By Kevin Bogardus - 05/01/10 09:50 PM EDT
Protesters marched on the White House Saturday in a call for comprehensive immigration reform as part of a nationwide May Day effort.
Hundreds filled Lafayette Park outside the White House to hear immigration activists and union leaders to speak at a rally pushing for action on the issue. Many called on President Barack Obama to fulfill his 2008 campaign pledge of signing immigration reform into law once he was elected.
Estimates were about 5,000 at a protest in Manhattan, according to the Associated Press, and the Los Angeles Times pegged the number of protesters in the tens of thousands, less than the 100,000 for which police had braced.
The climax of the Washington protest was when about 40 activists, including Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), linked arms and sat down in front of the White House. Gutierrez and others were arrested once they did not heed warnings from the police to leave the area.
A particular cause of anger was the recently passed state law in Arizona that allows state police to stop suspected illegal immigrants and ask for their proof of U.S. citizenship. Several protesters wore T-shirts saying “We are all Arizona” or “Deport me instead” while speakers criticized the state for passing the law.
Cheers switched between “Si se puede” and “Yes we can” among the crowd during the protest while speakers addressed the rally in both English and Spanish.
Prevalent among the protest’s speakers were high school students who called for the DREAM Act to be passed, which would allow undocumented foreign students who have graduated from high school to earn permanent residency in the United States. Others called on Obama to put an end to the deportation of illegal immigrants.
Workers in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) were also at the protest. The union has been the most aggressive of the labor groups in calling for comprehensive immigration reform.
“We must have fair and balanced reform to ensure immigrants are full participants in our economic recovery. Enforcement-only tactics break up our families, disrupt businesses, distract local law enforcement and drain local budgets,” said Jaime Contreras, capital area director of the New York-based SEIU Local 32BJ, at the protest.
Immigration protests had reached a peak on April 10, 2006, when reaction to the Sensenbrenner bill -- the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 -- sent half a million into the streets in Los Angeles alone. May Day of that year was called "The Great American Boycott," with about 400,000 marching in Chicago.
On May 25, 2006, the Senate passed the McCain-Kennedy Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, but that bill and the Sensenbrenner bill failed to emerge from conference by the end of that Congress.
By a year later, though, the numbers at protests nationwide had markedly dropped, and the issue had been pushed to the back burner as two candidates in favor of comprehensive immigration reform competed for the White House, and Obama made healthcare reform his first big domestic priority as president.
Several at the rally carried signs saying passing comprehensive immigration reform would help the flagging economy. They cited a UCLA study that says passing reform could grow the economy as much as $1.5 trillion.
was surrounded by well-wishers and press before he took the stage to
speak. The Illinois Democrat has become one of the most vocal advocates
for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
“We are all from Arizona and we will not rest until the law is repealed in Arizona!” Gutierrez said to cheers from the crowd.
The lawmaker said Senate Democrats announcing a framework for immigration reform earlier this week was “movement in the right direction.”
But while acknowledging protesters’ anger toward Democrats, including the president, Gutierrez said people should not forget that Republicans have been less willing this year to pass legislation on the issue.
“We should be talking about shame. Shame that there is not one Republican to join us in our cause for justice for our immigrant community,” Gutierrez said.
To emphasize their commitment to comprehensive immigration reform, the congressman said he and other activists planned to be arrested in front of the White House after his speech. He said much like advocates in the movements for civil rights and women’s suffrage, immigration activists must make personal sacrifices for the greater good.
“In every fight, in every struggle, there are moments where you must escalate,” Gutierrez said.
The lawmaker was later arrested by police as he joined activists in their protest in front of the White House.
Bridget Johnson contributed to this report