On the third day of massive protests throughout the Greater Los Angeles area, high school students ditched classes to take a stand against a bill wending its way through Congress that would order the arrest and felony prosecution of illegal immigrants already living in the United States and make it a crime for citizens to employ them.

More than half a million people flooded downtown Los Angeles on Saturday to decry the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act in what police described as one of the largest demonstrations for any cause in Southern California history.

“In English, you’d use the word awesome. Nobody expected that kind of response,” Raul Borbon, an organizer with the Pasadena-based Chicano empowerment group Institute for Popular Education, said of the event.

Demonstrators were joined by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who rallied the crowd.

“There are no illegals here today. The only thing that would be illegal is a law that would demonize and criminalize 11 million people. We come together to say that we are workers, not criminals,” said Villaraigosa.

On Sunday, thousands more marched downtown with United Farm Workers Union co-founder Delores Huerta, who spoke in Pasadena earlier that day.

Then on Monday — Cesar Chavez Day in California — thousands of high school students in Pasadena, Glendale and Los Angeles walked out of class to voice opposition to the House-approved bill, which would have local police shoulder the burden of immigration law and expand detention centers to hold more than 30,000 new non-citizen detainees.

“If they pass this law, it’s going to affect everybody,” said Glendale High School student Jessica Garcia, 15, who joined hundreds of teens in swarming Glendale City Hall for more than an hour.

Carrying both American and Mexican flags, the students made a point of announcing immigrant families as an essential part of the community, at times chanting “USA! USA!” and “Hell, no. We won’t go!”

In Pasadena, hundreds of mostly Latino students filed out of John Muir High School that morning and marched to Pasadena Unified School District headquarters.

Students later also left Blair High School to join the march, but district officials stopped the protest from growing by enforcing a lockdown at Pasadena High School.

Also, according to several witnesses, school administrators stopped several groups of mostly African-American students at Muir from leaving the school with their classmates, but that was not official district policy, said Assistant Superintendent George McKenna.

In Echo Park at Belmont High School, where most students are Latino, the halls were virtually empty by mid-Monday, according to reports from staff inside the school.

“I marched because what they are doing is not fair for immigrants. I marched because of my family,” said Belmont freshman Benjamin Rivera, who was born in El Salvador.

On Tuesday, as more student protests erupted in South Los Angeles, LA Unified schools went on temporary lockdown. It was an unnecessary move, said Rivera, as “We proved our point already.”

And so many students left Grant High School in Van Nuys that parts of Burbank and Laurel Canyon boulevards were virtually shut down, said LA City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel during an unrelated call while caught in traffic related to the exodus.

“They’ve awoken a sleeping giant,” she said of federal legislators.

‘Absolutely unfair’

If Pasadena Unified School District officials weren’t hip to kids cutting classes in order to speak their minds, Pasadena City Council members have at least already made it clear that they’re sympathetic to the cause.

On March 6, just a few weeks after demonstrators marched on City Hall, council members unanimously decided to oppose the Border Protection Act, and later sent a declaration of their opposition to members of Congress and President George W. Bush.

At the time of that decision, the Border Protection Act, authored by Wisconsin Republican F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. and co-sponsored by Glendora Republican David Dreier, had just been approved by the House of Representatives in a lightning-fast nine business days.

“Here we have the United States of America spending billions of dollars in Iraq and the latest guise, or justification, is spreading democracy throughout the world. Yet this legislation proposes to do everything we can to alienate people who are present, participating and contributing to democracy right here at home, and I think that’s wrong,” said Pasadena City Councilman Victor Gordo, who entered the US illegally at age 5.

Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian, who personally monitored portions of the demonstration, has also voiced concerns.

“I think it’s a very unfortunate piece of legislation. It is absolutely unfair to think local government, in particular local police departments, should be in involved in immigration enforcement,” said Melekian, the son of an immigrant and a vice president of the California Police Chiefs Association.

