They may not have equaled the numbers of the half million or so marchers who protested strict immigration legislation a year ago, but the 150,000 Chicagoans who marched for immigrant rights on Tuesday – a larger crowd than organizers anticipated – were fiercely determined.
Still, the much smaller May Day rallies across the country seemed to signal an uncertainty among immigrant-rights advocates both about what their current mission is and what the best tactics are to achieve it.
While moderate national groups counsel compromise, lobbying, and legislative action to work with the most recent bipartisan bill out of the House, other organizations have grown more demanding. The tone in Chicago Thursday was peaceful, but also determined about the goal: full legalization for everyone.
"We want our rights – to not deport us, and a chance for everyone to be legal," says Armando Robles, a documented immigrant marching with the United Electrical Workers union, holding a sign reading "unconditional legalization for all!"
Mr. Robles, who says many of his friends and family are undocumented, believes, like many here, that intimidation and fear of police action kept many people at home. "At my workplace, so many people say, 'I can't be there, but I'm with you guys.'"
Last year, more than a million people marched in cities around the country, galvanized by a House bill that would have made felons of both undocumented immigrants and those who helped them. That bill fizzled, and the most recent bipartisan House legislation – the STRIVE Act – has immigrants divided. Some see it as an excellent starting point for a bill, with elements that include an expanded worker visa program and earned legalization and citizenship for many undocumented workers, in addition to increased border security, enforcement, and employer verification. Others see the STRIVE Act as unsatisfactory – and are even more critical of the White House's proposal in March that would levy large fines on illegal immigrants and require them to return home before applying for legal status. They want nothing less than full legalization and a halt to workplace raids – an unlikely outcome from Congress.
"There are very vocal minorities on both extremes in this debate. As is the case with any controversial issue, it's going to be the public space at the center of the debate that's going to be able to move forward to a solution," says Clarissa Martínez, campaign manager for the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform in Washington. "People who are serious understand that there are going to be enforcement measures and employment verification measures, but they have to be fair."
Ms. Martínez and others emphasized that the smaller numbers in Tuesday's marches don't necessarily mean that there's any less determination among activists – just that the social movement around immigration is maturing and branching out from its organic beginnings that made so many take to the streets last year.
"There are other types of action going on as well," says Flavia Jiménez, an immigration policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza, which supports the STRIVE Act as a good starting point. "We see last year as an indication of a potentially very strong movement, but one that will take many years to get us to a place where we can say immigrants are truly represented around the tables."
Among the grass-roots groups that organized Tuesday's marches, many said that the increased number of raids and deportations on the part of immigration authorities served as the rallying issue that the Sensenbrenner House bill did last year.
In Chicago, many speakers and participants alluded to a recent raid on a local mall. It was targeting an alleged counterfeit ID operation, but many here saw it as an attempt to intimidate local immigrants.
"People disagree on all of these pieces, but what they don't disagree on is that there needs to be some kind of immigration reform, and everyone is against the raids and detention and deportation," says Gordon Mayer, a vice president with Community Media Workshop, which helped with the Chicago march.
Other cities saw substantially lower turnout than Chicago. In Los Angeles, where more than a half million marched a year ago, some 35,000 turned out for two separate rallies, with one getting somewhat violent in the evening when police tried to send protesters home. In Phoenix, some 20,000 marched to the state capitol, many waving American flags and wearing T-shirts reading "Somos Americanos" ("We are Americans").
"Not a lot of people want to come to this one [compared with last year's march] because [immigration officials] have been going to businesses and rounding people up and sending them back to Mexico," explains Marcia Cisneros, a Mexican restaurant owner from a Phoenix suburb, as she marches with her husband and 3-year-old son, Henri.
In Arizona, immigrants have been facing a growing number of state laws chipping away at their rights since the issue came to a head last year.
"All these little bills may not amount to huge changes, but they give it the us versus them mentality," says Rachel Yetter, a young woman who works with Valley Interfaith Project in Phoenix and has lobbied to oppose the bills. "I think we have to find common ground, solidify, and work out from there."
She and others say they hope the demonstrations – which last year brought the issue to the forefront for mainstream America but also raised the ire of many anti-immigrant groups and spurred a large number of punitive laws at the state and local level – will help keep attention focused on an issue and a movement that they say isn't going away.
"Immigrants aren't criminals. They are an important part of the cultural, political, and economic life in the United States," says Rosi Carrasco, an organizer with the Chicago march, as she heads to Springfield, Ill., the day after the march to lobby for a bill to allow undocumented immigrants to get driving certificates. "We want to send the message that the immigration system is not working anymore and that something needs to be done."
•Staff writer Faye Bowers contributed to this report from Phoenix.