Volume 76, Number 50 | May 9 -15, 2007

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

Above and below, at May 1 rally in Union Square for citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Amnesty push for illegal immigrants is unflagging

By Barry Paddock

Half the flags were America’s stars and stripes at the May 1 Union Square immigration rally, and half were from dozens of other countries, reflecting both the widespread origins of the thousands who attended and their common desire for full participation in American life. This was a rally of families: There were nearly as many children as adults, and countless baby strollers. Across Broadway a half dozen counterprotesters hoisted signs reading, “No amnesty for illegal aliens.”

Although this year’s May Day immigration rallies in New York and across the country were smaller than last year’s landmark protests, there were still many immigrants turning out last week for their first protest ever. Veronica Andrade-Castillo, a housecleaner in Elmhurst, Queens, who emigrated from Mexico 15 years ago, heard about the rally from an organizer fliering on Roosevelt Ave.

“I want to be free to live in the United States,” she said, her pre-adolescent son translating for her, while behind them a band played “Get Up, Stand Up” from the speakers’ stage. “I want to tell the government we want freedom and rights.”

Also at the rally was Bazah Roohi, who immigrated to New York nine years ago from Pakistan, where she says she faced political persecution.

“I have my own business. I’m an accountant,” said Roohi, who lives in Brooklyn, standing amid the Union Square throngs. “I’m very active in my community. I own a house and I’m paying taxes on it. But I don’t have legal papers. We work hard and we’re living peacefully. They should give us our legal status.”

Roohi says she was arrested last November by immigration officials who appeared unannounced at her office, and spent a month in detention. She is now fighting to be accepted for asylum. She has devoted much of her life in New York to aiding other struggling immigrants, she said, helping those without healthcare or facing domestic abuse find help, and visiting those in detention.

“I don’t care about religion. I don’t care what country you’re from,” she said. “I care about humans.”

Lizbel Escamilla, 15, a Bronx high school student, was in Union Square with her mother, aunt, siblings and cousins. Her father couldn’t join them; he was at his job as a lingerie salesman in a Manhattan store. Escamilla’s parents are undocumented immigrants from Mexico, whereas she was born in the United States.

“They came here to get a better life for me,” she said. “The least I can do is support them. They can’t travel freely. When my dad asks for a day off, they say he can’t have it. Sometimes jobs don’t pay him. When he tries to get a driver’s license, he can’t get one. Sometimes he has to drive me to school. He tells me, ‘I have God’s license to drive in New York State.’ ”

Shortly after 5 p.m. the crowd began filing down Broadway, chanting in Spanish, “Si, se puede!” (“Yes, we can!”). Natalia Gianella was there with 30 teenagers she brought from The Door, a nonprofit youth development agency at Sixth Ave. and Broome St. in Hudson Square, where she works with immigrant youth.

“We need immigration reform that responds to the stories we see every day,” Gianella said. She gestured to the adolescents surrounding her, who looked both nervous and exhilarated to be there.

Some marchers blew whistles, others beat drums. Police officers kept one narrow lane open to traffic while police helicopters swirled overhead. Banners, flags and signs soon stretched for a dozen blocks and beyond. Suddenly clouds darkened and large drops of rain began to fall. The brief downturn in the weather did nothing to dampen the marchers’ boisterous spirit.

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