It was too small for the liking of some, but it was still a vocal crowd that marched through downtown Santa Rosa on Sunday in an annual demonstration of support for overhauling immigration laws.

But as the familiar chants of "Si se puede" -- Yes we can -- filled Old Courthouse Square, where hundreds of people arrived around 4 p.m., Nati Ramirez worried that the whole of downtown wasn't flooded with marchers.

"They're not getting it, that it's in the air now, that we have this possibility," said Ramirez, who works for the county Health Services department and volunteers with the United Farm Workers union, which sponsored the event.

Indeed, the showing seemed at odds with the prospects for meaningful bipartisan progress on the contentious immigration issue, considered to be the best in two decades after Hispanic voters turned on Republican candidates last year.

"In previous years, when we were fighting for change, there were so many people," said Caroline Ba?elos, president of the Sonoma County Latino Democrat Club.

"Now that it's close to some kind of reform, nobody's here," she said, waiting for the start of the annual rally and march held in honor of the late Cesar Chavez, a farm worker, labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded what became the UFW.

Similar marches were scheduled this weekend in more than a half-dozen cities across California, including Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Fresno, Salinas, Oxnard and Coachella.

"We need to fight more," added Georgina Warmoth of Rohnert Park, a Petaluma Community Health Center board member.

The crowd, which gathered slowly at a Sebastopol Road parking lot, eventually grew to between 400 and 500 people, far fewer than the 7,000 to 10,000 people who marched in 2007, and the 5,000 in 2010.

But it was healthy enough for Oscar Chavez, the executive director of nonprofit service provider CAP Sonoma County, to say, "I'm very optimistic and hopeful that we're starting a movement."

Chavez entered the country illegally in 1981. He became a permanent resident in 1989 under President Ronald Reagan's immigration reform bill, commonly known as amnesty, and a citizen in 2002. The time is right for another change in the law, he said.

"I know there are thousands of young people who are ready to make meaningful contributions to strengthen our country, and without that opportunity we limit their potential," he said.

There was evidence Sunday that major changes have already taken place.

Jose Torres, a Jalisco, Mexico, native who came illegally to the United States when he was 12, can now live and work legally in the United States. He qualified in October for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Barack Obama started with an executive order.

"I'm not going to lie to you, DACA changed my life. But it's just a stepping stone, it's not enough," said Torres, 26, of Rohnert Park.

"They call us Dreamers," he added, a term used to describe young immigrants who would benefit from the proposed Dream Act, which would create a path to citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants brought into the country illegally as children.

"But the true dreamers," Torres said, "are the parents who left everything behind to give us a better life."

Many of those parents were in the crowd, and some said they are keeping a close eye on Washington where a bipartisan group of senators is working on an immigration reform bill.

"I have more hope this year," said Jose Hernandez, a Santa Rosa resident who entered the United States illegally in 1990.

"There are a lot of people hoping," he said.

Maria Ramirez of Rohnert Park, a Mexican native who is a legal resident, said illegal immigrants have earned their way to a legal status in the community.

"They have suffered through hard work, low pay, separation from their families, humiliation and discrimination," she said. "And still they work. They persist."

Eventually, the march took shape, heading east down Sebastopol Road.

It proceeded without incident, taking about 1 ?-hours to reach downtown. The procession bristled with signs: "Stop the Raids." "Stop Separating Families." "Immigration Reform Now." "No Farmworkers, No Food."

Francisco Hernandez, who entered the county illegally in 1993 and has lived in Santa Rosa ever since, stood on the bandstand, looking out for audio equipment set up for speeches yet to be made.

A native of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, he works in Napa and Sonoma county vineyards. Nearly everyone he knows is an illegal immigrant, he said.

He showed off a photograph on his cellphone of him in a martial arts uniform. He teaches karate to kids in his Corby Avenue neighborhood so they'll stay out of trouble, he said.

He knows, he said, that there are many people who believe that because he is here illegally, he does not deserve the chance to become a citizen.

"I ask their forgiveness," he said. "I came to help my family."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.