LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Thousands of immigrants marched through cities across the United States on Thursday, but smaller crowds suggested their cause had lost momentum in this election year.
Immigration-rights activists have retrenched to focus this year’s rallies on stopping workplace raids after Washington failed last year to act on reforms that included a path to legal status for illegal immigrants.
In Los Angeles, an estimated 8,000 people converged on City Hall. But the numbers were nowhere near the 500,000-strong showing in March 2006 that caught authorities off-guard and prompted activists to hail the start of a new civil rights movement.
“This is a very young country built off immigrants. The immigrants of yesterday are citizens today, so immigrants of today should become citizens tomorrow,” said Jose Rodriguez, who came to the United States from Mexico illegally in 1989 and has since gained permanent residency.
“The police are deporting immigrants because they have broken the law but I think there is a higher law and that is to treat someone in a humane way,” said Rodriguez, 42.
In Phoenix, no one turned out to march, in contrast to past years when central thoroughfares were packed with protesters.
In Tucson, Arizona, a few hundred pro-immigration supporters walked through the streets carrying placards with messages such as “Citizenship Yes! Deportation No!” That fell short of organizers’ hopes that several thousand would attend.
‘SHOW SOME MERCY’
Activists said the low turnout stemmed from the failure to push a bill through Congress last year that would have given illegal immigrants a chance to legalize their status. An estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, mainly from Mexico, live in the United States.
“The marches didn’t achieve anything last year and there was no real focus this time,” said Salvador Reza, coordinator of the Macehualli Day Labor Center in Phoenix. “People would go out if there was reason to go out.”
Mark Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University in Houston, said the protests were smaller because activists had lost their momentum during an election year when the issue had largely been put on the back burner.
“I think as an issue it has died away, it isn’t an issue in the campaigns,” Jones said. “They don’t see the need to react to (presidential candidates) Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John McCain. It’s much harder to mobilize people around a messy compromise when there is not a threat.”
A march in Chicago drew only about 2,000 people along the same route into downtown that attracted tens of thousands in the past two years.
About 1,500 protesters gathered in the south end of New York’s Union Square, opposing immigration raids they say had increased on Amtrak passenger trains and Greyhound buses.
In one major raid last month, U.S. immigration agents arrested about 400 employees at five Pilgrim’s Pride Corp chicken plants from West Virginia to Texas in connection with immigration-related crimes, including identity theft.
“It’s too late for this president to do anything on immigration reform. We’re looking to press the next president hard,” Fausto Sicha, 27, an Ecuadorean student, said at the New York rally.
In Washington, several hundred immigrants and activists called for an end to workplace raids.
“We’re here to request that they (authorities) show some mercy and stop the raids and legalize us,” said Teodulfa Alvarez, an illegal immigrant and mother of two living in Virginia.
Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix, Andrew Stern in Chicago, Timothy Gardner in New York and Adriana Garcia in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney