"Were here to stay!" Nations largest immigrant rights rally rocks Windy City

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CHICAGO — Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the city and surrounding areas marched here March 10 in one of the biggest pro-immigrant demonstrations in U.S. history, displaying massive support for immigrant rights.

Established immigrant rights groups, along with new immigrant groups, spearheaded the event with a word-of-mouth campaign that quickly spread through the Spanish-language media and eventually ballooned, grabbing the attention of the entire city by midday. The turnout surpassed organizers’ expectations. CNN reported 300,000-400,000 participated, while Spanish-language media said a half million. Police estimated 100,000-plus.

The march began at Union Park on the Near West Side and jammed the streets for two miles. Mexicans, Guatemalans and other Latinos along with Polish, Irish and Chinese people marched with community organizations and labor unions.

Students and moms pushing strollers marched alongside construction workers, mechanics and senior citizens. Immigrant families, many carrying U.S. and Mexican flags, flooded into the Federal Plaza rally. Speaker after speaker argued for pro-immigrant legislation and against HR 4437, a bill that would criminalize undocumented workers and anyone who helps them.

It’s not just about undocumented workers, it’s about human beings and basic rights,” truck driver Pedro Hernandez told the Sun Times. Although stuck in traffic, just a few blocks from his last delivery of the day because of the protest, he supported the marchers.

The House passed HR 4437, introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.). The bill makes it a felony for any undocumented worker to be here and for anyone to help or provide a service to them, be it religious, medical, humanitarian or educational.

The debate on immigration has now shifted to the Senate, where Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) introduced an immigration reform plan, or “chairman’s mark,” which takes elements from several legislative proposals but leans heavily on harsh measures from HR 4437.

The Chicago outpouring shows that these repressive bills have awakened a “sleeping giant,” observers said. Marchers stood shoulder-to-shoulder holding signs that read, “To the Minutemen: Stop, don’t shoot! I clean your toilets,” and “I’m not a criminal or a terrorist, I’m a dishwasher.” Others said, “Keep our families together,” “No human being is illegal” and “We are not criminals, we are workers.”

Chants of “Pueblo escucha, estamos en la lucha” (“People listen, together we’re in the struggle”), “Si se puede” (“Yes, it can be done”) and “El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido” (“The people united will never be defeated”) echoed through the packed streets.

Workers from Passaglia’s West Loop Auto Body shop stopped working and climbed on the rooftop, hoisting a large sign expressing unity with the thousands of marchers passing by. “I think it’s great for so many people standing up for a cause they believe in,” said owner Drew Passaglia to the Sun Times.

Whole shifts of workers left their jobs to show their solidarity with immigrant rights. Jalapeno Produce in Round Lake, Ill., closed and sent 100 workers to march. One server from an Italian restaurant came in his work tie and apron, draped with a U.S. flag. Other workers wore their construction hardhats, and came straight from their job sites. Clerks from the El Guero market in Aurora piled into the store’s delivery van, riding on produce boxes.

Hundreds of high school students were no-shows, and officials speculated that most of them attended the rally. At Farragut Career Academy on the Southwest side, about half the 2,500 students walked out after attendance was taken at 10:40 a.m. Josue Martinez, a Tilden High School senior who attended the march, told the Tribune, “We’re supporting our parents and our parents’ parents, who came here and worked hard.”

One worker said he hadn’t seen that many people in downtown Chicago since the ticker-tape parade was held for the Chicago White Sox after they won the World Series last year.

The rally brought together some of the state’s most powerful elected officials, including dozens of alderman and state lawmakers.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich addressed the massive crowd in Spanish, telling them that he is the son of immigrant parents and understands the issues that are important to them. “Ustedes no son criminales. Ustedes son trabajadores” (“You are not criminals. You are workers”), the governor said.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said this is a new phase and a new struggle for the immigrant community. He called on the crowd to shut the Senate down if a Sensenbrenner-like bill is passed.

“This is a movement of immigrants; we have brought the Irish, the Polish, the Chinese and the Central and South Americans here today. Raise those American flags, because this is our country and we’re here to stay,” Gutierrez said.

Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush fired up the crowd chanting, “Power to the people,” while Sen. Dick Durbin also roused the audience. Durbin has introduced S.2075, the Development, Relief and Education For Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which offers legal residence to children of undocumented parents so they can go to college and get a job. Durbin sent a special message “to the children,” saying, “I will fight to pass the DREAM Act as long as I live.”