Where Immigration Rallies Once Drew Hundreds of Thousands, Few Turn Out

Where immigration reform once brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets -- over 500,000 in Los Angeles, 250,000 in Chicago, 100,000 in New York, and while the issue has grown more heated in the courtrooms and politically, immigration rallies have gotten smaller -- much smaller.

Over the last several years, May Day rallies in the United States have been dominated by activists pushing for a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally.

But this year, in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., May Day protests about immigration were overshadowed by Occupy Wall Street  protests over the economy.

Immigration activists say they are not worried about decreasing numbers at rallies because their focus the last few years has been more on getting eligible immigrants to become U.S. citizens and vote.

And yet activists acknowledge the threat to undocumented immigrants may be stronger than ever with the U.S. Supreme Court considering Arizona's tough, controversial crackdown. In 2010, Arizona passed a law that, among other things, required police to ask for immigration papers from anyone they stop or arrest and suspect is in the country illegally. The Obama administration has challenged the law.

The court's ruling could have a far-reaching effect on a handful of states, including Georgia, that have similar laws.

Gustavo Madrigal, a 20-year-old undocumented immigrant who attended the Atlanta May Day rally, said he keeps attending the rallies because he has "always been taught that an American doesn't give up."

Madrigal, who came from Mexico with his parents when he was 9, is applying for scholarships and doing fundraisers in attempt to raise $59,000 to go to Hampshire College in Massachusetts.

"I'm not asking for a handout, free housing or health care. I just want a chance," he said.

Since the last major immigration reform in 1986, which extended amnesty to millions here illegally, activism has ebbed and flowed.

Proposition 187, passed by California voters in 1994, prohibited undocumented immigrants from using social services, including health care and education. The law was eventually thrown out, but it angered many Latinos and helped make California a solidly Democratic state.

In 2005, a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives that would have criminalized anyone who helped undocumented immigrants also had a galvanizing effect. For several months in 2006, hundreds of thousands rallied across the country. The U.S. Senate responded, passing a reform bill that would have given a path to citizenship for millions here illegally.

As is often the norm with immigration, however, the result was paralysis.

As years have turned to decades, immigration activists have had to accept the reality that it could be years or even decades before the issue is dealt with by Congress.

President Barack Obama's election win in 2008 represented arguably the best hope in a generation for so-called comprehensive reform: combining better border security and a crackdown on undocumented workers with a way for millions here illegally to come out of the shadows and stay.

However, even with Democrats controlling both the House and Senate, they couldn't pass immigration reform as health care reform and the economy took center stage. After Democrats took a beating in the 2010 elections, immigration reform had become all but taboo.

"We have been given so much lip service that our lips are sore," said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles.

Cabrera acknowledged that the immigration reform movement was at a low point, with few prospects for change in the near future. Many believe that for major reform to happen, millions more Latinos needed to become U.S. citizens and vote.

Meanwhile, for undocumented immigrants, daily life has gotten harder. Deportations under Obama have gone up sharply. The annual average since 2009 is around 400,000, about 30 percent higher than under President George W. Bush, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

There are also strong indications that fewer immigrants are trying to come to America, and others have gone home.

"Sometimes it feels like every day is like a risk," said Eduardo Villegas, a 38-year-old undocumented immigrant who came to Georgia in the mid-90s, drawn by the construction boom that preceded the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

People pushing for tougher immigration laws and enforcement say the heightened fear in immigrant communities is proof that the tide is turning.

"Every day without a repeat of the 1986 amnesty is a victory for the majority of Americans," said D.A. King, a proponent of Georgia's enforcement-focused immigration law passed in 2011. "The pro-enforcement side is winning, but it isn't pretty."

States have increasingly taken matters into their own hands. After Arizona passed its law, several states followed with similar laws.

Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of small business owners working for immigration reform, said that might be a good thing. While most state-initiated laws focus on enforcement, eventually there will likely be more attempts to better deal with student visas, temporary migrant workers and immigrant entrepreneurs, she said.

"There is a little bit of a thaw" in the states, she said. "Maybe the model is to fix some small pieces, take those off the table, show Democrats and Republicans can work together, and then move on to bigger things."

This report is based on The Associated Press. 

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