LOS ANGELES — Demonstrators demanded an overhaul of 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.
Thousands joined May Day rallies from Concord, N.H., to Los Angeles, where scores of marchers gathered downtown.
Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — For all the attention given so far to efforts in Congress to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, nearly 4 in 10 Americans say they don't know enough about it to have an opinion, and fewer than one-quarter could correctly answer a couple of basic questions about it, a new poll shows.
The survey, by the Pew Research Center, underscores an important fact in the immigration debate — most of the public has not yet tuned in. A bipartisan proposal negotiated by eight senators has gathered considerable strength, and Senate debate is scheduled to start next week, but because so many Americans remain unengaged, predictions about the bill's fate almost certainly remain premature.
Just more than half of those surveyed said either that they did not think the immigration bill would have much impact one way or the other on the economy or that they didn't know what impact it would have. Among those who felt the bill would have an economic impact, opinions were almost equally divided about whether the impact would be good or bad.
Opponents of the Senate proposal have tried to slow it down by pointing to the fact that the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing were immigrants. So far, that argument has not gathered much traction, the poll indicates. About one-third of those surveyed said the Boston attack "should be an important factor in the immigration bill debate." They were heavily outnumbered by the 58 percent who said the bombing was "mostly a separate issue."
In Vermont, more than 1,000 people assembled on the Montpelier Statehouse lawn. And in New York, paper rats on sticks bobbed along Sixth Avenue as about 200 protesters set off from Bryant Park, chanting: "What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!" The rats were intended to symbolize abused migrant workers.
The May Day crowds paled in comparison to 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 six years ago, many advocates of looser 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.
Now, immigrant advocacy groups are focusing heavily on calling and writing specific members of Congress, using social media and other technology to target lawmakers.
Reform Immigration for America, a network of groups, claims more than 1.2 million subscribers.
Many of Wednesday's rallies featured speakers with a personal stake in the debate. Naykary Silva, a 26-year-old Mexican woman in the country illegally, joined about 200 people who marched in Denver's spring snow, hoping for legislation that would ensure medical care for her 3-year-old autistic son.
In Seattle, dozens gathered under heavy police presence, one year after some protesters broke windows and set fires.
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.
In Los Angeles, a band playing salsa classics from the back of a truck led a march up Broadway.
"I've held the same job for six years, but I don't have papers," said Mario Vasquez, a supermarket butcher who brought his two Chihuahuas. "Immigration reform would help me and my family and for everybody here."
May Day rallies began in the United States in 2000 during a labor dispute with a restaurant in Los Angeles that drew several hundred demonstrators, said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. 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.
The rallies, which coincide with Labor Day in many countries outside the U.S., often have big showings from labor leaders and elected officials.
Demonstrators marched in countries around the world, with fury in Europe over austerity measures and rage in Asia over relentlessly low pay, the rising cost of living and hideous working conditions that have left hundreds dead in recent months alone.
The New York crowd was a varied bunch of labor groups, immigrant activists and demonstrators unaffiliated with any specific cause. Among them was 26-year-old Becky Wartell, who was carrying a tall puppet of the Statue of Liberty.
"Every May Day, more groups that have historically considered themselves separate from one another come together," she said.
In Brea, a Los Angeles suburb, a small group opposed to the legislation stood on a freeway bridge waving signs at motorists. One read, "No Amnesty."
Spagat reported from San Diego. Associated Press writers contributing to this report include Meghan Barr in New York, Morgan True in Concord, N.H., Lauren Gambino in Salem, Ore., Gene Johnson in Seattle and Alexandra Tilsley in Denver.