Turnout low, but immigrant rallies hopeful
By Anna Gorman and Tami Abdollah, Times Staff Writer
7:29 PM PDT, March 25, 2007
Human chain: As they listen to speakers, Doris Melendez hugs her tired daughter after marching around the Federal building and making a human chain around it to protest the war and demand immigaration reform. (Karen Tapia-Andersen / LAT)
LOS ANGELES — Immigrant-rights rallies staged today to commemorate the anniversary of last year’s Los Angeles march and to call for reform legislation were marked by low turnout and a counterdemonstration denouncing illegal immigration.
Nearly 5,000 immigrants and supporters gathered at the Sports Arena for an event dubbed “Justice for Our Families,” featuring mariachi music and speeches by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other politicians.
Carrying American flags and waving banners that read, “We are America,” the participants signed prewritten letters to Congress calling for legalization for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants and an end to deportations and raids. Organizers said they received about 6,000 signed letters.
Although the crowds fell far short of the 10,000 expected, participants were hopeful that this would be the year for immigration reform. Last week, Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., introduced a bill that would include a path to citizenship, create a new worker program and overhaul the nation’s visa system.
“The government has to listen to us,” said Raymundo Aguilar, 40, a tree trimmer who sneaked across the border more than two decades ago. . “We aren’t just a few, we are millions.”
Like many other illegal immigrants at the rally, Aguilar said he pays taxes and contributes to the economy and simply wants a way to work here legally.
Berenice Bautista, a 15-year-old undocumented immigrant at Wilson High School, gave a tearful plea to the arena audience to keep pushing for reform.
“We might not see anything overnight, but the process is already under way,” said Bautista, who came from Michoacan when she was 2. “We can’t give up.”
The energy and crowds didn’t compare to last year’s protest, when more than 500,000 protesters took to the streets against proposed legislation that would have criminalized undocumented immigrants and those who help them.
“My proudest moment as mayor of Los Angeles was greeting a half-million families during last year’s march,” Villaraigosa told the crowd at the Sports Arena. “We are saying that in this great and generous America there ought to be a pathway to citizenship.”
Organizers from community and immigrant-rights groups attributed the small turnout in part to the fear and uncertainty felt among undocumented immigrants and to a backlash against them after last year’s protests.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but I’m cautiously optimistic that we can get it done,” said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for Central American Resource Center. “We are going to have to do a lot of outreach.”
While the rally at the Sports Arena remained peaceful, a nearby counterdemonstration staged by anti-illegal-immigration activists became raucous as they traded insults and racial epithets with pro-immigrant protesters. About 150 Los Angeles Police Department officers marched between the two groups as they headed toward City Hall.
About 200 anti-illegal-immigration activists carried American flags and signs reading “Mexican gangsters belong in Mexico” and “Deportation? Si, se puede!”
“What do we want? Deportation,” they chanted. “When do we want it? Now.”
“I would not be welcomed into their country, and they are not welcome into mine,” said Barbara Coe, founder and chair of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform.
“It’s a double standard,” said Debra Bedoy, 54, of Upland, who wore a “Save Our State” pin and carried a bottle of pepper spray. “If you’re an American citizen and break the law, you get a ticket or you get arrested, but for illegal immigrants who come here and are breaking a federal law, it’s overlooked. Nobody does anything … we’re fed up.”
A crowd of about 60 immigrant supporters gathered on an adjacent corner, making their voices heard by waving Mexican flags, stomping on the American flag and, in at least one case, burning it.
“Racists!” they yelled at the anti-illegal-immigrant groups.
Their numbers grew as downtown workers joined in. Celina Rivera, 43, a Salvadoran immigrant who works in a bridal shop, came out to see what was going on. “America is free!” she yelled.
In a separate rally, several hundred gathered outside a church, intending to march to the downtown federal building and immigration offices and encircle them by joining hands in a human chain to demand an end to deportations. When they reached the buildings, they held hands but made it only halfway around the buildings.
Concern about recent federal immigration raids around the country ran deep among marchers.
Waldir Ramaz, 39, a truck driver from Compton, carried his 5-year-old daughter Lauren on his shoulders as he marched. Ramaz, a legal resident from Guatemala, fears for his Mexican wife, Rosalina, 35, an undocumented immigrant for 18 years.
She “goes to work nervous and comes home nervous” that she will be picked up by authorities, Rosalina said.
Hilda Bautista and Ricardo Gutierrez, both undocumented immigrants from Oaxaca, Mexico, said their hopes for citizenship rested with their three U.S.-born children rather than the current Congress.
“As they grow older, so does our hope that one day they’ll be able to vote and elect people who will pass laws that protect us immigrants,” said Gutierrez, 45, a custodian at the University of California, Los Angeles. “In the meantime, it’s important to keep reminding the lawmakers that we’re here.”
Times staff writers Francisco Vara-Orta and Tony Barboza contributed to this report.