LOS ANGELES (AP) — Demonstrators demanded an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws Wednesday in an annual nationwide ritual that carried a special sense of urgency as Congress considers sweeping legislation that would bring many of the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally out of the shadows.
May Day rallies were planned in dozens of cities from New York to Bozeman, Montana.
"The invisible become visible on May 1," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which organized what was expected to be the nation's largest rally.
The crowds were not expected to approach the massive demonstrations of 2006 and 2007, during the last serious attempt to introduce major changes to the U.S. immigration system. Despite the large turnouts, many advocates of less strict immigration laws felt they were outmaneuvered by opponents who flooded congressional offices with phone calls and faxes at the behest of conservative talk-radio hosts.
Immigration reform gained little traction in Congress during President Barack Obama's first term, but the November election brought some opposition Republicans to the issue after they watched the growing number of Hispanic voters overwhelmingly side with Obama and Democrats.
A bill now being crafted in the Senate would strengthen border security, allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country, require all employers to check workers' legal status and provide an eventual path to citizenship for immigrants now in the country illegally.
Many rallies featured speakers with a personal stake in the debate. Kristela Hernandez, 21, said she feared separating from her U.S.-born children if her work visa expires.
"I came here for better opportunities for me and now my children," Hernandez told about 100 people outside the Statehouse in New Hampshire. "I'm here to work and to get an education."
The May Day rallies, which coincide with Labor Day in many countries outside the U.S., often have big showings from labor leaders and elected officials.
Salas, whose group is known as CHIRLA, dates the rallies to a labor dispute with a restaurant in the Los Angeles Koreatown neighborhood that drew several hundred demonstrators in 2000. Crowds grew each year until the House of Representatives passed a tough bill against illegal immigration, sparking a wave of enormous, angry protests from coast to coast in 2006.
In Oregon on Wednesday Gov. John Kitzhaber was cheered by about 2,000 people on the Capitol steps as he signed a bill to allow people living in the western state without proof of legal status to obtain drivers licenses.
Gabriel Villalobos, a Spanish-language talk radio host in Phoenix, said many of his callers believe it is the wrong time for marches, fearful that that any unrest could sour public opinion on immigration reform. Those callers advocate instead for a low-key approach of calling members of Congress.
"The mood is much calmer," said Villalobos, who thinks the marches are still an important show of political force.
Spagat reported from San Diego. Associated Press writer Meghan Barr contributed from New York.