Immigration Rally Fizzles in Washington

Talk of immigration reform last spring captivated the nation and led to large-scale demonstrations. But on Thursday just a few thousand people gathered for a march supporting immigrants on the National Mall in Washington.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

An immigration rally promoted as the largest ever in Washington D.C. fell far short of expectation.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: Just a few thousand immigrants and their supporters showed up on the National Mall yesterday, the very spot where hundreds of thousands had marched last spring. It's been the same story at immigration events around the country this week. The message on the streets and in the halls of Congress is that, for now, a wide-ranging immigration overhaul is dead.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: The disappointment was palpable. Ernesto Ales(ph) was here last April, when the crowd was jubilant and talk was of a powerful new civil rights movement. Yesterday, this cook from El Salvador stood to the side with his wife and four children, their expressions sober.

Mr. ERNESTO ALES: I don't know what happened today; I'm surprised. It's supposed to be a million people. I'm surprised - where's everybody?

LUDDEN: Most of the crowd gathered around a stage where organizers coaxed chants.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: We're here, they said, and we're not going back. Handwritten signs read - feeding my children is not a crime, stop the deportations, and amnesty for all.

Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy tried to keep spirits up. He insisted Congress would one day pass legislation to make hard-working foreign laborers legal.

Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): And if we can't get this Congress to pass their immigration reform now, we'll elect a new Congress in November that will.

(Soundbite of cheering)

LUDDEN: Glendie Figueroa(ph) is a custodial worker and union organizer who came all the way here from Boston. But she understood why some may not have wanted to show up.

Ms. GLENDIE FIGUEROA (Union Organizer, Boston): (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: Out of fear, she said. We've seen massive deportations these last months because the government's using laws on terror and such to get rid of immigrant workers.

Still, Roberto Suro of the Pew Hispanic Center doesn't think fear can fully explain the low turnout. This Washington analyst had stopped by to check out the rally. He figured, for one thing, immigrant rights groups have shifted their focus to voter registration. And naturalized immigrants who can vote are generally not the ones who show up at rallies. Also, after the spring demonstrations, Suro says no national leaders emerged to carry on the movement. And finally, there's motivation.

Mr. ROBERTO SURO (Director, Pew Hispanic Center): In April, Congress was voting, things were happening. There seemed to be a sense that policy was about to be made, and then very soon afterwards everything sort of stopped.

LUDDEN: The House and Senate reached a stalemate on broad immigration changes. And this week, leaders from each chamber admitted they're not about to overcome it. House speaker Dennis Hastert announced yesterday he'll still try to attach some immigration enforcement measures to other legislation.

At the rally, Fernando Cherino said that was bad news.

Mr. FERNANDO CHERINO: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: It's a problem, he said, because then we'll have to keep working in hiding. Congress doesn't know about us, but they need to.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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