LOS ANGELES -- More than 500,000 immigration rights advocates marched in downtown Los Angeles yesterday, demanding that Congress abandon attempts to make helping illegal immigrants a crime and to build more walls along the border.
The massive demonstration, one of a half dozen around the nation in recent days, came as President Bush prodded Republican congressional leaders to give some illegal immigrants a chance to work legally in the United States under certain conditions.
Yesterday's march in Los Angeles was the largest in a series of demonstrations across the country. Police Commander Louis Gray Jr. said officers in helicopters estimated the crowd.
Many of the marchers yesterday wore white shirts to symbolize peace and also waved US flags. Some also carried the flags of Mexico and other countries, and even wore them as capes. A sign carried by one demonstrator read: ''Illegal immigrants are welcome to go to war, but why can't we have a job, home, or license?"
Elger Aloy, 26, of Riverside, a premed student, pushed his 8-month-old son in a stroller in yesterday's march. ''I think it's just inhumane. . . . Everybody deserves the right to a better life," Aloy said of the legislation.
The House of Representatives has passed legislation that would make it a felony to be in the United States illegally, impose new penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants, and erect fences along one-third of the US-Mexican border. The Senate is to begin debating the proposals Tuesday.
President Bush yesterday called for legislation that does not force America to choose between being a welcoming society and a lawful one. ''America is a nation of immigrants, and we're also a nation of laws," Bush said in his weekly radio address. The issue has proved divisive in his own party.
Bush sides with business leaders who want legislation to let some immigrants stay in the country and work for a set period of time. Others, including the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, say national security concerns should drive immigration reform.
''They say we are criminals. We are not criminals," said Salvador Hernandez, 43, of Los Angeles, who came to the United States illegally from El Salvador 14 years ago and worked as truck driver, painter, and day laborer.
In Denver, police said more than 50,000 people gathered at Civic Center Park next to the Capitol to urge the state Senate to reject a resolution supporting a ballot issue that would deny many government services to illegal immigrants in Colorado.
On Friday, thousands of people joined in rallies in cities such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Atlanta, staging school walkouts, marches, and work stoppages. The Los Angeles demonstration led to fights between black and Hispanic students at one high school, but the protests were largely peaceful, authorities said.
The demonstrations are expected to culminate April 10 in a ''National Day of Action" organized by labor, immigration, civil rights, and religious groups.
Bush, who plans to attend a naturalization ceremony tomorrow in Washington, is bracing for a Senate standoff this week before he heads to Cancun, Mexico, where he'll discuss immigration with President Vicente Fox, a supporter of Bush's guest worker plan.
Bush wants Congress to create a program to let foreigners gain legal status for a set amount of time to do specific jobs. When the time is up, they would be required to return home without an automatic path to citizenship.
Some critics argue that a guest worker program would create an underclass of foreign workers and stigmatize jobs associated with foreign labor. Some Republicans say they are concerned that the foreign workers would stay on and become citizens, further straining America's social service systems.
Frist thinks immigration enforcement, national security, and border concerns should drive immigration reform. Frist's bill, which sidesteps the question of temporary work permits, would tighten borders, add Border Patrol agents, and punish employers who hire illegal immigrants.
Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada and the Senate minority leader, has said he will do all he can, including filibuster, to thwart Frist's legislation.
The hottest debate in the Senate will be whether to pass some version of a guest worker program proposed by Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts. Their bill would provide up to 400,000 visas in the first year and allow participants to seek permanent residency after six years.
Frist plans to bring his bill to the Senate floor if the Judiciary Committee fails to pass legislation. The panel is to meet tomorrow in hopes of rushing legislation to the floor before Frist brings up his own bill.
Material from Reuters was included in this report.