PHOENIX - Hundreds of Arizonans rallied for immigrants' and workers' rights during a march from the state Capitol through downtown Phoenix on Wednesday night as part of a national effort to intensify support for a proposal that would create a path toward citizenship for most of the 11 million immigrants illegally in the United States.
Organizers estimate approximately 1,000 people made the peaceful march that started at 6 p.m.
Chanting "Si Se Puede," the Spanish chant of the labor movement that means "Yes, we can," protesters snaked across the heart of Phoenix with children in strollers, dogs on leashes and a life-size statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint.
Many demonstrators carried signs with slogans like "We matter" and "Time is now." The largely Hispanic crowd was guided by police escorts, but the demonstration joining May Day protests worldwide was peaceful.
"We are Americans in every way and we want to be recognized," said Julio Montes, a 19-year-old college student who was brought to Arizona illegally when he was 4. "We aren't going to stop."
"We are doing this for all the people here illegally," said Violette Torres who marched with her young children.
The Arizona Comprehensive Immigration Reform Coalition, which organized the event, directed supporters to lobby lawmakers through social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook and through phone calls and emails. Volunteers also registered voters, a nod to the influence of the Hispanic electorate in the 2012 elections that saw Democrats keep the U.S. Senate and the White House.
The legislation backed by President Barack Obama, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress, would be the nation's first immigration overhaul in nearly three decades.
"We are talking literally about millions of people's lives that will be changed as a result of the immigration reform bill that's being debated as we speak," said organizer James Garcia.
Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are divided over the national immigration overhaul. Opponents say it will encourage future waves of illegal immigration and benefit immigrants illegally in the country over those who have waited years in their home nations for visas.
"If we cannot stem the tide of illegal immigration, we are destined to repeat the cycle of amnesty again and again," read an opinion article Wednesday in the Arizona Republic signed by U.S. Reps. David Schweikert, Matt Salmon and Paul Gosar, all Arizona Republicans.
But proponents say immigrants are a crucial part of the nation's labor force and deserve fair wages. More than 400 people participated in the march into downtown Phoenix, where many immigrants work illegally in the service and tourism industries.
Many face down the threat of deportation and arrest to fight for their rights and "to be treated with respect and dignity," said Nick De La Fuente, of the Arizona Worker Rights Center, who linked the efforts across the nation Wednesday to early 20th century activists who fought for factory workers in labor hubs such as New York and Massachusetts.
A handful of anti-immigration protesters also turned out for the Phoenix rally, but they quietly remained at the edges of the demonstration. One waved a sign that read "No Amensty" and "McCain McCrazy." U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is one of eight senators that helped craft the immigration overhaul.
Arizona approved a first-of-its-kind anti-illegal immigration law in 2010. Since then, local pro-immigrant groups have worked together to highlight the stories of workers and families targeted by the strict law that requires police to question suspects about their immigration status.
Natalie Cruz lamented that her recently detained uncle has not seen his family in nearly three months while he waits deportation proceedings. "No more deportations," the crowd yelled in Spanish.
Garcia said he and other activists have amassed a contact list representing 10,000 Arizonans eager to march on short notice when needed.
"It's important that we turn out people sometimes at the drop of the hat," he said. "Our Facebook site is really active. We send out messages letting them know about rallies, definitely anything we can do electronically to let people know immediately as possible, we do that."
Activists say they and other lawmakers must be persuaded to vote for the bill by any means necessary.
"This is a very far from done deal," Garcia said. "So there's a lot of work to be done. What we are hoping to have happen today is not only is this a reminder that people are actively engaged on the issue, but it's also connecting the dots that immigrant workers have families and the goal of many grassroots activists is to ensure that families stay together."