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INSIDE POLITICS

Rallies across U.S. call for illegal immigrant rights

Hundreds of thousands join 'national day of action' in towns, cities

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(CNN) -- Hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out Monday in small towns and big cities across the United States, demanding that undocumented immigrants get a chance to live the American dream.

Organizers said their "national day of action for immigration justice" included events in more than 140 cities in at least 39 states, with drum-banging and flag-waving masses chanting "Si se puede" -- "Yes we can" -- in rallies from coast to coast.

The events served as a visible demonstration of political clout for supporters of the nation's estimated 11-12 million undocumented immigrants.

"The sleeping giant is awake -- wide awake -- and we're paying close attention," said Jaime Contreras, president of the National Capital Immigration Coalition, one of the groups involved in organizing the demonstrations.

The protests began in the morning in communities on the East Coast, then spread across the country throughout the day and continued into the evening.

Two of the largest demonstrations were held in Washington, D.C., and Phoenix, Arizona. Organizers said 500,000 attended the event in Washington and 200,000 in Phoenix, although police did not provide official crowd estimates.

In a nod to criticism of demonstrators who waved foreign flags at earlier pro-immigration rallies, the Stars and Stripes were on prominent display at many of Monday's events. (Watch protesters wave a new flag -- 2:13)

In Washington, protesters held up signs proclaiming, "We Are America."

"What we want to achieve is to send a very strong message to the Senate, to the Congress in general and this administration that immigrants are fed up, that we are tired, that we work very hard," Contreras said.

"We come to this country not to take from America, but to make America strong. And we do not deserve to be treated the way we have been treated," he said.

'We are not criminals'

The nationwide protests drew a cool response from one of the House's leading proponents of reducing immigration.

Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican, said the demonstrations show "how entrenched the illegal alien lobby has become."

Some counter-protests were also held Monday by people who favor stricter immigration laws, but they paled in size and scope next to the pro-immigration rallies.

In Atlanta, a crowd estimated by police at 30,000 to 40,000 gathered outside a suburban shopping mall that serves the area's growing Latino population. Organizers had asked demonstrators to wear white T-shirts, and the gathering looked like a sea of white from the air.

Alluding to the city's history as the cradle of the civil rights movement, demonstrators carried a sign reading "We Have A Dream, Too."

In Los Angeles, California, Cardinal Roger Mahony, the city's Roman Catholic archbishop, urged lawmakers to pass immigration reform that includes a path to legalization for "all undocumented residents."

"We are all God's children, united for a just immigration reform," Mahony said. "We all deserve respect and care."

In New York, thousands of people rallied outside City Hall, waving flags from countries as close as Mexico and as far away as Bangladesh.

Undocumented Mexican immigrant Ana Sanchez and her children wore shirts that read: "We are not criminals."

"I'm coming for work. I want to work," said protester John Cervantes, an illegal immigrant from Ecuador whose daughter, Evelyn, is a citizen born in the United States.

Grassroots forces

Monday's protests are part of a wave of demonstrations in recent weeks, as Congress grapples with the thorny issue of how to overhaul the nation's immigration system.

Credit for driving the protests has been given to grassroots forces such as union and church leaders, Spanish-language radio hosts and students sending text messages to spread plans for school walkouts. (Watch the political impact of the rallies -- 2:06)

Harry Pachon, an expert on Latino politics at the University of Southern California, said the growing wave of demonstrations shows that a "pan-Latino identity is beginning to show itself."

"It caught many Hispanic leaders by surprise, because this is really a working community's demonstrations," he said.

"The immigration debate up to these demonstrations has largely been one-sided. It's been very hard for anyone to argue for the undocumented immigrant."

Bush: Strong feelings

In Washington, President Bush said Monday's rallies were "a sign that this is an important issue that people feel strongly about."

The president has been pushing Congress to pass legislation that includes a temporary guest-worker provision for noncitizens.

"People ought to be here on a ... temporary basis. And if they want to become a citizen, after a series of steps they've got to take, they get in line, like everybody else; not at the head of the line, but the end of the line," he said.

The immigration issue has put Bush and many lawmakers in a difficult position, with uncertain political consequences.

Bush has made reaching out to Latinos a priority, making inroads in what has traditionally been a Democratic constituency.

But he and other Republican leaders must also contend with a growing chorus within their conservative base to crack down on illegal immigration.

Senate legislation last week was hailed as a breakthrough in the immigration debate, but the compromise drafted by Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Mel Martinez of Florida failed to gain enough support in a vote before a two-week recess. (Full story)

But on Monday, Sen. Hillary Clinton told a rally in New York she was "convinced that we will have immigration reform because it makes sense for America."

"But not the kind of legislation that was passed in the House, because that is not in keeping with either reality or American values," the New York Democrat said.

The House in December passed immigration legislation that has drawn fierce opposition from Latino groups. It calls for building a 700-mile-long security fence on the U.S.-Mexico border and for making illegal immigration a felony.

The House bill contains neither of the provisions in the Senate legislation that have divided Republicans -- the guest-worker program and a process allowing illegal immigrants to pursue legal status to stay in the country and obtain citizenship.

If the Senate manages to pass a bill after its recess, a joint committee of members of the House and Senate would have to reach a compromise.

Tancredo is among the critics who consider the Senate's proposed legalization process to be "amnesty." Supporters call it "earned citizenship."

"Amnesty is an affront to American law and America's tradition of legal immigration," Tancredo said in a written statement. "If the protesters really want to honor America's values, they would stand up to lawbreakers and embrace an enforcement-first approach to fixing our broken system."

CNN's Allan Chernoff contributed to this report.

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