LOS ANGELES -- Tens of thousands of people pressing for immigrants' rights demonstrated yesterday in dozens of cities. But with advocates splintered over tactics, the crowds paled compared with last year's turnout.
The protests, with some of the largest gatherings here and in Chicago and Phoenix, took aim at recent raids by immigration agents and stalled negotiations in Congress over proposals for the most sweeping changes in immigration law in 20 years.
"I came here like everyone else to make sure we get a just immigration reform law passed," Abel Corona, 34, who described himself as an illegal immigrant from Mexico, said as he marched downtown here.
"We are not going anywhere. We are not criminals. We came here to work and even to help this country economically."
Talking over the din of drums and chanting at the Chicago march, Esmeralda Marin, 30, a Mexican-American, said she was demonstrating to denounce the government raids, which have led to an increase in deportations in the past year.
"If we have seen anything since last year, we have seen more families torn apart," Marin said.
The Chicago march drew 150,000 people, police said, below the nearly half-million last year.
Martha Martinez, 27, who said she was a legal resident, marched in Denver against the raids and on behalf of a family that she said was afraid of being arrested if they participated.
"It's not right to separate families, but that's what has happened," Martinez said, as her 6-year-old son held a sign reading: "I refuse to live in fear."
Some organizers faulted the raids for lowering the turnout of illegal immigrants. Organizers still claimed success in drawing attention to immigrants' concerns.
"We have already injected ourselves into the national immigration debate," said Javier Rodriguez, a march organizer here.
Although sizable in some places, the demonstrations, peaceful and at times festive, seemed to underscore how much the protest movement has struggled in the past year.
More than 500,000 people turned out here last year. This year, police estimated that 10,000 attended the largest of three rallies.
In Denver, where 75,000 had participated last year, an estimated 10,000 demonstrated.
Unlike the protest last year, nobody called for a "day without an immigrant." No widespread business boycotts materialized. For the most part, students did not pour out of schools.
Last year, a bill in Congress proposed, among other measures, making it a felony to be in the United States illegally, providing a sharp and clearly defined rallying point that fueled protests.
Just as that proposal fizzled, so did the protests, with subsequent rallies smaller and smaller as organizers turned to voter registration and lobbying.
"The political climate last year was passionate, energetic, dramatic," said Armando Navarro, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside, who helped organize marches here last year. "This year, it is one of uncertainty, doubt, fear, things that are not encouraging of participation and impede in many ways people from participating."
Reflecting on the past year, Navarro said: "We could not agree on what needed to be done next. Some moved on to the assumption we had to impact the November elections to get Democrats elected in Congress. So there was a major gap between the May 1 demonstration and the voter registration drives that summer and fall. But after November, there was nothing in motion."
He noted that differences among even advocates of marches had further hampered the movement.
"It is beyond me why we have three marches here today instead of one," Navarro said from his office, instead of the street.
After the Democrats won control of Congress, some advocates of immigration rights expressed hope that they might find a way to make citizens out of some or all the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
Many of those Democrats won election taking a hard line on immigrants, and as presidential election politics heat up, doubts are growing that an immigration bill will be passed this year.
While supporting a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, President Bush has also celebrated a sharp decrease in captures along the border with Mexico. Bush attributes that to adding Border Patrol agents and sending thousands of National Guard troops there.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which says illegal immigrants drain the economy and opposes their legalization as an amnesty, said the marches only made clear the need for more enforcement.
"May Day 2007 is likely to draw a small fraction of the participants who marched on behalf of amnesty for illegal aliens in 2006, but it is certain to serve as a reminder to law-abiding Americans that Congress and the Bush administration have still not taken the necessary steps to secure the nation's borders or protect American workers," the group said in a statement.