“In my opinion, the federal government needs to develop a coherent national strategy that balances the impact on American society and the economic motivators that bring the immigrants here in the first place. The federal government’s failure lands in two categories: failure to develop such strategies and the failure to secure the borders,” said the chief.

Melekian’s stand is not the first time police chiefs have resisted getting involved in immigration issues. In a 2003 letter to California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Police Chiefs Association wrote that local police could not be effective community safeguards if asked to enforce immigration law.

“Everybody came to this country as an immigrant, so I think it’s unfair how we’re criminals if we come to this country. We’re just trying to better our lives,” said 16-year-old Daily High School student Brigitte Cardenas while marching outside Glendale City Hall.

“We all have our own rights,” echoed Blair student Briana Mercado, who walked through Pasadena with a makeshift Mexican flag.

Students and others have gathered more than 30,000 signatures for online petitions against the Sensenbrenner bill at www.petitiononline.com.

Empty classrooms

A sudden crackdown on immigrants would have disastrous effects for Pasadena, said Borbon, whose Institute for Popular Education organized the January march on Pasadena City Hall.

Pasadena schools are 57 percent Latino, and no one’s really sure how many of those students or their parents may have entered the country illegally, said McKenna.

According to a 2004 report by the Pasadena Mothers Club, nearly half of city residents speak Spanish in their homes.

One indicator of immigrant participation in schools, said Borbon, is that several families temporarily pulled children out of school two years ago when INS raids in San Bernardino triggered rumors of such activity expanding into Pasadena.

“We had a mini-crisis in those days,” Borbon recalled. “Just to give you an idea, in PUSD 25 percent of the students are English-language learners, and most are from families who don’t have papers.”

Even some student marchers seemed surprised by how just how many kids in the PUSD have immigrant ties, or at least sympathies.

“I was flabbergasted when I saw how many students walked out,” said Muir sophomore Ezequiel Chichil. “It just hit us today. We were talking about it, and it was just, ‘Let’s go.’”

Beyond emptying Pasadena classrooms, Borbon remarked that a crackdown would shut down the city-sponsored day laborer work and education center on Lake Avenue and other service agencies virtually overnight.

“Isn’t it crazy?” asked Oscar Manzanares, executive director of the Pasadena-based Madison Neighborhood Partners, a nonprofit organization that serves mostly new immigrants in the Northwest Pasadena area.

That organization, which runs adult education classes and has partnered with Huntington Hospital and the Community Health Access Program (CHAP) clinic to increase health care access, serves as many as 3,000 people a year.

And “We don’t ask, but from our personal experiences we can say 70 to 80 percent don’t have papers,” said Manzanares.

Under the version of the Sensenbrenner bill approved by the House of Representatives, groups like Madison Neighborhood Partners would be shut down as a criminal organization for knowingly serving undocumented immigrants.

“If this bill passes, we won’t be able to survive, because this is what we’re here for,” said Manzanares, 30. He came illegally to Pasadena from Belize in 1996 and later received temporary protective status under the Clinton administration, which allowed him to obtain degrees from Pasadena City College and Cal State LA.

In his experience, “It was just not realistic to wait a decade or so [to obtain a visa]. If you are in need, you just can’t wait,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Washington

As students were protesting Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Sensenbrenner bill, but first gave it something of a makeover.

Thanks to bipartisan backing from Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy and Arizona Republican John McCain, the 18-member panel would allow illegal immigrants to seek temporary work visas to stay in the country. Disagreements by Republican members of Congress, according to Associated Press reports, contributed to the compromise. President Bush has been pushing to enact a guest worker program, where foreign workers already in the country could be matched with employers.

The Senate panel also modified the bill to protect churches and charitable organizations from prosecution for aiding illegal immigrants, as the original draft called for. And California Democrat Dianne Feinstein amended the bill to include a United Farm Workers-sponsored initiative to protect farm workers from deportation and allow them to seek legal status under a guest worker program.

“It’s clear the changes have been influenced by the march on Saturday, the farm workers on Sunday and the walkouts of the students on Monday. Those who want to have this punitive legislation really ignited the Latino community,” said Huerta on Tuesday.

