More than 1,000 local immigrants and their supporters participated in the May Day march and rally in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, in what has become an enduring call for legalization of the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants.
For years, that plea has largely been ignored. But this time, the hopes of those who attended rallies in Santa Rosa and across the nation were buoyed by the gathering momentum in Congress to pass the most dramatic overhaul of U.S. immigration laws in a quarter-century.
"I want this to be the last May Day in which we march for immigration reform," said Jesus Guzman, program manager of the Graton Day Labor Center and an organizer with the local chapter of the DREAM Alliance, a national organization that has been pushing for passage of a federal bill that would offer immigration relief to undocumented youth brought to the United States as children.
"We've been coming out here since 2006," said Guzman. "What's different this time is that 2012 happened. El voto Latino. Latinos on Nov. 7 dramatically changed the political will in Washington."
Guzman was referring to President Obama's victory in last year's election, which some political analysts say would not have been possible without the overwhelming support he received from Latino voters.
Not long after the election, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators known as the Gang of 8 began working on a comprehensive immigration bill that would, among other things, offer a pathway to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants, increase low-skill and high-tech employment visas, strengthen border enforcement and mandate an electronic employment verification system.
The Senate legislation includes penalties for violating U.S. immigration laws, a requirement that immigrants pay all back taxes and border enforcement "triggers" that must be met before anyone is granted citizenship.
President Obama has said he would make overhauling U.S. immigration laws a major priority this year. He has endorsed the essential points of the Senate immigration bill.
Nationally, thousands joined May Day rallies in dozens of cities. In Salem, Ore., Gov. John Kitzhaber was cheered by about 2,000 people on the Capitol steps as he signed a bill to allow people living in Oregon without proof of legal status to obtain drivers licenses.
Police in New York restrained several demonstrators, but the marches were peaceful.In Seattle, demonstrators clashed with police for the second year in a row, as a spurt of violence erupted after the official march had ended.
On Wednesday in Santa Rosa, May Day demonstrators met in the usual location — the parking lot of the shuttered grocery store on Sebastopol Road in west Santa Rosa. The crowd included young students, families with children, labor organizations and activists from local left-leaning groups such as Occupy Santa Rosa, the Green Party and the Sonoma County Peace and Justice Center.
They carried signs that read, "Dreams for All," "Senate Action Now" and "Citizenship Because No Person is Second Class."
Antonio, an undocumented immigrant who has been living in the United States for 10 years, said legalizing unauthorized workers would benefit everyone. Antonio, who lives in Santa Rosa and asked that only his first name be used, attended the march with his wife and three children.
Legalization would mean better wages for millions of undocumented immigrants, he said.