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Hispanics march in Milwaukee against immigration bills




(CNN) -- Thousands of demonstrators marched in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Thursday to oppose tough anti-immigration legislation sponsored by their Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner.

House Resolution 4437 would make all undocumented immigrants felons and require all employers to verify the immigration status of its employees.

The House already has passed Sensenbrenner's bill, and Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, has introduced a companion bill in the Senate that also would make it a felony to be in the United States without the proper paperwork.

Sensenbrenner said in a statement last year that his bill would help "regain control of our borders and prevent illegal immigration" as well as "help strengthen and promote our compassionate and welcoming legal immigration system." (Watch how Democrats would prefer a more holistic approach -- 2:08)

About 30,000 protesters on Thursday marched into downtown Milwaukee as part of a demonstration titled "A Day Without Latinos" in which Latinos were encouraged to take time from their jobs to march, according to Voces de la Frontera, which organized the event. A police spokesman said the crowd was between 10,000 and 15,000.

Dozens of Milwaukee businesses also closed Thursday in protest.

"A Day Without Latinos," the theme of the Milwaukee protest, borrows its name from a 2004 comedy called "A Day Without a Mexican," in which California wakes up one day to find that its Hispanic residents have inexplicably disappeared.

The Milwaukee march was one of several recent protests organized across the nation by groups opposed to immigration bills considered by Congress.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has until Monday to vote on the competing legislation, but one Senate aide said the prospects on Senators taking action did not seem bright. The aide called negotiations in the Senate "slow going" and predicted a showdown over the bill.

Critics of the legislation say Sensenbrenner is trying to deport the 11 million to 12 million people who are in the United States illegally. Proponents say keeping tabs on immigrants is vital to national security. President Bush echoed that sentiment in comments to reporters Thursday.

"Part of enforcing our borders is to have a guest-worker program that encourages people to register their presence, so that we know who they are and says to them, 'If you're doing a job an American won't do, you're welcome here for a period of time to do that job.' " (Watch Bush push for a 'civil' debate over immigration -- 1:53)

But Democrats are saying the Frist and Sensenbrenner measures go too far, especially the provisions that threaten to criminalize anyone who helps an undocumented immigrant.

"This bill would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself," said Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York.

The Web site for Voces de la Frontera, which in Spanish means Voices from the Border, states that in addition to turning immigrants into felons and pressuring employers, Sensenbrenner's bill also could affect immigrants' driving privileges and emergency medical care.

Voces de la Frontera, a Milwaukee-based organization focused on educating low-wage and immigrant workers about their rights, said in a statement that Sensenbrenner's bill essentially "would destroy our human dignity."

Other protests are planned in Atlanta, where an alliance of Hispanic organizations is encouraging Latino residents to participate in a commercial boycott and work stoppage Friday to demonstrate how Latinos help bolster the Georgia economy.

On Saturday more than 2,500 groups plan to participate in a rally in Los Angeles, California. The state ranks first in Hispanic population, according to the Census Bureau. Organizers are predicting that up to 500,000 people will attend, and they hope to outdo Chicago, Illinois, where an estimated 300,000 protesters demonstrated two weeks ago.

Chicago's record turnout was achieved because Sensenbrenner and Frist have introduced some of "the most restrictive immigration legislation in 70 years," said Doug Rivlin, spokesman for the National Immigration Forum.

"It doesn't fix our immigration system. It only drives it underground," he said.

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