L.A. Activists March for Immigration Bill

A year ago, a massive pro-immigrant march jammed the streets of Los Angeles. This year's demonstration was much smaller, but activists are calling for the same thing: an immigration bill giving undocumented immigrants citizenship.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in Los Angeles, supporters of immigrant rights took to the streets yesterday, though not nearly in the numbers they did one year ago. It was the anniversary of the pro-immigrant march that brought out so many protesters they jammed the streets of downtown L.A.

This year the demonstrations were tiny by comparison - one was indoors - but the message is the same, as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN: Protesters picked up free American flags as they streamed into L.A.'s indoor sports arena yesterday. In contrast to last year's pro-immigrant marches, where foreign flags were everywhere, this time it was all red, white and blue.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh, say can you seeā€¦

KAHN: But soon enough, demonstrators fell back into the familiar chants of yes we can in Spanish.

Unidentified Group: (Spanish spoken).

KAHN: For several hours, dozens of elected officials addressed the smaller-than-hoped-for gathering. Barely half the 10,000-seat arena was filled.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Democrat, Los Angeles): (Spanish spoken) Los Angeles.

KAHN: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told the crowd that his proudest moment was addressing half a million people on the streets of the city last year. He says his message hasn't changed.

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: (Spanish spoken).

KAHN: Please, Villaraigosa said, we want to be part of the American dream. Forty-seven-year-old Maurillo Centeno(ph) says he wants a part of that dream. He's been in the U.S. illegally for 17 years. Centeno marched in the streets last year and says it's been tough waiting for Congress to act.

Mr. MAURILLO CENTENO: (Spanish spoken).

KAHN: He says it's been 10 years since he was able to go back to Mexico to see his daughters. But he and others were brought to their feet by the encouraging words of Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois. He's introduced an immigration bill that would let illegal immigrants become citizens after meeting several conditions.

Representative LUIS GUTIERREZ (Democrat, Illinois): (Spanish spoken).

KAHN: Gutierrez said under his bill illegal immigrants could get a visa, after six years apply to be citizens and finally come out from the shadows. But backstage, the congressman admitted he faces an uphill fight.

Rep. GUTIERREZ: You have to get one out of every four Republicans in the House of Representatives to vote and favor this bill. And if we do that, we will get comprehensive immigration reform.

KAHN: Meanwhile, across town, protesters' attempts to form a human chain around L.A.'s federal building fell short; they didn't have enough people. And unlike last year's marches, this time counter-protesters showed up. Ira Mehlman of the anti-illegal immigration group FAIR says Americans were insulted by last year's marches and rally organizers have obviously lost their momentum.

Mr. IRA MEHLMAN (Media Director, FAIR): It seems to me that if the organizers thought they could get 500,000 people back on the streets of America's major cities, they wouldn't be holding indoor rallies.

KAHN: Organizers and marchers yesterday, like Allegra Padilla(ph), tried to put a positive spin on the low turnout.

Ms. ALLEGRA PADILLA: I think the momentum is taking a different form right now, because people marched and then they voted. And now we have to think of different ways to keep the pressure up.

KAHN: Protesters vowed to remain on the streets and visible, especially in the run-up to next year's presidential election.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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