Rallying for immigration reform

Published May 2, 2007

TAMPA - Eleven-year-old Nohely Almendarez didn't go to school Tuesday.

Instead, the fifth-grader joined hundreds of other people on Dale Mabry Highway to call for a path to citizenship for the country's 12-million illegal immigrants, echoing the cries at rallies across Florida and the country.

Nohely is a U.S. citizen. Her mother isn't.

Nohely worked the crowd Tuesday, carrying a clipboard to collect signatures from other children of immigrants to send to Congress.

"I get home at 4:30 from school and sometimes I say to myself, 'What is going to happen if my mom is not there?' " said Nohely, whose mother is from Honduras and has temporary legal status that she must reapply for every year.

This year's rallies drew far fewer participants than those on May 1 last year, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets from Los Angeles to New York on International Workers' Day.

In Tampa, people carried signs that read "Protect Due Process" and "Comprehensive Immigration Reform Now."

A main theme nationally was the arrests of illegal immigrants during federal raids at job sites. Advocates used the rallies to highlight the plight of the arrested immigrants' American-born children who have been separated from their parents.

Javier Gutierrez, 35, arrived at the rally with his fellow Clearwater construction workers.

Their boss let them out of work at 2 p.m., more than an hour early, said Gutierrez, who came here illegally as a teenager and became a citizen following the amnesty of the 1980s.

Many of his neighbors and fellow workers fear raids, he said.

"We always live with this, " he said of the fear. "It's like how you always know you're going to die someday. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow. You learn to live this way. It's life."

About a half-dozen people showed up to protest the rally.

Phil Krnjeu, 29, carried a sign that read "No Special Rights."

He said his mother, who is Filipino, waited years to come here legally.

"There are rules and we shouldn't make exceptions, " said Krnjeu, who lives in Tampa.

Walter Flynt, 76, held a sign that read "What Part of Illegal Don't You Understand?" He blames immigrants' willingness to work for lower wages for hurting his son's job opportunities in Atlanta, where he repairs air conditioning units.

"It just irritates me so so bad. I lie awake at night thinking about it, " he said.

Other events in Florida were held in Orlando, Miami, West Palm Beach and Belle Glade.

In Miami, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean criticized an immigration proposal pending in Congress that would require illegal workers to return to their home countries before they could apply for citizenship.

"This is a government that can't find a 6-foot-4 terrorist, " Dean said, referring to Osama bin Laden. "How is it going to find 12-million people?"

In Orlando, attorney Andy Rariden looked down from his office at the rally at Lake Eola.

Rariden protested against the much larger rally last year that drew about 20, 000 people.

"I think some steam has gone out of this movement, " he said by telephone. "But there is increasing steam on my side."

Immigrant advocates say the energy of last year's large crowds has been channeled into other forms of civic engagement, such as voter registration drives and letter-writing campaigns.

But they acknowledge that the rallies last year caused a backlash, including President Bush's stepped up workplace enforcement. Some leaders said immigrants were afraid to participate in this year's marches because of deportation fears.

"We think we pushed the pendulum really far out there last year and nobody recognized how far it would come back in terms of the administration's hard-handed stance, " said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles "I think what we are engaging in right now is how do we push it back?"

In Dade City, Margarita Romo, director of Farmworker Self-Help organization, drove several people to the Orlando rally.

"I believe that our folks have the right to be here, " she said. "They have earned it out in the fields and on the top of the roofs of the houses where they work."

Times staff writer Amanda Palleschi contributed to this report, which also contains information from the Associated Press.