By Nancy Trejos and Aruna Jain
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 10, 2006
In churches, shops and sidewalks across the Washington region yesterday, thousands of people bustled in preparation for a rally that immigration advocates say could be a pivotal moment for Latinos and other groups seeking to demonstrate their political clout.
Organizers of the National Day of Action for Immigrant Justice -- or La Marcha , as some volunteers are calling it -- said it could draw as many as 180,000 people to the Mall and hundreds of thousands more in nearly 100 cities nationwide.
Although no one knows for certain how many people will show up at the D.C. rally, the event has the potential to complicate the afternoon rush hour.
This afternoon, scores of buses will begin moving protesters from throughout the region to the District. CASA of Maryland, an immigrant rights group, has arranged for more than 40 buses to take them to Seventh Street NW between Madison and Jefferson drives. Fifteen additional buses will run a loop six times between CASA's Silver Spring office and the Takoma Metro station and are expected to carry about 5,000 people, said Kim Propeack, advocacy director for CASA.
Mexicanos Sin Fronteras, a D.C.-based immigrant rights group, will send about 20 buses from Virginia to Meridian Hill Park in the Adams Morgan area, said Farah Fosse of the Latino Economic Development Corp., a local organizer.
There, the participants will join neighborhood residents in a march down 16th and 15th streets NW to the Mall. Police plan to temporarily close some streets along the way.
A Metro spokesman said officials would monitor the situation and could decide to extend the evening rush, keeping the maximum number of cars on the tracks.
"We are very excited and energized, but at the same time there's a lot of pressure to ensure everything is going to be smooth," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA.
Yesterday, with less than 24 hours to go before the rally, organizers scrambled as they prepared to move thousands of bodies, conceding that they weren't sure how they would do it.
"It's just wild. I don't know how to describe it," Propeack said. "As of 24 hours ago, we said, 'No more transportation,' and people are just phoning us off the hook. They want more."
Projected turnout, said Lt. Kathleen Harasek of the U.S. Park Police, "is well within what we're normally trained to handle. . . . We're comfortable with it, and we're not stressing out over it."
Across California alone, about 20 events are planned for today, ranging from a rally in Bakersfield to a ceremony in San Diego dedicated to immigrants who have died trying to cross the border illegally.
The demonstrations, which are being coordinated by an umbrella organization known as the National Capital Immigration Coalition, began yesterday in more than 20 cities, including Dallas, where police estimated that 300,000 to 350,000 people gathered.
In Dallas, many waved U.S. flags and wore white clothing to symbolize peace, the Associated Press reported. There were no reports of violence.
The events will continue today in cities small and large, including Phoenix, New York, Seattle and Chicago. The rally on the Mall was expected to be among the largest, although with an estimated Hispanic population of 576,000 in 2004, the Washington region isn't among the 10 U.S. metropolitan areas with the most Hispanics.
Frustration among immigrant groups has increased since a bipartisan compromise to rewrite the nation's immigration laws fell apart last week when Democrats rejected demands from conservative Republicans for numerous changes, some designed to limit the number of illegal immigrants who could become eligible for citizenship.
"I think people have to realize that enough is enough in the bashing of immigrants," said Del. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George's). "We can't be the scapegoats for everything that happens in this country. We're just as American as everyone else."
But some organizations, such as the Minuteman Project, a national anti-illegal immigration group, oppose the demonstrations. Stephen Schreiman, director of the Maryland chapter, said only U.S. citizens should have the right to protest on U.S. land.
"Unfortunately, American laws do not ban foreigners from protesting on our soil," he said. "They've got the legal right to go out there and protest."
He added that he doesn't think the demonstrations will be effective. "Who are they influencing? They're not influencing Congress," Schreiman said.
Although Latinos make up the vast majority of protesters expected, organizations representing other immigrants also said they would send people.
For instance, several hundred Korean Americans are planning to go to the Mall, said Chung Pak of the League of Korean Americans of Maryland. He added that many Korean American business owners who employ Latinos are letting them take the day off with full pay.
The Archdiocese of Washington announced yesterday that it would send Cardinal Theodore McCarrick to give the opening prayer at the rally, planned for 4:30 p.m., spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said.
Organizers fanned out yesterday in a last-minute effort to generate enthusiasm and support for the march. They urged people to wear white T-shirts to symbolize peace and carry U.S. flags.
"We are all Americans," said Carlos Castera, a CASA official. "We want to show we support this country. We contribute to the economy of this country."
Behind the Tenant and Workers United Association building in Alexandria, more than 200 children, teenagers and their families painted signs that read, " Legalización Ahora " ("Legalization Now") as they ate pupusas and listened to a group of young men perform reggaeton. Draped on a wire fence nearby was a banner that read, " ¡No Racismo! " ("No Racism!").
"We have to show that we are not criminals. We work. We work for a better life," said Jose Trejo, a bricklayer from Alexandria who was planning to take the day off from work to attend the rally.
At St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Sandra Martinez, a 32-year-old native of Mexico who lives in Rockville, handed out fliers in English, Spanish and French as worshipers pulled their cars into the parking lot on Palm Sunday.
Most of the people going to church were Hispanic, but Martinez and other volunteers reached out to the many African immigrants who attended Mass.
"It's not just a Latino thing," Martinez said. "I think it applies to everyone who comes into this country."
Maria Perez, a 56-year-old Takoma Park resident and native of the Dominican Republic, said in Spanish that she plans to go to the rally with her 19-year-old daughter and 51-year-old sister.
"I think tomorrow is a very important day for us," she said as she stood in the parking lot of St. Camillus after Mass. "All Latinos should support each other."
Walking up and down the busy business strip in Mount Pleasant yesterday, everyone seemed to know about the rally.
And for anyone who didn't, there were reminders such as the fluorescent pink poster plastered on the door of Don Juan's Restaurant & Carryout urging people to join the demonstration.
Marguerita Maldonado, who is from El Salvador, has her green card, thanks in part to a program that gave citizens of her country, once beset by civil war, temporary protection.
But when she first arrived in the United States, in 1996, Maldonado had no such protection, she said. She was afforded temporary protection in 1991. Not until last year did she receive permanent residency, and only then did she finally feel at peace.
"I was part of the country," said Maldonado, the owner of Pollo and Pizza, a little place on the north end of Mount Pleasant Street NW.
And she wants others to have that opportunity, which is why she thinks the rally, which she plans to attend, is so important.
"At least people are not sitting down," she said.
Staff writers Ann E. Marimow, Henri E. Cauvin, Martin Weil and Allan Lengel contributed to this report.