NEW YORK – Hundreds of thousands of people demanding U.S. citizenship for illegal immigrants took to the streets in dozens of cities from New York to San Diego on Monday in some of the most widespread demonstrations since the mass protests began around the country 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.
Demonstrators in New York City 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 worker 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 an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants settle legally in the United States. A bill passed by the House would crack down on illegal immigrants and strengthen the nation's border with Mexico. A broader overhaul of immigration law stalled in the Senate last week.
Monday's demonstrations followed a weekend of rallies in 10 states that drew up to 500,000 people in Dallas and tens of thousands elsewhere. Dozens of other rallies, many organized by Spanish-language radio DJ's, have been held nationwide over the past two weeks, including one with more than 500,000 people in Los Angeles.
In the nation's capital, thousands of immigrants, their families and supporters marched Monday from Hispanic neighborhoods past the White House, then converged on the National Mall.
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 the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and farm-labor organizer Cesar Chavez.
"People of the world, we have come to say this is our moment," Orange said.
In New Jersey — with the Statute of Liberty in the background — several hundred people listened to speeches in Spanish and waved U.S., Colombian and Mexican flags.
Thick crowds gathered in New York's Washington Square Park before marching to City Hall. Many waved flags, both American and of countries of their origin. Korean-Americans beat drums nearby. Another group marched from Chinatown, and a third demonstration took place in Brooklyn.
Police declined to estimate the size of the crowds, but organizers said 125,000 people were present at City Hall.
One of the Korean drummers, Grace Nam, 35, who is an American citizen, 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 immigrants were protesting for their rights.
"Illegal is illegal, and they break our laws to come here," Lanteri said by telephone. "We want the illegal immigration stopped and the borders secured."
Supporters in San Diego held a ceremony to honor immigrants who died while illegally crossing the border.
In Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony led thousands of protesters in prayer outside a downtown church, calling on Congress to hear their pleas, before the crowd began an evening march. Police estimated the crowd at 7,000.
Thousands of other protesters also gathered in Fresno, San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento.
In Phoenix, police and organizers estimated that about 100,000 people marched from the state fairgrounds to the Capitol for a rally. Exit ramps were closed and traffic on freeways through downtown was backed up for miles. At one point, the crowd stretched more than two miles.
In Houston, event organizers estimated that 50,000 people gathered at a park in a largely Hispanic area of town as they rallied to march toward the spot where the city's founders first arrived.
More than 2,500 protesters gathered in a Homestead, Fla., park, where organizers displayed baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables as a reminder that much of the country's harvest is picked by illegal immigrants.
Maria Santiago, 53, an outreach coordinator for nonprofit health clinic in Harrisburg, Pa., said she sees many illegal immigrants 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?" Santiago said.