MIAMI — Immigrants and their families gathered at rallies across the country Friday to push for changes to U.S. immigration policy, but as a swine flu outbreak continued to spread, attendance at some events was smaller than organizers had hoped.
The area hardest hit by the swine flu is Mexico, the native home of many rally participants. There were no immediate reports of canceled events, but Juan Pablo Chavez, a Tampa-based community organizer for the Florida Immigration Coalition, said he and others were in close contact with state health care officials.
Organizers are seeking to channel the political muscle Hispanics showed last fall in support of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. They hope that energy will jump-start stalled efforts to pass an immigration law that provides a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.
Thousands were expected at events in Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and other cities -- mostly in the late afternoon, when workers finished their shifts. But early reports suggested turnout would be far lower than in previous years.
In Chicago, rally-goers chanted and carried signs demanding citizenship opportunities as they gathered at Union Park and unfurled a banner of flags stitched together from countries around the globe. Organizers said they expected about 15,000 at the event, but the crowd appeared to be much smaller.
Waukegan resident Armando Pena said he was disappointed that more people didn't turn out and blamed the low numbers on a combination of the flu and tough economic times. "The economy is so bad they don't want to lose their jobs," said Pena, who organized a contingent of about 50.
Activists' hopes have been buoyed with Obama in the White House and a Democratic-controlled Congress, in part because they believe the Hispanic vote, about two-thirds of which went to Obama, helped flip key battleground states such as Colorado and New Mexico. Many Hispanics strongly back comprehensive immigration reform, and they believe Obama owes them.
The White House announced this week that it would refocus its resources on prosecuting employers who hire illegal immigrants. And a Senate Judiciary subcommittee took up immigration this week for the first time in the new Congress.
But many immigrants are wary. They say the immigrations raids that grew common under the Bush administration have continued since Obama took office.