Afraid that Arizona's new illegal-immigration law could spur efforts in other states, Bay Area activists plan to rally Saturday for immigration reform and to stop the spread of laws designed to find and punish the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S.

Crowds are expected to march through San Francisco's Mission District and Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood Saturday. May 1 has become an annual day of protest and activism around immigration reform.

Many who plan to attend said they feel a new urgency in their cause after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the nation's toughest anti-illegal immigrant law Friday. Arizona's SB 1070 requires police to ask about a person's immigrant status when they suspect the person could be in the U.S. illegally. The law also requires immigrants to provide proof that they are in the country legally.

Activists say the sentiment that drove the passage of that law could surface in other states, and they want to stop it before it does.

Their slogan is, "We are all Arizona."

Vanessa Borjas, a 17-year-old junior at Life Academy High School in Oakland, is a leader of a prayer vigil scheduled for Friday at the Cathedral of Christ the Light. She and many of her friends are outraged by the Arizona law and its treatment of illegal immigrants. Borjas said that anger may motivate more people to speak out.

"States are now taking responsibility and it's not supposed to be like that," said Borjas, a student leader working with the Oakland Community Organizations. "What if other states continue doing that?

"It shouldn't be (states). It should be the whole country itself," she said.

Borjas and others like her want lawmakers and President Obama to move more quickly on comprehensive reform of immigration rules. Their hope is that national reform would stop states from claiming oversight of immigration matters, which have been mostly the domain of the federal government.

Immigrant advocates see the Arizona law as a rallying point. Andrea Mercado, lead organizer for Mujeres Unidas y Activas in Oakland, said the new law is a direct attack on immigrants that makes Saturday's protests even more relevant than in years past.

"We're putting more energy into May 1st mobilization because we can't let attacks like what happened in Arizona continue," Mercado said. "You hear people say the immigration system is broken yet we continue to enforce these broken rules and continue to tear apart families and deport people in record numbers."

Bill Hing, a law professor at the University of San Francisco and UC Davis, said the passage of the Arizona law may actually have helped the cause of immigrants rather than hurt it. He said national reform is more likely now.

"What happened in Arizona added more impetus for something to happen this year," Hing said. "Because there's such outrage over Arizona by immigration advocates, there's more pressure being placed on Congress."

The Obama administration has asked for a Justice Department review before deciding whether to act on the Arizona law, after the president called it "misguided" and said it could lead to police abuses. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union has said it plans to sue.

Critics of the law say it is unconstitutional and promotes racial profiling. They also say it creates a public safety issue by discouraging immigrants from coming forward to report crimes.

Activists were disappointed last year as immigration reform took a back seat to the passage of the health care bill, and they cautiously hope the Obama administration will make their cause a priority this year. The legislation could include a so-called amnesty clause that may give legal status to the country's undocumented immigrants.

Yet the pursuit of the proposed reforms has some activists worried about what new enforcement measures could be included. Some see the Arizona law as a preview of enforcement measures that could take shape nationally.

Supporters of the Arizona law say the Obama administration has moved too slowly, and the state needed to protect itself and its financial interests. 

"Opponents of immigration reform are trying to portray it as racial profiling when it is not," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, based in Washington, D.C.

He said the law directs police officers to ask about a person's legal status only as part of regular law enforcement duties, such as during a traffic stop for a red light violation if the officer sees signs they could be here illegally. Mehlman said the law does not give police officers any more power than they already have, and does not let them consider a person's race exclusively as a reason for stopping them.

Some, like Lillian Galedo of Filipino Advocates for Justice of Oakland, see the law differently. Galedo said the law would lead directly to increased racial profiling that could target anyone who looks like they could have been born outside the U.S.

"It isn't just racial profiling of Latinos," Galedo said. "It is anyone who seems foreign born. People forget the undocumented population comes from all over the world."

In addition to the question of racial profiling, Hing said another key point in any legal challenge of the Arizona law depends on whether a court thinks the state law interferes with the federal government's oversight of immigrants entering and leaving the country. In other cases, Hing said, courts have differed on whether the state or federal government has the ultimate say.

Borjas, the high schooler who is also an immigrant from Mexico, said the vigil and the rallies planned for this weekend are part of a fight on behalf of all immigrants.

"I thought it was time to step up and speak up for what we want," she said. " I just want to have a voice."

if you go
Rallies and vigils are scheduled around the Bay Area for May Day, an annual day of action for immigration reform.
  • Prayer vigil: 6:30 p.m. Friday, Christ the Light Cathedral, 2121 Harrison St., Oakland. Oakland Community Organizations, 510-639-1441 or 510-459-8696.
  • East Bay rally and march: 1 to 2 p.m. Saturday, Fruitvale BART plaza, 3401 E. 12th St., followed by march to Oakland federal building, 1301 Clay St. Mujeres Unidas y Activas, www.mujeresunidas.net.
  • San Francisco rally and march: Assemble at noon at 24th and Mission streets, followed by march to Civic Center Plaza at Grove and Polk streets, for 2 p.m. rally. ANSWER Coalition, www.actionsf.org.