CHICAGO — Angered by a controversial Arizona immigration law, tens of thousands of protesters — including 50,000 alone in Los Angeles — rallied in cities across America demanding that President Barack Obama tackle immigration reform immediately.
"I want to thank the governor of Arizona because she's awakened a sleeping giant," said labor organizer John Delgado who attended a rally in New York where authorities estimated 6,500 gathered.
From Los Angeles to Washington D.C., activists, families, students and even politicians marched, practiced civil disobedience and "came out" about their citizenship status in the name of rights for immigrants, including the estimated 12 million living illegally in the U.S.
Police said 50,000 rallied in Los Angeles, where singer Gloria Estefan kicked off a massive downtown march. Estefan spoke in Spanish and English, proclaiming the United States is a nation of immigrants.
"We're good people," the Cuban-born singer said atop a flatbed truck. "We've given a lot to this country. This country has given a lot to us."
Public outcry, particularly among immigrant rights activists, has been building since last week when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the legislation last week. Supporters say the law is necessary because of the federal government's failure to secure the border, but critics contend it encourages racial profiling and is unconstitutional.
"It's racist," said Donna Sanchez, a 22-year-old U.S. citizen living in Chicago whose parents illegally crossed the Mexican border. "I have papers, but I want to help those who don't."
Organizers estimated about 20,000 gathered at a park on Chicago's West Side and marched, but police said about 8,000 turned out.
The event resembled something between a family festival — with food vendors pushing carts through the grass — and a political demonstration with protesters chanting "Si se puede," Spanish for "Yes we can." A group of undocumented students stood on a stage at the Chicago park and "came out" regarding their immigration status.
Juan Baca was among those students. Baca, 19, whose parents brought him from Mexico illegally when he was 4 months old, said he has had to drop out of college and work several times already because he can't qualify for financial aid.
"It's been a struggle," he said. "I missed the mark by four months. A lot of times you feel like you're not good enough."
Obama once promised to tackle immigration reform in his first 100 days, but has pushed back that timetable several times. He said this week that Congress may lack the "appetite" to take on immigration after going through a tough legislative year. However, Obama and Congress could address related issues, like boosting personnel and resources for border security, in spending bills this year.
"Obama promised legalization in the first 100 days," said Jesus Garzas, a 43-year-old Chicagoan with legal status who wore an Obama mask with a Pinocchio-like nose. "He lied."
Juan Haro, 80, was born and raised in Denver, where about 3,000 people rallied. He said his family is originally from Mexico and thinks Arizona's new law is targeting Mexicans specifically.
v"This country doesn't seem to be anti-immigrant," he said. "It seems to be anti-Mexican."
At the White House, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, was arrested with several others in a demonstration of civil disobedience against the Arizona law.
In Dallas, police estimated at least 20,000 attended a Saturday rally.
Among them was Juan Hernandez, the Hispanic outreach coordinator for Sen. John McCain's unsuccessful presidential run. He said Arizona was once considered by those south of the border to be a model state with particularly close ties to Mexico.
"It went beyond what most states do," he said. "Now they are a state that goes beyond what the Constitution says you should do."
About a dozen people at the Dallas event carried signs depicting Brewer as a Nazi and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his tough illegal immigration stance, as a Klansman. Organizers were asking sign holders to discard the placards.
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, more than 500 people held a mock graduation ceremony for undocumented immigrant students near the site of Obama's University of Michigan commencement speech.
A smattering of counterprotesters showed up at rallies. In Tucson, Arizona, a few dozen people from the group Arizonans For Immigration Control showed up in support of the new law and Brewer.
May 1, also International Workers Day, is a traditional date for political demonstrations. Immigration advocates latched onto that tradition in 2006, when more than 1 million people across the country — half a million alone in Chicago — protested federal legislation that would have made being an illegal immigrant a felony. That legislation ultimately failed.
At Saturday's rallies, activists from organizations supporting other groups — including Muslims, gays and youth advocacy — marched in support of immigrant rights.
"It affects everyone," said Paulie Sabol, 38, who traveled from Indiana to march in Chicago. His partner is a Mexican immigrant who is a legal resident but doesn't have U.S. citizenship. "I can't sponsor him because same sex marriage isn't recognized in Indiana."