff writers Francisco Vara-Orta and Tony Barboza contributed to this report.