WASHINGTON, D.C. – American flags waving in the nation’s capital are not uncommon. But 500,000 immigrants and supporters waving them are.

The massive rally was organized by the National Capital Immigration Coalition, with help from CASA de Maryland, labor unions, churches and ethnic organizations from D.C., Virginia and Maryland.

The mostly Latino crowd heard speeches in Spanish and English. Many came directly from work. Groups of construction workers, in their dust-laden boots and hard hats, came right from the job site. Chants of “Bush, escucha, estamos en la lucha” (“Bush, listen, we are in the struggle”) intermixed with “Today we march, tomorrow we vote!” (“Hoy marchamos, mañana votamos”). Among the crowd were student representatives from area high schools, people from Asian and African groups, day laborers and Protestant, Catholic and Reform Jewish representatives.

Jaime Contreras, president of the National Capital Immigration Coalition, described his journey to the U.S. He came here when he was 13-years-old, fleeing war and unrest in El Salvador. He joined the U.S. Navy at 19 and is now a member of SEIU. Contreras denounced laws which “punish people who come here to build the U.S. economy.” These immigration laws break up families, he said.

The Archbishop of Washington, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, denounced the abuse of workers and the division of families. Many Catholic Church leaders have pledged civil disobedience if undocumented immigrant criminalization laws are passed.

Democratic elected officials spoke. Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and co-sponsor of the bi-partisan Kennedy-McCain immigration reform bill, which provides a path to citizenship, said, “I look across this gathering and I see the future of America.” He pledged to continue to push his joint effort with Sen. McCain.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said anti-immigrant fanatics want to “weaken America by deporting its hardest workers. Will [people like Sensenbrenner] pick the crops?”

Rep. Albert Russell Wynn (D-Md.) said he supports the program and agenda of the demonstration.

Many African American speakers urged solidarity and unity for a common agenda. Sebastian Johnson, African American student leader at Montgomery Blair H.S. in Silver Spring, Md. told the rally, “Today is not the time for the politics of fear and ignorance. No human being is illegal, no child should see their parents deported. Can we enforce the law and betray the very soul of America?”

Gerry Hudson, executive vice president of SEIU and an African-American, said, “The work we do every day is essential to the health of this economy. Our participation is essential to the health of American democracy.” Hudson denounced effort to divide Blacks against immigrants. “Our demands are your demands. What you want is what we want: Just pay for our work and a future for our children.”

Hudson said passing HR 4437 shook up workers. “Those who passed the bill in December did not know what they were unleashing in America. They thought that we were weak, that we were powerless and that they could get away with it. It will not be possible. America will one day be a land of justice for all, because of what you do here today.”

An African American leader of the Gamaliel Foundation, an interfaith, grassroots network, urged that the struggle for immigrant rights be paired with the struggle to extend the voting rights act, as a way of building African-American/Latino unity.

Michael Winston, legislative and political affairs director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, also African American, compared the current campaign for immigrant justice to the actions of abolitionists with the Underground Railroad. Union leaders are willing to risk arrest because “immigrants’ rights are workers’ rights. We say ‘no’ to criminalization and ‘yes’ to equal rights and workers’ protections.” The UCFW opposes the guest worker programs, he said. But “we will risk criminalization to help you with your just struggle.”

Along with the Change to Win unions, John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, pledged ongoing support. “We are all one people speaking with one voice to our elected leaders: Respect, liberty and justice for all. This is a moment of historical decision: Do we create a path to citizenship for all who have earned it with hard work? Or do we put up a sign that says ‘the American dream belongs only to a few’?”

Urging a “united we stand” approach, Deepak Bhargava, from Center for Community Change, said, “We will not stand for legalization that divides us,” referring to the Hagel-Martinez compromise bill cobbled together last week that would divide undocumented immigrants into three categories by date of arrival and throw the most recent ones to the wolves.

Terrie Albano contributed to this story.

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