NEW ORLEANS — Several dozen labor and immigration activists gathered Wednesday at Armstrong Park and made stops at the local offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., before stopping on the steps of City Hall to rally for better working conditions, immigration reform and other issues.
The local rally was one of hundreds of May Day rallies across the country. The annual, nationwide ritual carried a special sense of urgency as Congress considers sweeping legislation that would bring many of the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally out of the shadows.
The rally outside of City Hall featured speakers with a personal stake in the debate.
Angela Castro, a mother of three, said she feared being separated from her husband, a roofer, who is in jail and faces deportation after immigration officials found him to be without papers.
“We came here just to progress,” Castro said through an interpreter. “It just has to be stopped,” she said of the current laws regarding immigration.
In addition to asking for changes to how the federal government handles deportation, local demonstrators also called on Sheriff Marlin Gusman to end the practice of holding potential undocumented workers in his jail while authorities determine if that person can legally be in the country.
District E Councilman James Gray said he will soon introduce a resolution asking Gusman to discontinue the practice since, he said, it is a form of racial profiling.
“In my mind ... it’s profiling in the worse sense,” Gray said during an interview. “You pick someone up for jaywalking and put them in jail for an extended period of time without probable cause.”
Some of those who spoke said they are not criminals and are only trying to work.
Benjamin Plener, legislative director for District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, told the crowd that Cantrell advocates using tax dollars to protect citizens and “not tear families apart.” Plener spoke for Cantrell, who was in a City Council committee meeting during the rally.
Plener also told the crowd that Cantrell wants local authorities to deal with local issues rather than federal responsibilities, something that drew applause and cheers.
The crowds across the country did not approach the massive demonstrations of 2006 and 2007, during the last serious attempt to introduce major changes to the U.S. immigration system. Despite the large turnouts six years ago, many advocates of looser immigration laws felt they were outmaneuvered by opponents who flooded congressional offices with phone calls and faxes at the behest of conservative talk-radio hosts.
Now, immigrant advocacy groups are focusing heavily on calling and writing members of Congress, using social media and other technology to target specific lawmakers. Reform Immigration for America, a network of groups, claims more than 1.2 million subscribers, including recipients of text messages and Facebook followers.
May Day rallies began in the United States in 2000 during a labor dispute with a restaurant in Los Angeles that drew several hundred demonstrators, said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which organized what was expected to be Wednesday’s largest rally. Crowds grew each year until the House of Representatives passed a tough bill against illegal immigration, sparking a wave of enormous, angry protests from coast to coast in 2006.
The rallies, which coincide with Labor Day in many countries outside the U.S., often have big showings from labor leaders and elected officials.
Demonstrators marched in countries around the world, with fury in Europe over austerity measures and rage in Asia over y low pay, the rising cost of living and dangerous working conditions that have left hundreds dead in recent months alone.
The Associated Press
contributed to this report.