CHICAGO — Immigrant rights activists hope Arizona's controversial immigration law will spark scores of people to protest in rallies nationwide and add urgency to pleas for federal immigration reform.
Dozens of marches are planned for Saturday in cities across the country from Los Angeles to Dallas to New York.
"What happened in Arizona proves that racism and anti-immigrant hysteria across the country still exists. We need to continue to fight," said Lee Siu Hin, a coordinator with the Washington, D.C.-based National Immigrant Solidarity Network.
Activists believe opposition to Arizona's new law — which requires authorities to question people about immigration status if there's reason to suspect they're in the country illegally — could be the catalyst needed to draw record-breaking crowds similar to those four years ago.
That's when more than a million people across the country united to fight federal legislation considered anti-immigrant. Though the bill, which would have made being an illegal immigrant a felony, was unsuccessful, it triggered massive marches across the nation.
Since then, the movement has fractured and attendance has dropped sharply as attempts to reform federal immigration policy fizzled. In 2006, nearly half a million people took to Chicago's streets. Last year, fewer than 15,000 participated in the rallies, held annually on May 1 because it's a traditional day of protest and International Workers Day.
But after the Arizona law was signed into law last week, immigration reform advocates have seen a flurry of activity.
Relying on online social networking, churches and ethnic media to mobilize, activists have called for a boycott of Arizona businesses and protested outside Arizona Diamondbacks baseball games. Earlier in the week, two dozen activists chanting "Illinois is not Arizona" were arrested for blocking traffic outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in suburban Chicago.
While supporters say the law is necessary because of the federal government's failure to secure the border and growing anxiety over crime related to illegal immigration, critics say it's unconstitutional and encourages racial profiling and discrimination against immigrants or anyone thought to be an immigrant.
Activists fear that without federal legislation in place to address the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S., other states will follow Arizona's lead and pass similar legislation.
"If Republicans and Democrats do not take care of this albatross around our necks, this will in fact be the undoing of many, many years of civil rights struggle in this country," said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, where a downtown march is planned on Saturday. "I'm hoping that there is enough fire in people's hearts and minds to urge them to be mobilized."
But chances the federal government will step in this year seemed slim.
President Barack Obama, who had once promised to tackle immigration reform in his first 100 days but has pushed back that timetable several times, said this week that Congress may lack the "appetite" to take on immigration after going through a tough legislative year.
Meanwhile, activists say problems with a broken immigration system continue to affect millions — raids on workplaces create mistrust of authorities and separate families with mixed immigration status, employers take advantage of immigrant labor and thousands of college students are left in limbo.
That includes 19-year-old Patricio Gonzalez, who immigrated to the U.S. from Argentina at age five with his family on a tourist visa. It expired and his family wasn't able to gain legal status.
The Memphis teen said he had to drop out of college last fall because he wasn't eligible for most student aid and couldn't afford tuition.
"Do you know how difficult it is to see all your friends getting their education, and you've grown up with these people for years, they're part of your family?" he said. "We're creating lost generations — kids who grow up hopeless with no sense of betterment."
Activists aren't alone in their opposition, a fact May 1 organizers hope will draw out even more people to rallies on Saturday.
California legislators have mulled canceling contracts with Arizona in protest. Denver Public Schools has banned work-related travel to Arizona. And several legal challenges, preventing the bill from going into effect this summer, are in the works.
Immigrant rights activists and politicians also say they're stepping up other forms of action. U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Chicago Democrat who has sponsored a House immigration bill, said he plans to participate in civil disobedience at the White House on Saturday. In Chicago, several college students plan to publicly "come out" as illegal immigrants on a downtown stage.
"It's time to come together and show that undocumenteds have dignity. They're human," said Douglas Interiano, a spokesman of Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance, which is helping plan Saturday's march in Dallas.
comments on this story
He projected up to 100,000 could march in Texas with similar events planned in El Paso, Houston, Austin and San Juan. Organizers in California predicted up to 100,000 marching in downtown Los Angeles, too.
"Given what's happening in Arizona now it's crucial for us to speak out and denounce what's happening," said Veronica Mendez, an organizer with the Workers Interfaith Network in Minneapolis where there's a Saturday rally. "We all have the same hopes and goals."
Associated Press writers Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis, and Travis Loller in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.