Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Hundreds of thousands of immigration rights supporters descended on the Mall yesterday, urging lawmakers on Capitol Hill to legalize the nation’s estimated 10 million to 12 million illegal aliens and to defeat a House bill aimed at making them felons.

The Mall turned into an undulating sea of white shirts and American flags dotted with banners of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Protesters said they wanted to promote peace and show their love for the United States while supporting their homelands.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, spoke to the crowd and prayed.

“We are in a historic moment in our nation’s history,” he said. “Let us not now turn inward after all these centuries. We are all God’s children, all brothers and sisters in his one human family.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said at the rally, “We are a nation of immigrants. This debate goes to the heart of who we are as Americans.”

Organizers handed out blue signs that read, “We Are America,” and small U.S. flags. Last week, they answered critics by discouraging the display of flags from Latin American nations.

Organizers estimated the crowd size on the Mall at 500,000, at one point stretching from Seventh to 13th streets. More than 1 million marchers participated in more than 140 rallies across the country to observe the National Day of Action for Immigrant Justice. The District’s Metropolitan Police Department did not provide crowd estimates.

Moving to salsa beats, protesters chanted, “Today, we march, tomorrow, we vote,” and held signs saying, “We are not criminals” and “God doesn’t discriminate. Why do you?”

Frank Raddish, founder and general director of the Capitol Hill Independent Baptist Ministries, was skeptical that the demonstration would have any influence on Congress or on Americans’ views about illegal immigration.

“Our politicians on Capitol Hill are acting very cowardly and they are trying to pass a very liberal immigration reform bill at the time of an election year to promote their own political futures,” Mr. Raddish said.

Federal law-enforcement authorities said it was impossible to determine how many of the protesters nationwide were undocumented, but they were confident that some illegal aliens were involved.

“It’s just impossible to know unless you sent agents to the rallies and asked every single person to prove they are legal residents,” said a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official who asked not to be identified.

He said ICE could not use its 5,500 investigators assigned to myriad cases to question more than 1 million protesters.

Cristal Rodriguez, 17, a Mexican-Salvadoran student from Silver Spring, said she thinks the protests will “make a difference.”

“We have to go against these bills that are trying to make us look like criminals,” said the Albert Einstein High School senior. “Friends, neighbors, people who go to my church, everybody is affected by this.”

Officials with CASA of Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group that helped plan the event, arranged 20 buses of high school students on spring break from Virginia and nine from Maryland.

Montgomery County students who attended the rally were eligible to receive community-service credits toward their graduation requirements.

Several blacks and Asians rallied alongside Hispanics.

Huy Do, an immigrant from Vietnam, said he would receive community service credit from Albert Einstein High School, where he is a junior, but that he had another reason to attend the rally.

“I just came down here to support all immigrant people,” said Huy, 16. “It’s my pleasure to support them and give them a chance for a better life.”

Montgomery Blair High School student Josephine Camara, 19, who emigrated from Guinea in Africa, said she identifies with the Hispanics.

“For me, as an immigrant, I shouldn’t sit home and say it’s only for Hispanic people,” she said. “I don’t think the country will go forward without immigrants.”

Kate Mesch, 40, brought her daughters to the rally as a lesson on the United States.

“We are so lucky just by chance to be here,” she said. “But for the grace of God this could be our family trying to come to the U.S. I am a child of immigrants — just a long time ago.”

• Jerry Seper contributed to this report.

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