But, as Republican Judiciary Committee member Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania told AP reporters, all bets are off when the full Senate gets to vote on the bill.

Republican members of Congress, 90 of whom have formed their own Immigration Reform Caucus, say borders need to be closed in the name of national security. A Web page for that group, however, also describes illegal immigrants as perpetrators of identity theft, rapists and murders, and argues against birthright citizenship for those born of immigrant parents.

Sensenbrenner and Dreier, whose office did not return calls, are not listed as members of that caucus.

Meanwhile, conservative organizations continue to apply pressure, blaming illegal immigration for a myriad of economic and social crises. The sheer number of those crossing the border seems to be fueling these sentiments.

More than 7 million illegal immigrants hold jobs in the US, making up some 5 percent of the overall work force, a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center found.

“By draining public funds, creating unfair competition for jobs with America’s least prepared workers and thereby lowering wages and working conditions, and by imposing unwanted strains on services designed to provide assistance to Americans, illegal immigration causes harm to Americans and legal residents,” wrote the Washington, DC-based Federation for American Immigration reform in a recent statement.

The tough-talking group calls for “removal of the current illegal alien population,” and opposes any amnesty for undocumented residents. “This is the equivalent of pardoning criminals en masse because it is easier than capturing them. It encourages further illegal immigration,” continued the statement.

Other organizations, however, aren’t so sure an immigration crackdown is such a good idea.

Late last year, US Chamber of Commerce Vice President R. Bruce Josten penned a letter to Congress decrying the Sensenbrenner bill as overly punitive to both immigrants and their employers and contrary to American business interests.

“With the notable exception of border security, this bill,” wrote Josten, “would make our dysfunctional immigration system even worse.”

Instead, the Chamber supports calls by President Bush for a guest worker program “with a pathway for these workers to earn legal status.”

In a speech Monday, Bush described a guest worker program as a better way to make borders “more rational, orderly and secure,” and said matching foreign workers to US employers would help meet growing economic demand.

“Businesses have an obligation to abide by the law, and government has a responsibility to help them do so. Hardworking business owners should not have to be detectives,” said Bush.

Not quite Nazis

Borbon, who came to the United States in 1978, is a bit perplexed by all of this anti-immigrant sentiment coming to a head.

“I don’t understand why so many people are afraid of the immigrant community. I think there is some kind of a crisis in the United States and the immigrant community is a scapegoat. They say we are stealing jobs, but most of the immigrant workers do the kind of work other people won’t do,” said the 51-year-old.

“I don’t want to use the word Nazis,” said Borbon of those who support expelling all illegal immigrants, “but many people are afraid of what’s happening in society. We understand the middle class is becoming poor and people don’t understand what is happening in society, and people try to make immigrants the scapegoat.”

Members of The World Can’t Wait, which organized many of the Saturday demonstrators, weren’t so kind.

“Attacks on immigrants are one cornerstone of the whole program of war and repression, hate and intolerance that this regime is putting into place. People look at this and think of Hitler — and they are right to do so,” reads a statement from the group.

Despite Bush’s stance on immigration reform being markedly less reactionary than many of his Republican colleagues, the group did not hold back on criticizing his administration, which was also the target of many student protesters.

“The Bush regime is setting out to radically remake society very quickly, in a fascist way, and for generations to come,” read a statement by the group.

Some of the students who marched saw the specter of racial hatred in congressional support for the Sensenbrenner bill.

“This land was made by immigrants,” said Muir sophomore Carlos Cantero, but “the government hates to see Hispanics come up in the world.”

Others saw prejudice.

“People here are saying immigrants are dirty and they are making the United States dirty, but we want to show them we are all clean and all equal. We’re all part of this community together,” said Josue Azevedo, a Glendale High student whose family is from El Salvador.

Glendale High’s Jessica Garcia had another thought.

“Why do all the kids have to pay for what’s going on?” she asked.