"No one is illegal! All humans have rights!" Ray Rojas shouted.
Rojas stood Monday night on the steps of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Lawrence, surrounded by hundreds of people, mostly Hispanic, who flew the flags of America, Mexico and Kansas University as they marched in support of illegal immigrants.
The march from St. John to the Douglas County Courthouse coincided with marches in dozens of cities across the nation Monday, in protest of an immigration bill that would make it a felony to be an illegal immigrant.
"I really hate it when people use the word alien. It's not like we are from a different planet," said Crystal Viurquez, a KU sophomore from Garden City and rally organizer.
Her parents came to the United State from Mexico and were granted amnesty during Ronald Reagan's presidency in 1986.
After a prayer at the church, the group headed east to South Park. The loud chant "SÃ- se puede," meaning "Yes, we can," filled the street. The cry has become the signature chant for national rallies and marches.
Children of immigrants, other community members of non-Hispanic descent, KU students and even some illegal immigrants made the march, said Lydia LeÃ³n, coordinator for the Latino Community Coalition in Lawrence.
Organizers said the march drew "hundreds" of demonstrators; unlike similar protests in other cities, there were no apparent counterdemonstrators.
'I wanted to live'
Carlos Urquilla stepped onto the courthouse steps. He was wearing his U.S. Army camouflage jacket.
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Urquilla illegally crossed the border into the United States in 1984 from his native El Salvador, which was in the midst of a violent civil war.
"Yes, I broke the law. I wanted to live," Urquilla told the crowd.
After working several jobs in California, he joined the Army in 1990 and was granted a green card. He was still away from most of his family back home in Latin America.
"I joined the Army because I had passion, and I wanted to pay something back," he said.
Urquilla served in combat in Operation Desert Storm and helped liberate Kuwait from Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He retired from the Army in 2004 as a first lieutenant, and he is now a U.S. citizen. He earned a degree from Kansas State and a law degree from KU.
He has a home in Lawrence with his wife and son but also works for Kaplan University in Chicago.
Urquilla said he feared what would happen to him if H.R. 4437 became law and made it a criminal offense to stay in the country after entering illegally.
"I would have never had that opportunity had a similar bill been in place," he said.
He hopes legislation will protect the border but also make it easier for illegal immigrants to get on a track toward citizenship if they have a clean record.
"I would die trying to live the American dream," Urquilla said.
'No Somos Criminales'
In front of the courthouse steps, demonstrators observed a moment of silence for anyone who died in border violence.
One person at the rally held a sign that said "We are not Criminals" in Spanish.
At one point, they stood and listened to a prayer from Moussa Elbayoumy, director of the Islamic Society of Lawrence.
"This nation was built on immigrants," he said.
During the march, many voiced concern about treatment of families of illegal immigrants.
"I believe in human rights for all people. My ancestors didn't need a green card to come to this country," said Karen Eager, of Lawrence.
Cyndi Treaster, of Lecompton, marched with a sign that said "Family Values Don't Stop at the Border," a line President Bush used during his January visit to Manhattan.
"We haven't had a good law to allow people to come here legally to work since 1986. Because of that, the numbers of undocumented (immigrants) has just grown," Treaster said.
Many marchers said they hoped a new citizenship application process would be put into place.
"I would like to see the legislation include writing that would support families," said LeÃ³n, of the Latino Community Coalition. "Deporting the rest of the family (of an immigrant) is not good."
"It's nothing new for people in the United States to rally around the common good," said Lupe Ramirez, a 2001 KU graduate who lives in Lawrence and works in Kansas City, Mo.