LOS ANGELES - Thousands of people marched through downtown on Saturday, demanding a way for the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to become citizens and condemning President Bush's latest proposal.
Carrying signs saying "Amnesty Now!" and "Love Thy Neighbor, Don't Deport Him," about 15,000 people danced to Mexican ranchera music, chanted "Si, se puede!" or "It can be done!" and passed large American flags over the crowd.
Many were angry about a White House plan that would grant illegal immigrants work visas but require them to return home to apply for U.S. residency and pay a $10,000 fine.
"Charging that much, Bush is going to be even more expensive than the coyotes," said protester Armando Garcia, 50, referring to smugglers who transport people across the Mexican border.
Immigrant rights advocates say many of the area's illegal immigrants feel betrayed by President Bush, who they had long considered an ally. While illegal immigrants and advocates have long focused their ire at conservative Republicans and Congress, many had seen Bush as an advocate of immigration reform because he had repeatedly said he favors giving many illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
The White House's draft plan, leaked last week, calls for a new "Z" visa that would allow illegal immigrant workers to apply for three-year work permits. They would be renewable indefinitely, but would cost $3,500 each time.
Then to become legal permanent residents, illegal immigrants would have to return to their home country, apply at a U.S. embassy or consulate to re-enter legally and pay a $10,000 fine.
The proposal has been sharply criticized by Hispanic advocacy groups, Democrats, the Roman Catholic Church and unions that have many immigrants in their ranks. They argue the cost of work permits and the green card application - which could total more than $20,000 - are prohibitive for low-wage earners.
"For my wife and I it would cost about $30,000," said Francisco Gomez, 41, who along with his wife is in the country illegally. "Multiply that by all the illegal immigrants here ... It's obvious Bush just wants to fund his Iraq war with our money."
The plan is far more conservative than the one passed by the Senate last year with bipartisan backing and support from President Bush. That plan would have allowed many of the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to stay in the United States, work and apply to become legal residents after learning English, pay small fines and back taxes and clear a background check.
Many Senate conservatives opposed that plan, and it failed to gain traction in the then Republican-controlled House, which at the end of 2005 passed the punitive immigration reform bill that angered immigrant communities and led to massive protests.
"Last year, we were fighting for legalization, and this year we are fighting for legalization and against all these raids," said Maria Lopez, 50, an illegal immigrant who works as a seamstress and sends $200 a month home to family members in Mexico.
"We have no way to come up with that much money, and Bush knows that," she said. "He is doing this on purpose so we don't ever become legal residents."