By Sue Anne Pressley, Karin Brulliard and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
They swept onto the Mall by the tens of thousands, waving American flags and chanting, in Spanish, "Here we are, and we're not leaving."
With voices raised in protest, with placards in English and in the language of their homelands and with slogans scrawled across white T-shirts worn to symbolize their peaceful intent, the assembled mass delivered a simple message: We are Americans now, too.
"Immigrant nation," read one handwritten sign.
"I'm an immigrant, and I vote," read another.
"Brown and proud," one announced.
"Nigeria Present," on another, reminded the overwhelmingly Latino crowd that immigrants have arrived here from all over.
For many, the rally was their first political experience. Ranks of young men who listened in respectful silence, high-school students taking advantage of their spring break, immigrant mothers arriving with young children and day laborers who live in fear of deportation turned out in force.
"Every Hispanic has to stand up. Every person who believes in justice has to stand up," said Anna Torres, 38, a federal worker from Mount Pleasant in Northwest Washington who brought along her sons, Joseph, 6, and Jeremy, 8. They were waiting to be joined by their father, who came here from Guatemala 15 years ago and is still an illegal resident.
"I'm here for my friends and my neighbors -- and my husband," Torres said. "They are all very hardworking people."
And as the last traces of the late-day sun disappeared behind the Washington Monument, something of a battle cry was sounded to a crowd frustrated by Congress's failure to reshape immigration law to their liking.
"This is only the start!" Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA of Maryland, shouted to them. "We are just starting this movement."
The crowd erupted with an oft-repeated cheer: "Hoy, marchamos; mañana, votamos."
Today, we march; tomorrow, we vote.
As the rally dispersed, the loudspeakers blared what circumstance transformed into something of an anthem: a Spanish version of Gloria Estefan's "Coming Out of the Dark."
"This is just the beginning," said Elmer Palmer, 30, of Woodbridge, a real estate agent originally from El Salvador. "If we don't have a fair response to this, we'll continue, greater and greater."
Palmer pumped a sign above his head that read, in Spanish, "If you deport me, who will build the wall?" -- a reference to proposed legislation that calls for construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"Most of the construction work is done by immigrants. We do the hard work here," Palmer said. "If we get deported, who will build the houses?"
The crowd numbered in the tens of thousands, at least 100,000 by the estimate of one police official who spoke on condition that he not be named. Closer to 500,000, according to Germonique R. Jones, a spokeswoman for the organizers.
Along the route, as protesters marched from a staging area at Meridian Hill Park, spectator support seemed overwhelming. Office workers leaned out of windows and piled onto the sidewalks to shout encouragement. About 150 members of the National Education Association took administrative leave to cheer on the demonstrators, NEA President Reg Weaver said.
"This issue is of such magnitude to America that we can't stand by and watch from the sidelines," he said.
Only a few counter-demonstrators were visible. A handful appeared on the east side of Seventh Street NW, across from the back of the rally stage. One held a sign that read, "Protect Our Border." Another sign read "Back You Go to Mexico."
At 16th and Church streets NW, Erin Carrington accepted the boos from passersby as she held a sign that read, "Keep walking -- Just 1,800 miles till you're home." Carrington, a 22-year-old graduate student, said she is concerned that the taxes she pays will increase if immigrants receive benefits.
But the opponents' numbers were minuscule compared with the marchers', who arrived at the staging area from throughout the region in buses provided by the National Capital Immigration Coalition, the umbrella group coordinating the event. Vendors there sold small American, Salvadoran and Mexican flags for $5 and $10.
Charles Vela, a naturalized citizen from El Salvador who lives in Potomac, was among the first in line.
"I don't think it's fair that people who risk everything to come here live in fear that they're going to be sent back," said Vela, 54. "We have humanitarian policies for people in other countries -- why not here?"
Alan Coleman, a D.C. teacher, said he resents the fact that according to immigration reform proposals, "we could get in trouble if we help illegal immigrants, if we don't turn them in."
Coleman was in the thick of the demonstrators, holding a sign decorated with green shamrocks and reading, "We Were All Immigrants Once."
A 15-year-old from Northwest Washington said he joined the rally because he feels that he and his family are threatened.
His parents are illegal residents from El Salvador, and he worries that they could be deported. His mother, who is a custodian at FBI headquarters, and his father, a landscaper in Virginia, have always stressed the importance of getting good grades in school so he doesn't end up like them.
"My mom works from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m.," he said. "She's like, 'Stay in school; you don't want to be like me. You're lucky to be born here.' "
Although the crowd was mostly Latino -- speakers' statements were routinely translated from English into Spanish -- people representing other ethnic groups also participated. At 16th and I streets, a coalition of Asian American groups posed for pictures and compared posters as they waited for marchers to reach them.
Many of them compared the present-day legislation they are battling to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the subsequent quotas that limited the number of immigrants allowed into the United States.
"It's something people still remember and think about," said Lisa Hasegawa, director of a D.C. Asian advocacy group whose office cleared out to attend the rally. "I think that history of being excluded and not welcome in the country -- those things resonate with us. We went through it."
Many in the group had worked furiously to prepare for the event. Anh Phan, with the Organization of Chinese Americans, kept rejecting possible slogans for signs until she came up with a winner -- a poster of panda celebrity Tai Shan with the caption "Butterstick is the son of immigrants!"
"Well, if we're being precise, it would be 'son of temporary guest workers,' since they're going back," Phan said.
The group Arabs for Immigrant Rights also participated. Rami El-Amine, an information technology worker for the federal government, formed the group two weeks ago to ensure that Arab Americans would be represented at the rally. Badia Albanna, 32, of Takoma Park brought her 4-month-old daughter, Sama Jahmila, who was wearing a pink shirt with a white peace sign.
"It's her third march of the year," Albanna said. "She's got to learn to stand up for stuff, you know? As Arab Americans, our community has been demonized since the terrorist attacks," she said.
"The Latino struggle is similar to ours. We need to stick together, support each other."
Laura Castro said she has begun to think that way, too.
An 18-year-old in stylish sunglasses, she wandered away from the stage, her sign held high above her head. Castro's reasons to be proud were listed on her homemade sign: "Current HS GPA: 4.13, Class Rank: 14 out of 386, Pres. of Spanish Club . . . National Honor Society . . . Am I a criminal?"
Castro is in the United States illegally. Having come from Colombia six years ago to live with her mother in Chesterfield, Va., she overstayed her visa and never returned home. That means she has no valid Virginia driver's license. She will start at Virginia Commonwealth University in the fall, studying toward her goal of becoming a doctor. She will pay out-of-state tuition, and she will not receive any scholarships or grants.
"Because of my status," she said.
But Castro also has had a realization: The issue of immigration has inspired her to speak out and unite her Latino friends, too.
"It used to be like, 'I'm Colombian' or 'I'm from Mexico,' " she said. "Now, it's like, 'I'm Hispanic, I'm Hispanic.' "