Immigrants, legal and illegal, rally across U.S.

Posted in United States | 03-May-06 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

Demonstrators hold U.S. flags along Wilshire Blvd., during an immigration rally near La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles, Monday, May 1, 2006.
WASHINGTON Thousands of people stayed home Monday from jobs and schools and boycotted stores during a national "Day Without Immigrants" that sought to underscore America's dependence on the labor and spending power of immigrants and to protest legislative efforts to punish undocumented workers.

The largest demonstrations were expected in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, the city where a half-million- strong turnout for a March 25 protest helped infuse Latinos with an unexpected sense of power.

In Chicago, a police spokeswoman predicted a quintupling of the 100,000 seen in that city's March 25 demonstration. Senator Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat whose father was Nigerian, was to address a rally in Grant Park. Some Roman Catholic schools gave students half the day off.

Many McDonald's restaurants limited their hours. Normally bustling open-air markets in New York were unusually calm.

Protest leaders urged workers fearful of being fired to contain their actions to lunch breaks or in-church rallies. Some employers put pressure on workers to come. But others suggested nondisruptive protests, such as signing petitions during breaks. There were pro-immigrant picnics. Some Latino leaders urged a cautious evening protest - with a candle in one hand and an American flag in the other.

Unlike the earlier marches, groups representing Polish, Korean, Chinese and other immigrants planned to join their Latino brethren, who account for nearly 8 in 10 illegal immigrants. Despite a diversity of support, some Cuban-Americans in Florida hesitated to join, saying they saw the marches as the work of leftist groups.

Hundreds of businesses and factories closed across the country, from small Latino-owned landscaping companies to nine factories owned by Tyson Foods, the huge meat producer. Some were bowing to reality.

Others did so to support their workers - including a Utah brewer who surprised his employees by saying he would not only let them off, but would close the plant and declare "Latino Appreciation Day."

The issue has provoked passionate debate, dividing the public and the president's Republican Party on the best approach to dealing with the 11 million or more illegal immigrants. It would take some time for a complete tallying of the day's economic or symbolic impact, but the earlier protests drew starkly different responses.

In Denver, about 500 people marched Sunday in a demonstration held early to accommodate those unable to take part Monday. A counterdemonstration drew about 150 people urging tougher enforcement of immigration laws, the Denver Post reported.

After the earlier marches, some people said they resented the images of people illegally in the country waving the flags of their home nations. Many march organizers exhorted protesters to carry American flags Monday, and they appeared to feature more prominently.

The recent release of a new Spanish- language version of "The Star Spangled Banner" also provoked resentment from some Americans who said it insulted the national anthem. President George W. Bush said the song should properly be sung in English.

Regardless, the protests Monday were portrayed as a victory by march organizers who say immigrants form an essential cornerstone of U.S. economic growth. Most of them support efforts by a bipartisan group of senators and Bush effectively to amnesty illegal immigrants and offer them a path toward citizenship.

Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican of Tennessee, spoke coolly of the protests Monday.

"Protests in favor of illegal immigration have very little sympathy here," meaning in Congress, he said on CBS- TV. But he said he would support efforts, such as in the Senate proposal that appears acceptable to Bush, to fashion a way for illegal migrants to "pay a fine, pay the price, and then learn English and get on a path toward citizenship." Immigrant groups in New York linked hands at 12:16 P.M., to call attention to the date - Dec. 16 - when the House of Representatives voted to make it a felony for migrants to stay in the country illegally, or for others to assist them.

That language provoked deep concern among immigrants that even family members in the country legally could face felony charges.

The competing Senate bill, which is less punitive but which would also bolster border security, faces an uncertain fate.

Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, one of the most prominent Hispanic Democrats in the country, said Monday on CBS-TV that he supported what he called an "earned legalization path," but feared the protests could be a distraction.

The demonstrations fell on a day globally celebrated as a worker's holiday - except in the United States, where Labor Day falls in September.