Activists hoping to re-ignite the immigration debate in time for the presidential elections say this year's efforts are focused less on protests and more on voter registration and setting an agenda for the next president.
Nevertheless, they planned to take to the streets from Miami to Dallas to Los Angeles for May Day rallies.
"We come to let Washington know we're still here. We're still fighting," said Jorge Guzman, 34, a legal immigrant from Mexico.
Guzman was among a group of about 100 marchers from the Chicago suburb of Waukegan, where tension mounted after city officials applied for a federal program that would train local police to help enforce immigration laws. He carried a giant hand-painted banner depicting man being handcuffed by immigration agents and a little girl crying and saying, "Where is my family?"
The demonstrators gathered at Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph St., Thursday morning. They marched to Dirksen Federal Plaza, 219 S. Dearborn St., around noon. Marchers then walked east on Washington Street, south on Des Plaines Street, east on Jackson Boulevard and north on Dearborn Street.
"Chicago is one of the cities that is like a sanctuary that understands and values the contributions of the undocumented immigrants," said Emma Lozano, march organizer.The march was to begin at noon as hundreds amassed at Union Park early, their enthusiasm was hard to contain. They actually started walking early. "Chicago is one of the cities that is like a sanctuary. That understands and values the contribution of the undocumented immigrants," said Lozano. Some brought their entire families to take part. The march seemed to grow in number as marchers made their way through downtown, ultimately to Federal Plaza where some known to the public and some not so well-known encouraged the crowd and applauded their efforts to change immigration policy. "We must say to our fellow citizens that they're part of America," said Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. "We cannot separate families. I cannot take a mother and father and a brother or sister and bring them across anyplace." "Vote, and we will change the laws that oppress us. Vote, and we will give our children a better future," said Roberto Maldanado, Cook County Commissioner. "We demand the right to have access to the United States because the U.S. has become the octopus who has sucked up the riches of the people of the world," said Lionel Jean-Baptiste, Haitian representative. There was representation of a lot of different types of people, including the gay lesbian groups which had not been a part of this before. There was also a lot of talk about politics and the election and being on the next president's agenda, speaker and signs often reminding marchers that "voting is power." In Los Angeles, tens of thousands made their way through downtown and Macarthur Park in support of immigration rights. The march comes one year after a similar rally ended in clashes between police and demonstrators. There were no incidents reported Thursday. In Milwaukee, tens of thousands filled the streets looking for reform in America's immigration laws. Marchers headed downtown to Veterans Memorial Park. Once there, they held a rally. Protesters called for the next president to bring swift reform to immigration laws. Organizers demanded the Bush administration stop raids that are breaking up families in the U.S. Milwaukee's Hispanic population is estimated to be around 270,000. Businesses stay open this year Last year, many businesses gave workers the day off to attend the immigration march. This year, many of those employees stayed on the job instead of taking part in the demonstration. In the past, some businesses even closed their doors on the day of the march. Two years later, it appears the protesters do not have the full support the Latino business community. What is different this time is that business on 26th Street in Little Village and on 18th Street in Pilsen do not appear to be affected by the march. There are no signs in the windows reminding people about the march and telling employees they can take time off to protest. Dan Arce, the owner of Tropical Optical in Little Village said he does not believe marches are that effective. "Hopefully there are other ways to voice their desires. I think there have been so many marches for naturalization," he said. "They don't feel the same vibrance, participation as they did last year," said President Gonzalo Gradilla, Little Village Chamber Of Commerce. Gradilla says last year the Little Village Chamber of Commerce hired buses to take thousands of people to the march. That did not happen this year because of the economy and because people have lost interest. "People weren't pushing it as much and because citizens are not as interested as they were in the past year," he said. Jose Cruz is chair of Immigrationpac, a political action committee that raises funds and supports candidates who are pro-immigration reform. He attended the march. "We are the next step in all this because we have the social movement, which has been the marches up until this point. But nothing's going to happen until we actually get the laws enacted that need to be enacted to have immigration reform in our country," he said. A few weeks ago, Immigration PAC held a fundraiser in Pilsen "Our goal is to raise funds in the 2008 election to elect candidates who are pro-immigrant on immigration reform in swing districts across the country," Cruz said. The Little Village Chamber of Commerce together with Immigrationpac says now is the time for action to promote and support immigration-friendly legislation.
In contrast to years before, fewer demonstrators converged on Chicago's Union Park to march and rally for citizenship for those who don't have it.
"Illinois taxpayers are paying $3.5 billion a year for services for illegal aliens. We're in a budget crisis right now. We have a city and a mayor that has an unquenchable thirst for cheap labor, so that's why we see these people marching in the streets," said Rosanna Pulido, Illinois Minuteman Project.
"Groups like the Minuteman can organize on the basis of racism against people of color. I think they kind of stumble when they try to figure out why is this an issue affecting Irish immigrants and immigrants from Europe as well?" said Shaun Harkin, march activist.
Those wanting stricter citizenship laws still say legalization of the illegal is wrong.
"This nation has been built by immigrants. Everything that you see in the United States has been touched by immigrants. So we are here and we have to show this nation that we are not going to leave," said Linda Sabo, march activist.
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.
Rolling street closures and parking restrictions were initiated along the route to minimize traffic delays and disruptions.
The CTA expected up to 46 bus routes to be impacted by intermittent delays and reroutes. The CTA had extra personnel available to assist customers with the reroutes, but advised customers to allow extra travel time.
Police have made it a top priority to allow the demonstrators to safely exercise their First Amendment rights without interfering with the rights and safety of the non-demonstrators. Police had a full complement of resources deployed, including air patrols to monitor activity on the ground.
Last year, two people were arrested for allegedly leaving graffiti on the route, though police couldn't say for sure if they were marchers. One person was hospitalized for nausea.
The Sun-Times and the Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reseved.