PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – Chanting in Spanish and waving Mexican and American flags, more than 1,000 people marched through downtown Portland Monday to protest a tough U.S. House bill and to demand more rights for illegal immigrants.
The rally was one of more than 100 that took place across the country, which organizers say is the largest coordinated campaign for immigration rights in U.S. history.
"It’s a turning point in our country’s history," said Jorge Meza, a 29-year-old teacher. "People who’ve been living in the outskirts in fear are coming together to make their voices heard."
Teens, adults and families – most of them Hispanic – met at a rally at a downtown square, and then marched to U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith’s office. They were joined by supporters and onlookers.
"We don’t want to be illegal," said Alberto Rosales, who has been working here for more than 20 years and has four children who were all born here. "We want papers."
Smith was one of 54 Republicans who voted against ending Senate debate on an immigration bill on Friday, in a procedural dispute with Democrats. The bill would allow some illegal immigrants to become citizens and create a guest worker program for thousands of other immigrants but tighten border security. Senate agreement on the issue fell apart last week just as Congress went on break.
A spokesman for Smith said his vote – and that of other Republicans – allows debate on the compromise bill to continue when the Senate returns.
Protesters also spoke out fiercely about a House bill, passed in December, that would make illegal immigration a felony instead of a civil offense and create a 700-mile fence and wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"(The House bill) is the most hypocritical bill in Congress … the bedrock of this country is immigration," said Osman Balkan, a 23-year-old whose parents came to the United States from Turkey as political refugees. "The whole U.S. economy could not stand without immigrant labor."
At Smith’s office, delegates from the march went inside and spoke with one of Smith’s staff members.
Laurie King, a representative of Jobs with Justice, said the delegates told the staff member that the Senate bill is not good enough and the House bill is a “complete travesty.”
There are as many as 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a research organization in Washington, D.C. Roughly 175,000 undocumented immigrants live in Oregon, according to the center.
"A lot of people think this is a Latino-Hispanic issue but this is an issue for all immigrants," said Tony Gonzalez, a 28-year-old political science student who came to Oregon from Idaho for the rally.
The organizers said there are several events going on this month that will culminate May 1 when a number of immigrant and worker rights groups hold a day of protest, when they will not work or buy anything.
"This (protest) lets people know the Hispanic community is a political force," Gonzalez said. "We’re proud of our Mexican culture but we’re proud to be Americans."
Two counter-protesters were also on the street. One carried a sign reading "Illegals go home, you are criminals." Another held a cardboard sign that read "If you are illegal leave, solve your problems back home" – until some younger participants took the sign from the man and tore it up.