Wednesday, May 1, 2013 | 8:39 p.m.
Thousands of people gathered downtown Wednesday afternoon to rally in support of immigration reform, then chanted their way down Las Vegas Boulevard toward the Stratosphere while passing vehicles honked their horns in support.
Labor organizers, politicians and community leaders spoke in favor of passing the U.S. Senate “Gang of Eight” immigration reform package unveiled in April, which would create a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally while reforming visa programs and border security measures.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told the crowd, many of whom were waving U.S. flags and wearing either red, white or blue T-shirts: “We’re going to get it done.”
“(This country owes) … the 11 million people a permanent solution. That’s what comprehensive immigration reform is all about: a permanent solution. And we are going to do that. We are going to fix a system that is broken. We are going to continue to work on a program that is tough but fair,” Reid said, flanked by Rep. Dina Titus, D–Las Vegas; Rep. Steven Horsford, D–North Las Vegas; and Blanca Gamez, a UNLV graduate who recently received a work permit through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
While the speakers addressed the crowd from a podium on the steps in front of the Lloyd George Federal Building, a small counter-protest of approximately a dozen people — one of whom held a sign reading “Do your job, defend the constitution” — did their best to make their voices heard using a bullhorn.
Karen Steelmon, one of those against the reform bill, held a sign calling it a “train wreck” and said the legislation was being rushed through the Senate.
“We don’t have any idea what the future implications will be for the economy,” Steelmon said of the reform package. “I think it should be a case-by-case basis. … They should have to prove they can support themselves, they won’t be a public charge and not causing trouble while they are here, and you shouldn’t be eligible for citizenship based on time spent here.”
The pro-reform ralliers told a different story, suggesting reform would be a boon for the economy.
“(Reform) will be a boost to the economy,” said Edgar Garcia, 30, who was passing out signs for protesters to wave. “Right now you have unscrupulous companies hiring immigrants for construction and saying they are contractors. This way they get their licenses, their wages go up, they pay more in taxes and the whole community benefits.”
Frank Tapia, 20, said he and his three siblings are U.S. citizens, but both of his parents are in the country without legal residency. Despite previous failures to pass immigration reform, most recently in 2007, Tapia was confident that momentum was in favor of reform.
“It’s not that I think about my parents' situation every day, but it sure would be nice to not have to worry about my whole family being separated from each other,” he said. “It hits close to home.”
Maria Espinosa, who has been a local champion of immigration reform for years, said she has spent three weekends gathering signed petitions advocating for passage of the bill and for the government to focus deportations on “criminals.” So far, she had collected 1,500 petitions.
More than 20 organizations participated in organizing the event, including the AFL-CIO of Nevada, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, Dream Big Vegas, Culinary Union 226, SEIU Nevada, Mi Familia Vota, and many other labor, progressive and Hispanic community organizations.
Law enforcement on hand at the rally did not provide a crowd count, and a tally of protesters was not available. The crowd easily surpassed 1,000, and during the march, a column of people stretched down Las Vegas Boulevard from Bridger Avenue to Charleston Boulevard.
The march culminated at St. Louis Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard, where more speakers advocated for reform and participants were asked to sign “action cards” to log their presence at the march.