In over 70 rallies across the country, tens of thousands of immigrants and their supporters transformed international Labor Day into a day focused on federal immigration reform and the outcry against Arizona’s SB 1070.
In Los Angeles alone, police estimated over 50,000 people marched. In Washington, D.C., Congressman Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Il) was arrested after staging a sit-in directly outside of the White House, in front of a crowd of thousands.
In New York, various ethnic communities marched under a broiling sun, many carrying banners and chanting in Spanish. The protesters, some of whom were calling for a boycott of Arizona, condemned the state for passing a law they believe will racially profile migrants and people of color.
There were two simultaneous rallies in the city. At the larger one in Foley Square, immigrants were joined by labor unions and New York political officials. Union Square saw a smaller rally comprised of protesters who support immigration reform, but who vehemently reject the legislative proposal supported by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY).
In Foley Square, marchers chanted, “Si, se puede” (Yes, we can), and “Amnestia ahora” (Amnesty now). Danvy (who declined to give her last name), a Vietnamese immigrant and Brooklyn Tech student, said she joined the rally at Foley Square to “fight for immigrant rights and labor reform.” She had only one word for SB 1070: “racist.”
Cynthia Otero from Queens joined protesters at Union Square with her husband, Leo, and 2-year-old son, Christian. The have relatives in Arizona, and Otero said they were marching for them.
“They want to leave (Arizona), it’s so sad,” she said. “The law is against the Constitution and against human rights. They are treating immigrants there like animals. Why? We pay taxes.”
Alma Ramos and her three children David, 7; Rosalie, 6; and Bryan, 5; immigrants from Mexico, were also in the crowd at Union Square.
“I think we have rights like everybody else,” said Ramos, an English language student and Brooklyn resident. “We need a law that will help us work here and not punish us.”
Bernadette Ellorin of the Filipino grassroots organization Bayan USA, said SB 1070 dismisses the 12 million undocumented immigrants as “undesirable beings who not only are a burden to society, but also threaten national security.”
Schumer’s proposal, which seeks to impose a national ID card, is not the solution, she added.
“The Schumer Plan on immigration is no better as it does not grant immediate legalization, continues to militarize the border, and will ominously mean biometric identification for all people in this country,” said a statement issued by the rally organizers.
In Phoenix, Arizona, the rallies were focused more on protesting SB 1070 than on calling for immigration reform.
The PUENTE movement, organizers of a “consulta popular” – or public forum – invited people to gather outside the State Capitol at 3 p.m, though hundreds arrived as early as noon. There was a strong youth presence, but advocates of all ages were there.
Hector Ortega, 64, and Graciela Ortega, 62, came out to protest for the first time from the town of Maricopa, about one hour from Phoenix.
“Undocumented immigrants come here to work, they don’t come to live on charity,” said Ortega, who is a U.S. citizen born in New Mexico. “What they are trying to do to them will also influence us. It hurts me that I would have to carry my documents with me when no-one else would.”
Ortega would like the federal government to file a lawsuit to stop SB 1070.
“It they stop me, I’m not going to cooperate. If they ask for papers I won’t show them,” he said.
The number of protesters grew throughout the day, ultimately reaching around 4,000.
But a lot of people admitted that there was an atmosphere of fear in the state, making it difficult for undocumented immigrants to march. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio had held an immigration sweep the day before.
“Instead of laying low for a while, Arpaio makes this thing bigger by holding another raid,” said Ortega.
But some undocumented immigrants like Rosario, 32, from Morelos, Mexico, took the chance and showed up at the rally.
“I don’t want to leave because I want my daughters to continue to study here. We should stay till the end,” she said. “I have a lot of turmoil inside, I don’t feel comfortable anymore because we are not welcomed here.”
While most of the protesters were Latino, people from of many ethnic backgrounds joined the call against the new Arizona law.
“They need to move quick or other states will start to copy us,” said Mary Lou Evans, 72, who broke into tears at the thought of families being separated by the new law.
Roberta Tekala, a representative of the Native American Tohono O’Dham nation, near Tucson, joined the rally in Phoenix.
“I don’t want to be stopped and stereotyped,” she said. “There’s got to be a better way to pinpoint the illegal immigration than having everybody against each other, because I see the racial tensions.”
Alfredo Gutiérrez, a former democratic Arizona senator and editor of La Frontera Times said he had little faith that the federal government would act to stop the Arizona bill, though they have the power to cancel the 287(g) agreements that allow for local police to enforce immigration law. Gutiérrez is supporting a international boycott against the state.
“It is sad to see someone at the level of Obama to do so little,” said Gutiérrez.
Cristina DC Pastor contributed reporting from New York and Valeria Fernandez from Phoenix.