- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 2, 2009

MIAMI | Immigrants and their families gathered at rallies across the country Friday to push for changes to U.S. immigration policy, but as the swine flu outbreak continued to spread, attendance at some events was smaller than organizers had hoped.

The area hardest hit by the swine flu is Mexico, the native home of many rally participants. There were no immediate reports of canceled events, but Juan Pablo Chavez, a Tampa-based organizer for the Florida Immigration Coalition, said he and others were monitoring the situation and were in close contact with state health care officials.

“If they tell us to halt the events, we will cancel immediately. But for now, we are simply asking people who are sick not to come out,” Mr. Chavez said.

Organizers are seeking to channel the political muscle Hispanics showed last fall in support of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. They hope that energy will jump-start stalled efforts to pass an immigration law that provides a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.

They had hoped crowds would equal or exceed those of last year, down from the 2006 turnout, when a stringent immigration bill poised to pass in Congress drew massive protests.

Thousands were expected at events in Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and other cities - mostly in the late afternoon, when workers had finished their shifts. But early reports suggested turnout would be far lower than in previous years.

In Chicago, rally goers chanted and carried signs demanding citizenship opportunities as they gathered at Union Park, and unfurled a banner of flags stitched together from countries across the globe. Organizers said they expected about 15,000 at the event, but the crowd appeared to be much smaller.

Waukegan, Ill., resident Armando Pena said he was disappointed that more people didn’t turn out and blamed the low numbers on a combination of the flu and tough economic times.

“The economy is so bad they don’t want to lose their jobs,” said Mr. Pena, who organized a contingent of about 50 people.

A line of about 225 marchers made its way down the main thoroughfare in New Jersey’s largest city Friday, stopping to recite chants and gather for a vigil in front of the federal immigration building in Newark.

The marchers were led by dozens of Latin American ice cream vendors wheeling pushcarts decorated with bright umbrellas and covered in signs. One read “Say Reform, Not Raids.”

In Miami, activists planned to gather downtown across from the turquoise waters of Biscayne Bay for a rally and march. They also want temporary protection for the state’s large community of Haitian immigrants, whose native island has been devastated in recent years by hurricanes and floods.

In New York City, participants were set to gather in Union Square. Immigrant, labor and faith communities gathered under a light drizzle at Madison Square Park.

Activists’ hopes have been buoyed with Mr. Obama in the White House and a Democrat-controlled Congress, in part because they believe the Hispanic vote, about two-thirds of which went to Mr. Obama, helped to flip key battleground states such as Colorado and New Mexico. Many Hispanics strongly back comprehensive immigration reform, which they believe Mr. Obama owes them.

The White House announced this week that it would refocus its resources on prosecuting employers who hire illegal immigrants. And a Senate Judiciary subcommittee took up immigration this week for the first time in the new Congress.

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