'We Decided Not to Be Invisible Anymore'

Alejandro Hernandez, 36, of Manassas (in hat) waves an American flag during the march. He is from Mexico and has been in the United States for 12 years.
Alejandro Hernandez, 36, of Manassas (in hat) waves an American flag during the march. He is from Mexico and has been in the United States for 12 years. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Balz and Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Hundreds of thousands of pro-immigration demonstrators mobilized on the Mall and in scores of cities across the country yesterday in a powerful display of grass-roots muscle-flexing that organizers said could mark a coming-of-age for Latino political power in the United States.

Calling for legal protection for illegal immigrants, the demonstrators -- the overwhelming majority of them Hispanic -- streamed past the White House in Washington, jammed streets near City Hall in Lower Manhattan, marched in Atlanta, held a small candlelight vigil in Los Angeles and, in Mississippi, sang the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" in Spanish.

Demonstrators massed in cities large and small. In tiny Lake Worth, Fla., several thousand legal and illegal immigrants, marching to the beat of drums, demanded fair treatment, with one sign reading "Let Me Love Your Country." In Phoenix, an estimated 100,000 rallied at the Arizona Capitol, with families pushing strollers wedged among construction workers, high school students and old men wearing cowboy hats.

The largely peaceful demonstrations drew only a smattering of anti-immigration protesters.

The rallies came against the backdrop of fierce political struggle in Washington. The House has passed legislation to tighten border security and criminalize illegal immigrants and those who assist them. The Senate is stalemated over a compromise that would provide a path to legal status for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. President Bush has backed the Senate approach but has declined to pressure Republicans to act on it.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that three-quarters of Americans think the government is not doing enough to prevent illegal immigration. But three in five said they favor providing illegal immigrants who have lived here for years a way to gain legal status and eventual citizenship. The idea received majority support from Democrats, independents and Republicans. One in five Americans embraced the House bill, which includes no guest-worker program and would make felons out of those in this country illegally.

The extraordinary outpouring of demonstrators was organized by a loose coalition of church, community and labor organizations and knit together by the burgeoning power of Spanish-language radio and television stations nationwide. The rallies followed Sunday's demonstration in Dallas, which brought up to half a million people into the streets, and an earlier event in Los Angeles that drew more than 500,000. The size of the gatherings has caught the attention of Washington lawmakers.

Unlike some national marches in the past, the pro-immigration rallies have had a bottom-up, organic quality that often surprised organizers and opponents alike. But not everything was spontaneous. In contrast to earlier rallies, which featured Mexican flags and produced a backlash, yesterday's events were awash in American flags after organizers and radio disc jockeys urged demonstrators not to give their opponents something to criticize.

"We had American flags because this is our home and we also wanted to bring part of our heritage," said Salvador Carranza, an organizer of a rally in Madison, Wis. "We believe we are part of this country, and also part of our heritage, so we don't think having other flags is disrespectful."

The rallies signaled that the passions of the immigrant community, which wants Congress to approve comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, are as intense as they are for those whose opposition to illegal immigrants helped put the issue on the national agenda.

Adelina Nicholls, president of the Coordinating Council of Community Leaders in Atlanta and one of the organizers of the march there, said the House bill, regarded as punitive by many legal and illegal immigrants, "was the ignition that is giving fuel to all community and grass-roots groups." She added: "We decided not to be invisible anymore."

Monzerrat Macias, 15, stood with her family under a swaying palm in Lake Worth, listening to the speakers. She said that her mother came to the United States from Mexico in 1981 and that most of the children in the Macias family have been born here. The family turned out "to help our people to get the legalization they deserve," she said. "We deserve to be here, we work hard. We are immigrants, but we are not terrorists."

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