SAN DIEGO — SAN DIEGO -- In a prelude to rallies planned nationwide today, thousands of immigrant-rights supporters marched through this city just north of the Mexican border yesterday, demanding comprehensive immigration reform.
The "March For Hope, Dignity and Respect" in San Diego, less than 20 miles from Mexico and the country's busiest border crossing, came two days after a highly promoted Senate immigration bill stalled under partisan rancor.
"They're playing games," Michelle Sanchez, 29, a nurse born in California and of Mexican descent, said of lawmakers. "They tell us they don't want us, but then they turn their backs and profit from our work in construction, from fruit, from the vegetable fields."
By some estimates, more than 50,000 turned out in the first hour of the rally in San Diego.
Together, they created a sea of American and Mexican flags - as well as a few from other countries - and a cacophony of chants such as "Amnesty Now" and "Who are we? Immigrants. What do we want? Legalization."
Many said they were there not for themselves but for family members who are illegally in the country.
"I have a lot of family who are affected," said 19-year-old college student Francisco Gomez, wearing a shirt that read, "I'm a U.S. citizen and I can vote." "They don't have a voice here ... but we do."
A rally in Dallas drew 350,000 to 500,000 people, and thousands gathered in Minnesota and Iowa.
Today, pro-immigrant rights groups plan to stage similar rallies in more than 120 cities across the country, from Atlanta to Los Angeles. The biggest is expected to be in Washington, where organizers hope to draw 200,000. In San Diego, groups plan to a hold a vigil dedicated to immigrants who have died while trying to cross the border illegally.
The rallies could result in temporary work stoppages across the country, from hotels and restaurants in Georgia to vegetable fields in central California.
Organizers say they will keep up the civic activism and potential work stoppages until Congress passes laws that they think satisfactorily address the status of the estimated 12 million immigrants living illegally in this country and smooths the way for future generations to work and live in the United States.
"It's clear to move through this blockage, our elected leaders are going to have to feel a lot more heat," Tom Snyder, political director for the Unite Here union said in a conference call with reporters Friday. The union represents about 450,000 textile, hotel and restaurant workers. "That's our focus now."
Added Cecilia Munoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization: "Every time we march, we make progress."
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee pledged yesterday to have a measure ready for debate soon after lawmakers return to Washington in two weeks and expressed optimism that it could pass.
"I think tempers will cool over a two-week period. And also, there are going to be some expressions by many people very unhappy with the Senate not passing a bill and very unhappy with the House bill" that would make being an illegal immigrant a felony and penalize those who employed such immigrants, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, told Fox News Sunday.