LOS ANGELES (AP) — Demonstrators demanded an overhaul of immigration laws Wednesday in an annual, nationwide ritual that carried a special sense of urgency as Congress considers sweeping legislation that would bring many of the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally out of the shadows.
Thousands joined May Day rallies in dozens of cities from Concord, N.H., to Bozeman, Mont. In Salem, Ore., Gov. John Kitzhaber was cheered by about 2,000 people on the Capitol steps as he signed a bill to allow people living in Oregon without proof of legal status to obtain drivers licenses.
The generally lively gatherings across the country were marred late Wednesday as several dozen protesters — some covering their faces with bandanas — began pelting police in Seattle with rocks and bottles and officers responded with pepper spray and "flash bang" grenades — releasing smoke, a flashing light, and a loud noise. Eighteen people were arrested.
The spurt of violence came hours after Seattle's peaceful march for immigration reform by thousands of protesters had ended and was reminiscent of the gathering a year ago when some protesters broke windows and set fires.
"We're a bigger and better city than this. I look at this and I am disappointed that this is the picture the world sees of us," Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said.
In Vermont, more than 1,000 people assembled on the Montpelier Statehouse lawn. And in New York, thousands of demonstrators marched in downtown Manhattan waving banners and banging on drums in a scene reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street's heyday.
The size of the May Day crowds paled in comparison to the massive demonstrations of 2006 and 2007, during the last serious attempt to introduce major changes to the U.S. immigration system. Despite the large turnouts six years ago, many advocates of looser immigration laws felt they were outmaneuvered by opponents who flooded congressional offices with phone calls and faxes at the behest of conservative talk-radio hosts.
Now, immigrant advocacy groups are focusing heavily on contacting members of Congress, using social media and other technology to target specific lawmakers. Reform Immigration for America, a network of groups, claims more than 1.2 million subscribers, including recipients of text messages and Facebook followers.
Many of Wednesday's rallies featured speakers with a personal stake in the debate. Naykary Silva, a 26-year-old Mexican woman in the country illegally, joined about 200 people who marched in Denver's spring snow, hoping for legislation that would ensure medical care for her 3-year-old autistic son.
"If you want to do something, you do it no matter what," Silva said. "There's still more work to do."
Police in New York restrained several demonstrators, but the marches were peaceful.
Gabriel Villalobos, a Spanish-language talk radio host in Phoenix, said many of his callers believe it is the wrong time for marches, fearful that that any unrest could sour public opinion. Those callers advocate instead for a low-key approach of calling members of Congress.
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