ATLANTA (WTW) — Organizers called a May Day rally at the Georgia Capitol a "historic coming together" of immigrants and working people, but it drew only about 100 people — considerably less than in recent years.
Addressing the crowd in Spanish and English, representatives from immigrant advocate, civil liberties and labor rights groups called Tuesday for an end to local-federal partnerships to enforce immigration law; an end to tough state laws cracking down on illegal immigration; and equal rights for all workers.
Georgia was one of five states last year that followed Arizona's lead and passed tough laws targeting illegal immigration. Last year's May Day demonstration at the Georgia Capitol drew about 1,000 people and came on the heels of another rally about a month earlier, before Georgia's law cleared the Legislature, that drew 5,000 people. A May Day rally and march in 2010 drew about 5,000 people into the streets around the gold-domed building.
Organizers attributed the small turnout in part to the fact that the rally was held in the middle of the day on a workday, whereas May Day has fallen on a weekend the last two years.
"Of course I'm a bit disappointed, but I think this is something to be expected," said Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, one of the main organizers of the rally. "It's very difficult to keep a high level of excitement going. But it's not only about mobilization, it's also about organization, and we have people working every day to promote immigrant rights."
D.A. King, founder of the Dustin Inman Society, which pushes for tougher enforcement of immigration laws, had a different take on the small turnout.
"I think it's an example of the fact that enforcement works," he said. "Not only is there less black market labor, there are also fewer illegal aliens and their supporters to come out to events like this."
Rally participants waved signs saying "Education is a human right," and "Legalize, organize, unionize for immigrant and worker rights." One banner in Spanish read, "The fight for justice knows no borders! Revolution now."
In some other cities the Occupy movement planned its most visible mobilizations since encampments were dismantled last fall, but the rally at the Capitol in Atlanta remained squarely focused on immigration, with support from organized labor.
"The workers in this country have always been immigrants, and as a reflection of that, so has the labor movement," said Ben Speight, a Teamsters organizer.
Ana Villanuevas, 41, attended the rally with five members of her family, including her 16-month-old U.S. citizen daughter, Melody. A native of Mexico, Villanuevas has lived in the U.S. for 16 years and works as waitress. She's in the country illegally, but said she's in the process of attaining legal status.
"It's a small crowd but even a small crowd can help bring change," she said, comparing the turnout to rallies she's attended in Georgia over the last few years to protest tough laws cracking down on illegal immigrants in the state.
It was the first public demonstration for Eduardo Villegas, 38, his wife Maribel and their 4-year-old daughter Evelin. The couple, who live in Norcross, came to Georgia in the mid-90s drawn by the building boom that preceded the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
They've been watching as states pass tough laws on illegal immigration and are waiting to see how the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a federal government challenge to Arizona's law. They're here illegally but they have no plans to leave the state, even if the high court upholds strict sections of that law or if parts of Georgia's law that are currently on hold are allowed to take effect.
"We came here for better pay, more work and a nice environment," Eduardo Villegas said. "We're going to stay here, but sometimes it feels like every day is like a risk."