Tuesday, April 11, 2006

NEW YORK — Huge numbers of marchers yesterday demanded U.S. citizenship for illegal aliens in dozens of cities from New York to San Diego in some of the most widespread protests since the current wave of demonstrations began last month.

Rallies took place in communities of all sizes, from a gathering of at least 50,000 people in Atlanta to one involving 3,000 people in the farming town of Garden City, Kan., which has fewer than 30,000 residents. Organizers estimated that more than a million attended the marches nationwide.

Demonstrators in New York held signs with slogans such as “We Are America,” “Immigrant Values are Family Values,” and “Legalize Don’t Criminalize.” One sign said: “Bush Step Down.”

“We love this country. This country gives to us everything,” said Florentino Cruz, 32, an illegal alien from Mexico who has been in the United States since 1992. “This country was made by immigrants.”

The protesters have been urging lawmakers to help the estimated 10 million to 12 million illegal aliens stay legally in the U.S.

A bill passed by the House would strengthen the nation’s border with Mexico only, while a broader overhaul of immigration law, which included provisions derided as “amnesty,” stalled in the Senate last week.

In North Carolina and Dallas, immigrant groups called for an economic boycott to show their financial impact. In Pittsburgh and other cities, protesters gathered outside lawmakers’ offices. At the Mississippi Capitol, they sang “We Shall Overcome” in Spanish.

In Atlanta, many in white T-shirts, waving American flags, joined a two-mile march from a largely immigrant neighborhood. The Rev. James Orange from the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda compared the march to civil rights demonstrations led by Martin Luther King and farm-labor organizer Cesar Chavez.

“People of the world, we have come to say this is our moment,” Mr. Orange said.

In New Jersey several hundred people listened to speeches in Spanish and waved U.S., Colombian and Mexican flags, although the foreign flags were less apparent than in previous protests. Hispanic and other leaders had warned for days that such displays were counterproductive.

Hundreds of people gathered in New York’s Washington Square Park before marching to City Hall. Many waved flags, both American and of their countries of origin. Another group marched from Chinatown, and a third demonstration took place in Brooklyn.

Grace Nam, 35, a U.S. citizen of Korean ethnicity, said, “We just need to make our voices heard. You want to live in a place where people are treated with dignity.”

Peter Lanteri, director of New York’s chapter of the Minutemen, a volunteer border watch group, said he thought it was “ridiculous” that illegal aliens were protesting for their rights.

“Illegal is illegal, and they break our laws to come here,” Mr. Lanteri said by telephone. “We want the illegal immigration stopped and the borders secured.”

Supporters in San Diego held a small vigil to honor those who died while illegally crossing the border.

In Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony led a prayer calling on Congress to hear their pleas, before the crowd, estimated by police at 3,500, began an evening march. Protesters also gathered in Fresno, San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento.

More than a thousand people crowded a corner in San Francisco’s largely Hispanic Mission District, chanting “Amnesty. Amnesty.” Others took it a step further, including a man who held a sign that read: “You are on stolen Native American and Mexican land.”

In Phoenix, police and organizers estimated that about 100,000 people marched from the state fairgrounds to the Capitol. Exit ramps were closed and traffic on freeways through downtown was backed up for miles.

In Houston, event organizers estimated that 50,000 people gathered at a park in a largely Hispanic area of town.

Maria Santiago, 53, an outreach coordinator for nonprofit health clinic in Harrisburg, Pa., said she sees many illegal aliens seeking access to health care.

“These are people that are willing to take any job, clean bathrooms, scrub floors for a measly penny so that they have an opportunity to live in this country … and yet we want to send them back because they want a better life?” she said.

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