Thousands of protesters waved Mexican and American flags Friday as they marched through Phoenix in a call for more humane reform of federal immigration laws.
"They want to make us criminals," Apache Junction resident Gonzalo Arellano, 38, said in Spanish. "We're not criminals. We are workers."
As he marched, he chanted into a bullhorn, "El pueblo unido jamås serå vencido." The phrase translates as: "The people united will never be defeated."
The turnout clogged major streets in central Phoenix in a rare mass rally for Arizona that surprised police and organizers alike. Phoenix police Sgt. Andy Hill estimated the crowd at 12,000 to 20,000 people, and marchers of all ages filled a solid mile on 24th Street near Camelback Road.
"I've been involved in protests like this for nearly 10 years, and I've never seen anything this big," said Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, who rallied the crowd.
But not everyone welcomed the protest.
"They have no rights," said Phoenix resident Michelle Clark. "They're illegal, and they're in our country. We want deportations."
Clark said police blocked off all routes to her Arizona Biltmore home as participants marched to the office of Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
"We're going to have war," she said.
Many protesters said they were incensed by what they see as punitive immigration reform proposals, especially one approved by the House in December that would make unlawful presence in the United States a felony.
Thousands chanted ‘‘Si, se puede,’’ one of the rallying cries of the United Farm Workers union that means ‘‘Yes, we can.’’
‘‘It’s unfair what they want to do,’’ said 50-year-old Phoenix resident Elida Lozano, who carried a sign saying ‘‘Humanitarian Aid is not a crime.’’
‘‘It’s racist,’’ Lozano said. ‘‘You’re not going to find terrorists outside a Home Depot looking for a job.’’
Other signs read ‘‘USA — Made by Immigrants’’ and ‘‘We are hard workers, we are equal.’’
Kyl, a Republican, is sponsoring a bill along with by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that would give illegal immigrants up to five years to leave the country. Those immigrants could apply from their home country to return, either as temporary workers or for permanent residency.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Kyl is a member, is set to vote on the bill passed by the House on Monday.
Kyl’s press secretary said his office would have no immediate comment on the rally.
Malissa Geer, 29, of Phoenix, was among those in the crowd, saying she was there to support her Hispanic friends.
‘‘They’re here for the American dream,’’ she said as she held her 2-year-old daughter. ‘‘God created all of us. He’s not a God of the United States, he’s a God of the world.’’
The rally was called by the Border Action Network, which also organized a much-smaller rally in Tucson on Friday.
Jennifer Allen, director of the group, said at least 200 people associated with her organization attended the rally outside Kyl’s Tucson office, which also drew supporters from another half-dozen immigrants’ rights groups, including No More Deaths, the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project and Derechos Humanos.
Allen said she and others had met with Kyl’s staff on Tuesday to urge Kyl to support legislation that will be humane and just for immigrants.
‘‘We presented our demands, the same things we’ve been calling on him for years,’’ Allen said, adding that there was little dialogue with the senator’s staff.
Other than major traffic tie-ups, police reported no other problems. Hill said officers had made no arrests.
A delegation from Humane Borders went into Kyl’s Phoenix office, presented their positions and then left peacefully, Hill said.
Demonstrators were also held in Los Angeles and Atlanta.
The Los Angeles demonstration led to fights between black and Hispanic students at one high school, but the protests were largely peaceful, authorities said.
At least 500 students at Huntington Park High School near Los Angeles walked out of classes in the morning. Hundreds of the students, some carrying Mexican flags, walked down the middle of Los Angeles streets, police cruisers behind them.
In Georgia, activists said tens of thousands of workers did not show up at their jobs Friday after calls for a work stoppage to protest a bill passed by the Georgia House on Thursday.
The bill, which has yet to gain Senate approval, would deny state services to adults living in the U.S. illegally and impose a 5 percent surcharge on wire transfers from illegal immigrants.
Teodoro Maus, an organizer of the Georgia protest, estimated as many as 80,000 Hispanics did not show up for work. About 200 converged on the steps of the Georgia Capitol, some wrapped in Mexican flags and holding signs reading: ‘‘Don’t panic, we’re Hispanic’’ and ‘‘We have a dream, too.”
- The Associated Press and Tribune writers Dennis Welch and Brian Indrelunas contributed to this report.