Hundreds of immigrants and their supporters marched through a largely Mexican-American neighborhood on Saturday calling for lawmakers to create a far-reaching immigration policy that allows undocumented workers to keep their families intact and have a path to U.S. citizenship.
Saturday's Families for Freedom rally was a prelude to nationwide marches and rallies planned for Tuesday by immigrant rights advocates. They are calling for a repeat of last year's boycotts and marches which drew more than 1 million people to the streets in dozens of cities.
In Houston, about 300 to 400 participants beat drums, blew whistles and carried a variety of signs and banners, along with U.S. and Mexican flags. One sign read "Today we march, tomorrow we vote."
Five-year-old Grace Bandercan had a more personal message on her sign: "Mommy and I are Americans, but please don't deport Daddy."
Grace's father, Hugo Bandercan, is an immigrant construction worker who pays his taxes and is trying to obtain resident status. Her mother, Elizabeth, is a school teacher who said the family lives in constant fear of Hugo's deportation, citing the burdensome and lengthy process of gaining permanent resident status.
"They need to remember the human side of things," said Elizabeth Bandercan, referring to immigration enforcement officials. "We just want to live as a family."
Students, labor and other activist groups also took part in the march from Immaculate Conception Catholic Church to a local park for a rally.
One the organizers of the demonstration, Lorenzo Cano of the Coalition in Defense of the Community, said he supports the push for a comprehensive immigration policy but wants it to be just.
Under current laws, it can cost several thousand dollars for immigrants to obtain resident status and citizenship and that is only if they qualify under present rules.
"That's just not realistic for many of these people," Cano said.
A group about 20 counter protesters gathered near the rally chanting "USA! USA!" and holding placards with slogans such as "Texas is not a Mexican colony" and "Employers of illegals ... traitors to America!"
Some demonstrators on both sides shouted obscenities at each other. But police on horseback and on foot stood between the counter-protesters and the rally to keep order.
The Families for Freedom rally coincided with a national message Saturday from President George W. Bush, who urged lawmakers in his weekly radio address to come together on immigration. Bush called it "a critical challenge" before the nation.
"We need a system where our laws are respected. We need a system that meets the legitimate needs of our economy. And we need a system that treats people with dignity and helps newcomers assimilate into our society," he said.
The United States is home to an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. Bush wants to establish a temporary worker program for some and create a path to citizenship _ albeit a difficult one _ for many. He says it is unrealistic to propose that millions of people be deported.
While business and industry want more low-wage workers, many conservatives reject Bush's approach because they say it puts the interests of illegals before those of American workers.
The Senate passed a plan last May that would allow illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship and create a temporary guest worker program for new arrivals. But the proposal died in the House, where tough new border security measures were the priority.