* Hispanic groups march in U.S. cities
* Widespread anger at Arizona’s harsh migrant law
* Pressure on Washington to act on reform
PHOENIX, May 1 (Reuters) - Angered by Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigrants, Hispanic protesters took to the streets on Saturday to denounce the new law and call on Washington to act urgently on immigration reform at May Day rallies across the United States.
In a sea of American flags and banners painted with “We Are All Arizona” and “Overturn Arizona Apartheid,” tens of thousands of marchers, dressed in white, turned out in downtown Los Angeles, where police expected “a very large crowd.”
More than 70 protests were planned by immigration rights activists in U.S. cities, including in the Arizona capital, Phoenix, where the governor signed the toughest immigration law in the nation eight days ago.
Activists want a repeal of the law that seeks to drive illegal immigrants out of the U.S.-Mexico border state. They are also pressuring President Barack Obama to deliver on his election promise to overhaul immigration laws. An estimated 10.8 million illegal immigrants live in the United States.
“What is happening in Arizona is making the community come out to the street,” said activist Omar Gomez in Los Angeles.
The Arizona law requires state and local police to determine people’s immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” they are in the United States illegally.
Supporters say it is needed to curb crime in the desert state, which is home to some 460,000 illegal immigrants and is a major corridor for drug and migrant smugglers from Mexico.
Critics say the law is unconstitutional and opens the door to racial profiling.
Polls show it has the backing of almost two-thirds of Arizona voters and majority support nationwide. The law has prompted legal challenges and hurled immigration back on the front burner of U.S. politics in this volatile election year.
‘ABOUT PEOPLE’S SKIN COLOR’
“The law is racist, it’s about people’s skin color ... we need to stop it for the good of everyone,” said Juan Rodriguez, 24, a Mexican restaurant worker who was among some 300 gathered in central Phoenix.
Music stars Gloria and Emilio Estefan helped lead the L.A. march and hoped it would send a loud message to Arizona and Washington.
“Every American has the right to protect where they live,” said Gloria Estefan, a Cuban-American.
“But that doesn’t give them a reason to pass a law that could create racism and discrimination against Hispanics who contribute a lot to this country.”
In Washington, Democratic eight-term Representative Luis Gutierrez from Obama’s home state of Illinois, was arrested with 34 others after they locked arms and sat in front of the White House fence, chanting Obama’s campaign slogan, “Yes we can” in Spanish.
Organizers had expected turnout at rallies to be at the highest levels since 2006 and 2007, when hundreds of thousands of immigration rights protesters marched in U.S. cities. Crowds in most cities appeared to be smaller early on Saturday.
DEMOCRATS IN A BIND
Arizona’s law has renewed pressure on the federal government to fix the country’s immigration system, and revived efforts by Democrats to enact immigration reform.
Republicans in 2007 killed a comprehensive bill to overhaul immigration laws, which would have tightened border security and granted a path to citizenship for the undocumented.
A framework set out by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was quickly endorsed by Obama on Thursday, although it has no Republican backing, and analysts see only a slim chance of its passing this year.
Organizers for the rally in Chicago, where activists turned out to protest the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team at a game this week, said a few thousand marchers turned out.
In Everett, Massachusetts, about 2,000 people marched toward Boston, urging a drive to legalize undocumented migrants.
“People come to this country to work,” said Salvadoran Jose Chicas, 38, who held a sign reading: “No human being is illegal.” (Additional reporting by Scott Malone in Boston, Bradley Dorfman in Chicago, Jill Serjeant and Norma Galeana in Los Angeles, David Schwartz in Phoenix and Andrea Shalal-Esa in Washington; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)
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