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Wednesday, May 2, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Thousands rally to support immigration-law changes

Seattle Times staff reporters

Saying no human is illegal and calling for a halt to deportations, a crowd of about 5,000 immigrants and their supporters on Tuesday marched in solidarity between Seattle Center and Westlake Park.

The May Day rally and march, sponsored by religious, human-rights and labor organizations, were among about 75 held in cities across the country — from Los Angeles to New York, San Antonio to Chicago — as well as in Mexico.

Seattle police, out in full force, reported no arrests.

This year's crowd was far smaller than the tens of thousands who took to Seattle streets for two separate marches last spring, inspired then by an immigration-enforcement-only measure in Congress.

Until lawmakers fix the nation's immigration laws, protesters say, they want a halt to the work-site raids that have led to increased deportations and have torn families apart. Department of Homeland Security figures show that between October 2006 and April 16, more than 125,000 people have been deported, well ahead of figures for the same period a year ago.

At the rally at Seattle Center's Fisher Pavilion, King County Council Chairman Larry Gossett said demands from last year haven't dissipated.

"We still demand the politicians in D.C. pass laws that protect the rights of all workers, especially those from Mexico and other Latin American countries ... that protect the rights of families to be unified," he said. "We have to stay on the streets until the D.C. politicians pass laws that provide a pathway to citizenship."

The rallies come as another immigration-change measure moves in Congress — this one offering the prospect of legal residency to an estimated 12 million people now illegally in the United States, provided they meet certain requirements.

As the protesters marched down Fifth Avenue and up Fourth Avenue at the height of rush hour, organizers shouted through bullhorns, leading the crowd. While most marchers were young and Latino, the crowd was diverse. Parents pushed babies in strollers. People rolled down Fifth Avenue in wheelchairs.

Rodolfo Hernandez, who does marketing for Seattle-area Mexican restaurants, said that, like him, half his friends and family members are in the country illegally.

His parents unlawfully crossed the border from Mexico in 2001 with him and his sister so they could afford to send them to college. Hernandez, 29, earned a scholarship and graduated from college in Toronto with a marketing degree.

His mother, Angeles Hernandez, said she and her husband took the risk "because we wanted a better life for our children."

"In our country, there aren't many opportunities — even for those with college degrees," she said. "Much of the wealth is only in a few hands. We felt our children deserved a better life."

Onlookers filled the sidewalks and looked out from offices and condos at marchers and dozens of police officers escorting them on foot, bicycles and motorcycles. During the march, no buses or traffic were allowed to cross Fourth or Fifth avenues in either direction between Pine and Mercer streets, but traffic and buses were moving again before 6 p.m.

At Westlake, officers came between the crowd and a single counter-protester, Bryce Jones, 42, who carried an anti-immigration sign.

As the crowd surged toward where Jones stood, they began chanting: "We don't want your racist fear."

Jones said he has unemployed friends looking for casual labor jobs "and they have to compete with 50 Mexicans — all of them illegal."

Hilary Stern, executive director of the day-laborer center CASA Latina, an event organizer, pointed to a recent USA Today/Gallup poll of 1,000 people that showed 78 percent favored creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

But Stern said that while the prospect for change makes people more hopeful, increased work-site raids have made them fearful. Deportations, she said, "are hitting people much closer to home. So the message has shifted to stopping the deportations until there's a solution to the problem. Enforcing the current laws is not a solution."

But Lorie Dankers, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said, "Not enforcing the law is not an option."

As Santiago Samora marched along Fifth Avenue with his 5-year-old daughter Leslie, he contemplated the future of family and friends who are in the country illegally.

He was born here but, despite a Congress more favorable to the cause, he worries not much will change. "Ten years from now," he said, "I think we'll be in the same mess."

Times reporter Brian Alexander contributed to this report.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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