20,000 in Phoenix rally for migrants City's biggest demonstration ever part of national wave; marchers call for legalizing undocumented immigrants

Yvonne Wingett and Susan Carroll The Arizona Republic Mar. 25, 2006 12:00 AM

Tens of thousands of Latinos marched up and down 24th Street on Friday, protesting federal legislation that would criminalize undocumented immigrants. Police said the rally, which snarled traffic and angered some business owners, was the largest demonstration in Phoenix history.

The show of might surprised organizers as largely immigrant construction workers, students and community activists took the day off and jammed the street, marching north from St. Agnes Catholic Church near McDowell Road to Camelback Road and Republican Sen. Jon Kyl's office.

Phoenix police estimated the crowd to be upward of 20,000; the rally coincided with a march in Tucson, where about 400 to 800 more marched to Kyl's office there.

During the loud but peaceful midmorning rallies, demonstrators vented frustration over controversial U.S. House Bill 4437, sponsored by Wisconsin Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner. The bill would, in part, make it a felony to be in the country illegally.

"I took today off of work," said Demirel Montiel, 29, who marched with his wife and three children. "I'm here for all the illegal people. Everybody's tired, tired that people think we're criminals. If you drive, you're a criminal. If you work, you're a criminal. If you're Mexican, you're a criminal."

The march comes as U.S.-born Latinos and immigrants in cities around the country have demonstrated for immigration reform and plan massive rallies this weekend in Los Angeles, New York and Denver.

The demonstrations coincide with the U.S. Senate's debate Tuesday on immigration legislation. Its Judiciary Committee, which Kyl serves on, must finish writing the legislation on Monday. Before lawmakers left for recess last week, they reached a tentative deal that would allow the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country to earn legal status. Political experts and activists within Arizona's pro-immigrant movement said the series of marches is a sign that momentum is building for immigration reform.

Getting organized

The push for reform in Arizona started years ago, but organizers said the first sign of a significant shift was a 5,000-strong rally at the state Capitol earlier this year. The momentum has continued to build, advocates said, along with a growing coalition of humanitarian, environmental, church and union groups that have signed on to oppose the legislation that would penalize undocumented immigrants.

At least 16 immigration advocacy groups, about 60 evangelical churches of several denominations and a weeks-long Spanish and English media blitz galvanized marchers. A handful of local organizers earlier this year met with other activists from around the country in California where they developed a coordinated strategy to address what they perceive to be a growing anti-illegal-immigration sentiment.

Out of that, they said, came Friday's rally in Phoenix, the rally in Chicago, which drew upward of 100,000, and Thursday's march in Milwaukee.

"There's an urgency now," said Jennifer Allen, a founder of the Arizona-based Border Action Network, which organized the Tucson rally. "We're putting forward our hopes and our dreams and our resistance . . . to bills that would criminalize pretty much everyone here."

Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has introduced a companion bill to HB 4437 in the Senate that also would make it a felony to be in the United States without proper paperwork.

Other proposals in Washington include a bill by Kyl and GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas that would require workers to leave the United States to apply for temporary-work permits. A bipartisan bill by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, seeks to stem illegal immigration by creating more ways for workers to enter legally.

Protesters, waving signs that read, "I am American," largely called for immigration reform that would legalize undocumented immigrants.

Megaphones, Mexican and U.S. flags and the rallying cry "S se puede" (Yes, we can) empowered the demonstrators. The march began with a 9 a.m. rally at St. Agnes. The trek north began just after 11 a.m., gaining bodies with every block as news helicopters hovered overhead and Popsicle peddlers sold cold treats.

The demonstration snarled traffic and virtually paralyzed businesses along 24th Street, a strip of Latino-owned carnicerias (butcher shops), llanterias (tire shops) and furniture import stores. It drew criticism from some owners, applause from others. Many marchers said construction crew supervisors, landscape-business owners, and even school principals, gave them the day off so they could march.

'Sleeping giant'

"I lost $200 today," said 38-year-old Felix Lopez, a Mexico City native and concrete layer. "I don't care. I want to help my people. The (Sensenbrenner) law is bad for immigrants. It's time for the sleeping giant to wake."

The mass of people rallied to Kyl's office at 22nd Street and Camelback Road, where organizers dropped off a one-page letter urging him to oppose the Sensenbrenner bill.

Kyl was unavailable for comment after the rally but responded with a prepared statement: "I have advocated for the adoption of a comprehensive plan that increases border security, provides a temporary-worker program, ensures enforcement of our laws at the border and at the workplace, and deals with those illegal immigrants already in the country."

Construction workers and professionals from office buildings watched the scene from several stories up as police cars looped the crowd back around from the Biltmore area to St. Agnes for a rally.

"This is only the beginning," said Alfredo Gutierrez, a former state lawmaker. "I think it's bigger than any anti-war demonstration we've had. I've never seen anything like it."

In Tucson, 400 to 800 protesters gathered outside Kyl's office, lining the shoulder of a busy road on the north side of the city. They waved American flags and carried hand-painted signs that read, "Humanitarian aid is never a crime." Construction workers, still wearing painting coveralls, stopped by on their lunch breaks.

A mother's view

Estella Cruz, a 30-year-old housewife, brought her daughters, ages 3 and 5. She and her husband, undocumented immigrants from Mexico, have lived in Tucson for 10 years. Cruz's husband, who works for a tiling company, couldn't get time off work.

So she and the girls (their 8-year-old son was in school) came out to show support for immigration reform that she hoped would give her family a chance at normalcy.

"We're good people," she said. "We belong to a church. We give money to the Red Cross. We pay our taxes. We have car insurance.

"We really would want to be able to go back to Mexico and visit our families and be able to come back here (legally)," she said.

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