Though migrants from Latin America had more visibility, immigrants from South Asia, East Asia and Africa also took part in the New York rally in large numbers.
"You have to be here. You don't have to wait what they decide for you," said Mohammed Savane, an immigrant from the West African nation of Senegal. "We have to see the real bill that helps our families."
The nationwide protests are taking place in response to a recent legislative move by the ruling Republican Party in the House of Representatives that seeks to make many undocumented immigrants felons. The controversial bill is now being debated in the U.S. Senate.
Led by conservative Republican James Sensenbrenner, Jr. of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, the House passed a bill in January that would create a giant fence along the Mexican border, and increase criminal penalties for immigration violations -- including some mandatory minimum sentences -- for people who encourage illegal immigration and for immigrants who return to the United States after being deported.
Last week, Republicans and Democrats appeared close to reaching a compromise that would have allowed many undocumented immigrants to obtain U.S. citizenship, but at the last minute they failed to agree on the text of the bill known as "HR 4437".
Though organized by a coalition of immigrant rights groups, student bodies, trade unions and religious organisations, the rally was also addressed by a number of Democratic politicians and lawmakers.
"People in Washington should know that America cannot live without you," Charles Rangel, a senior Democratic representative, told protesters. "They should know that all people should be able to exercise their dignity in this country."
"They must rethink that their fathers and mothers were also immigrants," said Congresswoman Nina Lowey, referring to those in the ruling party in Washington. "They are wrong and immoral."
Others who spoke at the rally called for comprehensive changes in immigration policy that include a path to citizenship rather than just a temporary guest worker programme, as envisaged by the George W. Bush administration, as well as well the right to join trade unions and family reunification.
According to official estimates, more than 11 million immigrants are living and working in the United States without any official documentation. An overwhelming majority of them are condemned to work for more than 12 hours a day. In addition to earning as little as five dollars an hour, most of them live in constant fear of detention and imprisonment.
Immigrant rights activists say they fear that if the House bill passed the Senate, it would legalise the underground economy and expand the underclass of labour. In their view, the proposal to create a guest worker programme is nothing but an extension of the 1986 Immigration Reform Act, which hurt workers under the guise of punishing employers for knowingly hiring undocumented workers.
"It is now even worse," said Jei Fong, an Asian American trade union activist about the Bush proposal to introduce the guest worker programme. "This legislation doesn't solve the root of the problem. You can't criminalise the workers. They come here because they are drawn here."
Maxine Wolfe, who was born in a family of Polish immigrants in New York, agreed with Fong.
Holding a placard that read, "We are all in the U.S. illegally -- except for the Native American Indians," Wolfe said: "It's really horrifying. This country was built by immigrants. We should open our arms to people."
Some groups that participated in the rally here say they support the Senate bill that was agreed on by the Judiciary Committee last month. "It begins to address our broken immigration system," said Rev. Joan Maruskin of the Washington-based Church World Service in a statement. "It addresses the family backlog so families can be reunited."
But other groups that helped organise the rallies hold different views.
"The Bush administration's foreign and domestic policies are closely intertwined," said Hany Khalil of United for Peace and Justice, an anti-war group that has organised many demonstrations in the past. "Both are premised on aggression, intolerance and manipulation of people's fears."
"We are well aware that this is an important election year," added Leslie Cagan, the group's coordinator. "No one running for office will be able to avoid our questions. We will do everything we can to end the war in Iraq, bring our troops home and stand up for immigrant rights."
UFPJ, along with others, has planned another day of action for immigrant rights and peace on Apr. 27.
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April 10, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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