Across the country, parents, workers and students once were afraid to reveal their unlawful status on Wednesday were trying to frame the national immigration reform debate by sharing their stories, attending marches and sit-ins, and lobbying state and national lawmakers for expanded rights.

They declared themselves at a noon rally and march to the federal building in Oakland: "We are people! We are not illegal," the 100 to 150 people chanted.

Their newfound assertiveness will be heard in Washington, D.C. where thousands of immigration reform advocates were expected to rally as Congress tries to find a bipartisan plan for immigration reform.

Echos of that rally rolled round the Bay Area as about a 100 people gathered at noon in downtown Oakland to march down Broadway to the federal building where they plan to rally.

They strode behind a group of women carrying a banner proclaiming in Spanish "Women United and Active," an organization of Latina immigrant women

Earlier in the morning, more than 50 immigration reform activists and immigrants enjoyed tamales, rice and beans at a prayer breakfast at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.

"You have to help yourself," said an Betzaida, an illegal immigrant from Mexico at the breakfast, taking up the position of the residents who have emerged from the shadows.


Advertisement

One person at the event took on the standard news media phrase used in this newspaper and others to describe immigrants who have sidestepped legal entry into the country -- "illegal immigrant."

"I don't like the word 'illegal,' said Sabujhi Siddique, a Muslim immigration activist. "I don't like the word undocumented either."

A religious leader underscored the hazards of prohibiting entry into a nation: "Jewish history reminds us that immigration policy has been a matter of life and death" said Rabbi Melanie Aron, referring to the Holocaust, when barriers were raised against European Jews trying to flee from the Nazi run countries.

Looking at the immigration reform measures taking shape in Congress, activist Salvador Bustamante commented, "This is better than nothing, but it helps people come out of the shadows."

A janitor expressed as similar sentiment at a noon youth march for reform in San Jose: The 13-year wait to apply citizenship in U.S. Senate immigration reform legislation "is unjust but better than nothing," said Vicenta Marquez.

But the sense of a looming resolution of the long-running immigration controversy was present. "We marched, we voted and now we gain" said Marta Campos, once an illegal immigrant and now a citizen who was at the Our Lady of Guadalupe gathering. "We know the formula now."

A larger gathering was expected later in the afternoon in San Francisco.

While small pockets of immigrant activists have been clamoring for political recognition nationwide for decades, experts say the movement has grown in size, and become more diverse, organized and well-connected in recent years amid frustration over Congress' inaction on immigration reform.

The growing influence of Hispanic voters -- especially in last year's election -- has added to the momentum.

"These are youth that were educated in the American education system for the most part. Now they are doing what we teach people to do in America -- stand up for your rights," said Kevin Johnson, a civil rights professor at the UC Davis.

The marches and rallies stand in stark contrast to the anti-illegal immigration movement, which generally tries to sway politicians through phone calls or letter-writing campaigns. Activists say they aren't worried that lawmakers or voters will be influenced by the emotional message from those in the country illegally.

Immigration reform critics argue extending legal rights to immigrants living illegally in the U.S. will prompt new waves of illegal immigration, create financial problems for cash-starved governments as low-income and undereducated immigrants become eligible for social benefits and increase job competition in a tough economy.

"Immigration reform is in the eye of the beholder. What they are really pushing for is amnesty of some form," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C. "It might go over well with supporters, but it's not going to necessarily influence people or members of Congress who are opposed or even on the fence."

The activists already claim victories nationwide, including a successful lobbying effort against a plan in North Carolina to issue immigrants drivers' licenses with the words: "NO LAWFUL STATUS."

They have also sought legal help and sued Michigan and Arizona over driver's licenses for immigrants benefiting from the Obama administration's program that gives visas to young immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16 and have been living in the country at least five years.

The immigrant activism movement gained national attention in 2007 when President George W. Bush and a bipartisan group of lawmakers unsuccessfully tried comprehensive immigration reform. Some high school and college students who were brought to the U.S. as young children began living openly and holding rallies.

The movement gained new supporters in 2010, when Congress debated but did not pass the DREAM Act -- legislation that would have granted legal status to young immigrants living illegally in the country. Another significant moment for the effort came last year as parents, students and workers began to see positive reaction nationally from lawmakers.

President Barack Obama announced in June his deferred-deportation program allowing young immigrants to apply for work visas. First lady Michelle Obama and Democratic leaders invited a handful of young people living illegally in the country to the State of Union address in February. During the speech, Obama called on Congress to quickly pass immigration reform.

Associated Press writer Cristina Silva and San Jose Mercury News staff writer Joe Rodriguez contributed to this report.