SEATTLE – Thousands of people marched in Washington state as part of nationwide demonstrations to push for changes in immigration policy, hoping a new president hears their pleas.
In Seattle, several thousand people held a festive march Friday through downtown, waving flags of several Latin American nations before rallying at a park to hear speakers call for reforms in national immigration, health care and economic policies.
“Unity creates power. … These marches are special because it’s a day for labor, but at the same time it unites the people, and it’s a form of getting the president’s attention,” said Roman Oronca, a 36-year-old immigrant from Mexico who said he has been in the U.S. for 11 years.
An organizer estimated about 5,000 people marched in downtown Seattle, a number that held steady from last year but was down significantly from marches at the height of the immigration debate. One of the chants in Spanish used by demonstrators – “Obama, listen to us, we’re in the struggle” – called on the president to pay attention to immigration issues.
In Yakima, about 600 people marched through the city’s streets, an increase from 2008.
The Yakima rally attracted a few counter-demonstrators carrying signs bearing slogans such as “No driver’s licenses for illegals,” but no confrontations were reported. Some of the counter-demonstrators were wearing surgical masks.
“It boggles my mind. About 20 million illegal immigrants in this country, and about 20 million Americans out of jobs,” said Joe Ray, 66, Washington state director of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.
This year’s marches come at a time when the nation is in the midst of a recession and spooked at the recent spread of swine flu, which initially surfaced in Mexico.
A goal of the nationwide demonstrations was to support efforts to forge a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.
Worries about swine flu seemingly did not put a damper on most demonstrators. Nearly no one wore masks in Seattle.
Stephanie Arce, 13, and her friend wore surgical face masks, but as a statement. Arce wrote on the front of her mask: “You can’t deport us all.”
“People say that we, Mexicans, started it (the flu),” said Arce, who was born in California of Mexican parents. She said students at her middle school stared at her and her friend with their masks, thinking they had contracted the flu. “We wore them to show them that we don’t.”
Immigration activists in Washington state see President Barack Obama as an ally, and point to the release of several people arrested in a work site raid in Bellingham in February. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a review of that raid. The Obama administration has said it will move away from raids to focus on employers.
Leno Rose-Avila, executive director of the Northwest Social Justice Fund, said at the Seattle demonstration that the Bellingham raid showed that if people make enough noise, the administration will pay attention to them.
“That’s something that never would have happened with the previous administration,” Rose-Avila said.