Thousands march for immigration reform

March 21 » Demonstrations across country call for change.
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After marching for "comprehensive" immigration reform nearly four years ago, the thousands of Utahns who flooded State Street in Salt Lake City on Sunday want this to be the last time they rally for change.

"This time it will happen," said activist Tony Yapias, who helped lead the 2006 march. Sunday's downtown crowd marched from City Hall to the Capitol and back.

Yapias was one of many organizers of the event, which was tied to a march Sunday in Washington, D.C., calling for the nation's lawmakers to pass reform after failed attempts in 2006 and 2007.

At the nation's capital, Salt Lake City Diocese Bishop John Wester presided over a prayer at the rally and said the issue is a human and moral one. "There are just so many people affected by our broken immigration system."

Proper reform would blend enforcement policy with generosity toward people that would allow them to gain an immigration status, a way toward citizenship and keep families together, Wester said.

In Salt Lake City, the sea of people -- stretching roughly five blocks on State Street -- carried U.S. flags and chanted in English and Spanish, alternating from "Si, se puede" to "Yes, we can," and "Obama, listen. We are in the struggle." They held homemade signs in both languages stating: "Family Values = Immigration Reform," "Protect Our Families," "We Are All Immigrants" and "We Work Hard. We Pay Taxes. We Pay into SS [social security]. We Contribute Too."

Countless signs and speakers emphasized that undocumented immigrants contribute to their communities through sales, property and other taxes.

And so they should be able to work and live without fear, said Marisa Medina, while keeping an eye on her son who ran on the grass waving an U.S. flag.

Maria Olague marched with her husband, Miguel, who draped himself in the U.S. flag, and said many people only see undocumented workers as "criminals" when really they are "people of peace" and "hard workers."

After seeing many friends' families broken apart when parents are deported and their U.S.-born children stay behind, Susana Wilson wants citizenship or visas to be accessible to more people.

"They need that card so they can work legally. 'Cause we have a lot of good people -- they just want to work," Wilson said, adding she had it easy when she gained U.S. citizenship through her marriage.

While the fight for immigration reform is long, Utah State Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, told people to "stay strong. Don't get discouraged."

"You are the new pioneers of Utah and you must be heard," she said in sentiment that many would later echo as they compared the struggles of undocumented workers to early Mormons being persecuted or blacks amidst segregation.

As marchers neared the Capitol, they were met with thumbs down and signs from an informal group of less than a dozen counterprotesters.

Jamin Merton stood at the base of the Capitol steps holding the U.S. flag and a sign reading "This is our flag. We are here legally."

The West Valley City resident said his ancestors were legal immigrants, but other people are "short-circuiting the system."

"They're demanding that we give them citizenship in defiance of our law, our constitution, our policemen, everything that we stand up for," he said, adding the only type of immigration reform he thinks is needed is one that focuses on protecting borders, and he opposes amnesty and other path-toward-citizenship programs.

But march organizer Jose Gutierrez wants reform that will help those already here -- "who meet certain criteria" -- reach citizenship, reunite families more quickly, and produce a visa program that respects workers of all skill levels.

"The problem with immigration isn't bad people," Gutierrez told the marchers, "it's the bad laws."