LOS ANGELES – More than half a million immigration advocates marched though downtown Los Angeles in one of the largest demonstrations for any cause in recent U.S. history.
More than 500,000 protesters — demanding that Congress abandon attempts to make illegal immigration a felony and to build more walls along the border — surprised police who estimated the crowd size using aerial photographs and other techniques, police Cmdr. Louis Gray Jr. said.
Wearing white T-shirts to symbolize peace, the demonstrators chanted "Mexico!" "USA!" and "Si se puede," an old Mexican-American civil rights shout that means "Yes, we can."
In Denver, more than 50,000 people protested downtown Saturday, according to police who had expected only a few thousand. Phoenix was similarly surprised Friday when an estimated 20,000 people gathered for one of the biggest demonstrations in city history, and more than 10,000 marched in Milwaukee on Thursday.
"We construct your schools. We cook your food," rapper Jorge Ruiz said after performing at a Dallas rally that drew 1,500. "We are the motor of this nation, but people don't see us. Blacks and whites, they had their revolution. They had their Martin Luther King. Now it is time for us."
Many protesters said lawmakers were unfairly targeting immigrants who provide a major labor pool for America's economy.
"Enough is enough of the xenophobic movement," said Norman Martinez, 63, who immigrated from Honduras as a child and marched in Los Angeles. "They are picking on the weakest link in society, which has built this country."
The U.S. House of Representatives has passed legislation that would make it a felony to be in the U.S. illegally, impose new penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants, require churches to check the legal status of people they help, and erect fences along one-third of the U.S.-Mexican border.
The Senate is to begin debating the proposals on Tuesday.
President Bush on Saturday called for legislation that does not force America to choose between being a welcoming society and a lawful one.
"America is a nation of immigrants, and we're also a nation of laws," Bush said in his weekly radio address, discussing an issue that had driven a wedge into his own party.
Bush sides with business leaders who want to let some of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants stay in the country and work for a set period of time. Others, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, say national security concerns should drive immigration reform.
But many protesters rejected claims the national security claim, noting that the legislation would hurt Hispanics the most.
"When did you ever see a Mexican blow up the World Trade Center? Who do you think built the World Trade Center?" said David Gonzalez, 22, who marched in Los Angeles with a sign that read, "I'm in my homeland."'
Between 5,000 and 7,000 people gathered Saturday in Charlotte, carrying signs with slogans such as "Am I Not a Human Being?" In Sacramento, more than 4,000 people protested immigration legislation at an annual march honoring the late farm labor leader Cesar Chavez.
The demonstrations are expected to culminate April 10 in a "National Day of Action" organized by labor, immigration, civil rights and religious groups.