Nation

Immigration debate gives life to annual May Day rallies

A young girl was among the participants in a May Day rally in San Diego, Calif., on Wednesday.

Mike Blake/Reuters

A young girl was among the participants in a May Day rally in San Diego, Calif., on Wednesday.

LOS ANGELES — Demonstrators demanded an overhaul of immigration laws on Wednesday in an annual, nationwide ritual that carried a special sense of urgency as Congress considers sweeping legislation that would bring many of the estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally out of the shadows.

Thousands joined May Day rallies from Concord, N.H., to Los Angeles, where scores of marchers gathered downtown. In Salem, Ore., Governor John Kitzhaber was cheered by about 2,000 people on the Capitol steps as he signed a bill to allow people living in Oregon without proof of legal status to obtain driver’s licenses.

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In Vermont, more than 1,000 people assembled on the Montpelier State House lawn. And in New York, paper rats on sticks bobbed along Sixth Avenue as about 200 protesters set off from Bryant Park, chanting: ‘‘What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!’’ The rats were intended to symbolize abused migrant workers.

The May Day crowds paled in comparison to the massive demonstrations of 2006 and 2007, during the last serious attempt to introduce major changes to the US immigration system. Despite the large turnouts six years ago, many advocates of looser immigration laws felt they were outmaneuvered by opponents who flooded congressional offices with phone calls and faxes at the behest of conservative talk-radio hosts.

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Now, immigrant advocacy groups are focusing on calling and writing members of Congress, using social media and other technology to target lawmakers. Reform Immigration for America, a network of groups, claims more than 1.2 million subscribers.

Many of Wednesday’s rallies featured speakers with a personal stake in the debate. Naykary Silva, a 26-year-old Mexican woman in the country illegally, joined about 200 people who marched in Denver , hoping for legislation that would ensure medical care for her 3-year-old autistic son.

Police in New York restrained several demonstrators, but the marches were peaceful. In downtown Seattle, dozens gathered under heavy police presence.

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Gabriel Villalobos, a Spanish-language talk radio host in Phoenix, said many of his callers believe it is the wrong time for marches, fearful that any unrest could sour public opinion on immigration reform. Those callers advocate instead for a low-key approach of calling members of Congress.

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