Waving little American flags and chanting in Spanish and English, thousands of people rallied for a comprehensive change in the way the nation deals with immigration at a boisterous rally in Pioneer Square Saturday.

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Waving little American flags and chanting in Spanish and English, thousands of people rallied Saturday for a comprehensive change in the way the nation deals with immigration, at a boisterous gathering in Pioneer Square.

The Washington Immigration Reform Coalition, an umbrella group of about 60 organizations, believes there’s a very short time frame for legislation to be introduced and passed before the midterm elections. It is asking Congress to introduce a bill by May 1 to revamp immigration policy and to pass a bill by the summer, said Pramila Jayapal, executive director of OneAmerica’s Seattle office.

“Today is really about showing the power, and the diversity, and the intensity of the problem,” she said.

Immigration rallies were held in a number of other cities around the country Saturday, including Las Vegas and Chicago. They were meant to add to the momentum of a Washington, D.C., rally in March that drew 250,000 people.

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Some political watchers say it’s unlikely President Obama will throw his weight behind such a controversial and ambitious piece of legislation so soon after his narrow victory on a health-care overhaul. And Jayapal acknowledged that “health care has sucked up a lot of oxygen for a lot of time. Our window is very small now.”

Inaccurate image

Jayapal said the group is trying to counter negative stereotypes about the typical immigrant as “a bad Mexican immigrant coming across the border, who’s potentially also a terrorist.” She said more than two-thirds of immigrants are women and children. Many work in the high-tech sector and come from a variety of different countries, not just Mexico, she said. Jayapal is from India, and Seattle rally organizers claimed to have the largest contingent of Asian-Americans for an immigration rally in the U.S.

Still, there appeared to be a Hispanic majority at the rally. Most speeches were translated into Spanish, and people waved Mexican flags and chanted “!Sí se puede!” — Spanish for “Yes we can,” Obama’s election slogan. A mariachi band drew the rally to a close at 2 p.m.

Organizers said about 2,900 people came from across the state on 74 buses, and several thousand more came by van pool and carpool from nearby, putting the number at 7,000 to 8,000. Seattle police estimated a smaller crowd, saying there appeared to be a few thousand at noon, although the numbers ebbed and flowed throughout the afternoon.

Rally leaders played a prerecorded message from Washington’s U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell in support of immigration reform. According to OneAmerica, Washington was the first state to have both its senators write a letter to President Obama demanding immigration reform this year.

U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, opened his remarks by saying, “Good afternoon, fellow immigrants,” which received a cheer. He went on to talk about how “our current immigration system places more emphasis on filling out forms properly than on compassion and common sense.”

McDermott charged that opponents of change are hiding behind “a thin veil of racism and xenophobia,” and were focused on immigrants coming from countries to the south. “But if you look around this audience, people come from all over the world,” he said.

No aid for student

Carlos Padilla, a senior at Chief Sealth High School and vice president of the student body, said he has held little hope of gaining citizenship until recently, when he began working for immigration reform. Padilla, 17, has been accepted at University of Washington and plans to become a lawyer, but he can’t get financial aid because he’s an undocumented immigrant who came here from Mexico with his mother when he was 2 years old.

If an immigration bill passes, he said, he hopes to be able to gain permanent residency in a few years. If not, he believes he’ll have to leave the country to apply for legal status.

“This is our moment,” Jayapal told a cheering crowd as the two-hour-long rally came to a close. “Congress will never make anything happen on their own; it is the people who will make immigration reform happen. Movements make things happen.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

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