ATLANTA — As a group of Hispanic school children warbled “The Star-Spangled Banner” in stilted English, the sea of demonstrators gathered at the state Capitol erupted into applause.

It was one of the most poignant moments during a raucous rally Monday at the Capitol, where an estimated 4,500 demonstrators skipped school and work to demonstrate the power of the immigrant community and send a message to federal lawmakers considering immigration reforms.

To Warllem Domingo-Lapaz, a 30-year-old Brazilian who was smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico, possible penalties from skipping his landscaping gig didn’t matter.

“I’m fighting for the same rights as everyone,” he said in Portuguese, his English still raw after only two months in the country.

Ditto for Nelio Rebairo, a fellow Brazilian who waived a sign that read “I’m illegal but work very hard.”

Twelve years ago, Rebairo flew to the U.S. on a temporary visa and never left. Now he works about 80 hours a week at a pair of north Georgia restaurants and must work the night shift to make up for time lost.

Still, he said, “You’ve got to back your country. We’ve got rights. I work very hard.”

Throughout the rally, a string of speakers praised the crowd for their bravery in staying out of the shadows, urging them to keep their voices heard.

“How can one criticize the decision of these people when one hasn’t experienced the poverty, when one hasn’t crossed the desert, crossed a river or traveled an ocean to get here?” asked Ligia Gomez, a 23-year-old nursing student who was born in Guatemala City.

She and most other activists who addressed the crowd advocated for change through education and hard work, keeping rancor to a minimum.

But organizers had to apologize after one of the handful of Nation of Islam members standing behind the podium throughout the two-hour event took the microphone.

“We can let them wipe their own ass and build their own homes,” Ernesto Muhammad told the crowd, which cheered him loudly as he was shooed offstage.

Moments later, organizer Tony Barrosa apologized for allowing Muhammad to speak. “They do have a right like everyone else,” he said. “But we do not have the same beliefs.”

React to this story:



Recommended for you