CHICAGO – Thousands of chanting, flag-waving immigrants and activists rallied in cities across the country Thursday, attempting to reinvigorate calls for immigration reform in a presidential election year in which the economy has taken center stage.
From Washington to Miami to Los Angeles, immigrant rights activists demanded citizenship opportunities for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. and an end to raids and deportations.
"We come here to fight for legalization. We're people. We have rights," said Eric Molina, an undocumented factory worker who immigrated to Zion, Ill., from Mexico.
Molina, his sister and his 13-year-old daughter Erika, a U.S. citizen, were among about 15,000 people who rallied in Chicago in one of the largest demonstrations of the day.
Turnout has fallen sharply since the first nationwide rallies in 2006, when more than 1 million people — at least 400,000 in Chicago alone — clogged streets and brought downtown traffic to a standstill. Activists say this year's efforts are focused less on protests and more on voter registration and setting an agenda for the next president.
Some said participation likely was lower because many immigrants increasingly fear deportation.
Margot Veranes, a volunteer organizer in Tucson, Ariz., — where 12,000 took to the streets last year but early estimates Thursday put the crowd at about 500 — blamed the turnout on aggressive enforcement by Border Patrol and police.
"People have been stopped and deported in the last week. This is a community living in fear," said Veranes, a researcher for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. "You never know when you're going to be stopped by Border Patrol and now the police."
But she said that's also why people were marching.
"We're marching to end the raids and the deportations, but we're also marching for health care and education and good jobs," she said.
In Washington, immigrant rights groups and social justice organizations were demanding that Prince William County, in northern Virginia, rescind its anti-illegal immigration measure. They also called for an end to raids and deportations and for establishment of worker centers in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.
Activists also asked the Republican and Democratic national committees to have their presidential candidates enact immigration reform.
A crowd of about 1,000 gathered on the steps of the Oregon Capitol in Salem to call for changes in immigration and workplace laws within the first 100 days of the next congressional session. Many demanded that Oregon reverse a decision, imposed by the Legislature in February, to require proof of legal residence to get a driver's license.
Hugo Orozzo, 17-year-old high school senior, was among hundreds who marched through the streets of southwest Detroit. He was born in the U.S., but his father was born in Mexico and some other family members are originally from Mexico.
"It is going to help my family and friends," Orozzo said of the effort. He carried a preprinted sign that read: "Stop raids and deportations that separate families!" in both English and Spanish.
And in Milwaukee, factory worker Miguel Tesillos, 29, was among hundreds who lined sidewalks waiting for the march to begin.
"Our people, we pay taxes, we pay the same as a citizen," said Tesillos, who has a Green Card. "Maybe the new president can see this point, and do something for us."
But activists say they know it will be a challenge to push their issues to the political forefront.
Immigration reform did not resonate with voters in primary elections who overwhelmingly listed the economy as their top concern. Immigration legislation has stalled and been defeated in the Senate, and presidential candidates have not extensively addressed the issues.
Democratic presidential rivals Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton supported a 2006 bill, sponsored by Republican candidate John McCain, that offered illegal immigrants legal status on conditions such as learning English. All three also have supported a border fence.
In Chicago, 17-year-old Celeste Rodarte marched with a group of her friends from the city's West Side. She said her parents came to the United States more than 20 years ago and became citizens last year.
"I know a lot of people who don't have papers and I want to help them out," Rodarte said.
Seventh-grader Vicente Campos of Milwaukee was granted an excused absence from school to attend the march. He said he was concerned by stories of immigration officials separating parents and children.
"Immigrants come here to support their families in Mexico," said Campos, 13. "They're not all here to do crimes."