02 May 2006

Millions join protests for immigration reform

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The movement for immigrants rights in the United States reached a high on May Day as millions stayed off work and thousands joined in with protest marches across 50 cities.

Dubbed "A Day Without Immigrants", the protests were intended to show how vital foreign-born workers are to the country.

Immigrants workers, many of them classified as illegals, were joined by middle class US citizens to press for reform of the country's immigration laws and press for legal recognition of the estimated 12 million undocumented workers across the country.

In Los Angeles, a city which has already seen a number of well-supported marches, May Day's protests saw more than half a million people crowd into the city centre.

Several big businesses, including slaughterhouses and branches of McDonald's, either rearranged working shifts or decided to close for the day in recognition of the fact that their workforces would be severely depleted.

In New York, workers in each of the city's five boroughs came together shortly after noon to link arms with shoppers, restaurant-goers and other supporters.

In Union Square and along Broadway, much of the usual bustle of small shops and market traders fell to a low hush.

Opinion polls have shown a change in public attitudes to immigration reform in recent weeks, as an emphasis on securing the border and rounding up "illegals" has given way to an acknowledgment that all workers in the economy deserve basic respect and dignity.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last week showed 68 per cent of respondents supporting a Senate bill that would allow illegal immigrants to join a guest worker programme en route to full citizenship.

The protest was championed by many as a way to show the economic punch immigrants pack and as another in a string of national actions against congressional plans to criminalize illegal workers.

The Senate is debating a version of immigration reform that is considered considerably more lenient than the bill that passed the House of Representatives earlier this year. A compromise measure before senators would allow for many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to become legalized without leaving the country. The House bill would criminalize these illegal immigrants.

President Bush has urged lawmakers to reach a workable compromise deal and has pushed for the implementation of a guest-worker programme, which would enable illegal immigrants who had lived in the United States for five years or more to eventually be granted citizenship, provided they stayed employed, had background checks, paid fines and back taxes and learned English.

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