Two million join protests as immigrant debate grips US

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The Independent US

The unprecedented wave of immigrants' rights protests sweeping the United States reached a new high yesterday as an estimated two million people took to the streets in 140 different cities around the country ­ an extraordinary mobilisation many supporters are likening to a second civil rights movement.

The National Day of Action took many forms including a consumer boycott by immigrants and labour stoppages. Probably the biggest demonstration took place along the National Mall in Washington where many tens of thousands gathered on a brilliant spring afternoon to listen to speeches urging unity and proclaiming the Hispanic community's love of its adopted nation. Thousands were waving flags. Some were of Latin American countries, but the overwhelming majority waved the Stars and Stripes.

"They want to have a law to make all us criminals," said Celerino Lopez, a construction worker from Oaxaca, Mexico. He and his wife crossed the desert to enter the US illegally nine years ago. He said there were no jobs or opportunities at home.

"We come here to work, we are not terrorists. I want my child to learn English and to get a job," he said.

The demonstration took place just yards from the Capitol, where Senators last week failed to reach agreement on wide-ranging immigration reform that might have offered a way for the nation's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants to achieve legal recognition and greater security.

Politicians from both major parties have been blindsided by the protests, whose size and passion caught everyone off guard. Two weeks ago, Los Angeles saw the biggest protest in its history as half a million people took to the streets. On Sunday, up to half a million marched through the centre of Dallas, while smaller protests rocked such unlikely outposts of immigrant activism as Des Moines, Iowa, and Boise, Idaho.

The immigrants have reacted first and foremost to draconian legislation proposed by radical Republicans in the House of Representatives to criminalise anyone in the country without proper residency papers and to build a military fence along 700 miles of the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border.

But there is also a deeper feeling that in a nation of immigrants it is wrong for millions of people, whose labour is essential to the service economy, to live in the shadows, many of the woefully underpaid and at constant risk of exploitation or abrupt termination. "They are trying to make us criminals but we are not," said Kary Garcia, 17, a high school student whose parents brought her to the US seven years ago from Mexico City. "We do the jobs Americans don't want. We do the hard jobs."

Illegal immigrants pay thousands of dollars for the chance of a new life. One Salvadorian man, Roberto, said he paid $13,000 (£7,500) to smugglers two years ago to bring him and his son. "It took one month. Train, bus, everything," he said.

The protest movement has split Republicans, with radicals sticking to their aggressively anti-immigrant agenda while moderates ­ including President George Bush ­ have appealed for a compromise that would end the unregulated inflow of migrants across the Mexican border and establish a framework recognising the realities of the US labour market.

The Democrats, meanwhile, have largely failed to seize on the issue ­ appearing more afraid of the large number of Americans who don't think immigrants should be cut any slack.

The protests have already pushed the Senate in a more progressive direction. A package that would give most, if not all, illegal immigrants a path to residency and citizenship, establish a guest worker programme and beef up security on the border came close to approval before being scuppered at the last moment.

"Neither party can afford to shrug off or ignore the surging street rallies materialising before their eyes," said Marc Cooper, a border specialist at the University of Southern California's Institute for Justice and Journalism. "They can all do the math. While the 'illegals' can't vote, they have millions of cousins, uncles and even children who can ­ and will."