Thousands of people troubled by restrictive border policies in Washington, and emboldened by the Valley’s Spanish media, marched Friday in central Phoenix calling for federal immigration law reform.
As many as 20,000 marchers representing a spectrum of ages and ethnic backgrounds waved U.S. and Mexican, as well as Salvadoran and Guatemalan, flags as a rare mass rally in Arizona surprised police and organizers alike.
Marchers filled a solid mile along North 24th Street south of East Camelback Road at midday.
“The purpose is loud and clear,” said Elias Bermudez, president of Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras, or Immigrants Without Borders, the march’s primary organizer. “We need immigration reform and we need it now, because the illegal immigration problem in the United States is getting totally out of hand.”
The crowd caused traffic gridlock and forced portions of Indian School, Thomas and McDowell roads and Loop 202 to close.
“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.
The focal point of the protest: The proposed Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005.
It establishes mandatory jail time for crimes relating to illegal entry into the country. The measure, HR4437, is scheduled to be heard by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.
Several competing measures also figure into the mix. Among them are a bill co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.; and another co-sponsored by Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and John Cornyn, R-Texas.
The debate is energized on all sides, said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Taxpayers, particularly in border states, are tired of shouldering the financial burden unchecked immigration has on health care, education and the justice system, Flake said.
The business community wants continued access to an inexpensive labor force.
Immigrants are concerned by their lack of legal status.
In addition, there’s real anti-immigration sentiments both in Congress and in the country overall, Flake said.
“What I hope happens is we get comprehensive reform, something that deals with not just the border, but the border plus interior enforcement plus a guest worker plan,” Flake said.
On Thursday, President Bush called for lawmakers to tone down the rhetoric. He also called for a guest worker plan.
HR4437 includes no such feature. The measure, which tightens control of the nation’s borders, would cost $1.9 billion in four years, including $115 million for new prisons, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Flake said, “I think the House wanted to make a statement, rather than make policy, because what we passed was really no solution.”
An estimated 12 million illegal immigrants live in the U.S.
The Phoenix march coincided with ones in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Tucson. Phoenix police Sgt. Andy Hill said local organizers expected a turnout of about 3,000.
However organizers were quickly overwhelmed as demonstrators spilled into the streets, closing roads and tying up traffic.
The march put a face on those affected by immigration policy, said Alfredo Gutierrez, a lobbyist, Hispanic activist and former state lawmaker. Young professionals, teenagers and mothers pushing baby strollers marched alongside day laborers.
“It’s important to know who the crowd was,” Gutierrez said. “The anti-immigrant movement has characterized us as a bunch of moneygrubbing thugs. And I think the human images that will be on television today and hopefully in photographs in newspapers tomorrow will put the lie to that. These were people wanting to work.”
Protesters walked north on 24th Street, then doubled back after a small group delivered a letter to Kyl’s office on Camelback.
Kyl was not present to receive the letter, because he spent the day in Tucson meeting with the Southern Arizona Hispanic Leadership Coalition, among other groups. The coalition formally endorsed him Friday in his bid for re-election.
“I have advocated for the adoption of a comprehensive plan that increases border security, provides a temporary worker program, ensures enforcement of our laws at the border and at the workplace, and deals with those illegal immigrants already in the country,” said Kyl, a member of the Judiciary Committee, in a statement.
The magnitude of the rally underscored the failure of the Republican-controlled Congress to deal with immigration, said Jim Pederson, a Democrat running against Kyl.
“My question is: What’s taking it so long? I mean, this issue has been a pressure cooker for a long, long time and it’s erupted today,” he said.
The march ended with a rally in the parking lot of St. Agnes Catholic Church, near McDowell Road.
There, organizers called the march a success as chants of “Sí, se puede” turned into “Sí, se pudo.”
“Yes, we can” became “Yes, we did.”
The march brought together about 20 advocacy groups, said Linda Herrera of Unidos en Arizona. “This is only the beginning,” she told the crowd in Spanish.
The turnout also was in response to immigration reform measures in the Arizona Legislature, organizers said. There have been nearly 40 proposals introduced so far this year, from naming English as the state’s official language to constructing a wall along the border with Mexico.
Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, who has emerged as one of the leading opponents of the country’s immigration policies, said the large turnout was to be expected. “I don’t blame these people. They just want amnesty,” he said.
He called the event “outrageous” because so many illegal immigrants should not be allowed to walk down a major Phoenix street without fear of arrest.
“Shame on the city of Phoenix for not enforcing the law,” said Pearce, who has introduced more than a dozen immigration bills this session.
That sentiment was shared by Biltmore area resident Michelle Clark, who discovered all routes to her home blocked by marchers.
“They have no rights. They’re illegal and they’re in our country. We want deportations,” she said. “We’re going to have war.”