Demonstrators marched through the streets of U.S. cities Monday to demand rights for illegal immigrants. Thousands attended rallies and demonstrations from New York to Los Angeles.

It was billed as a day without immigrants, and was intended to show that immigrants, both legal and illegal, play an important role in the US economy.

By mid-day, tens of thousands of mostly Hispanic protesters filled the streets of Los Angeles in the first of two scheduled marches.

The mid-day march and rally was coupled with a planned boycott of schools and businesses. A second march, supported by the city's Latino mayor and other local leaders, was held late in the day to allow marchers to join it after work or school. Some stores, restaurants and factories around the United States closed their doors Monday, as workers joined the protests, but most businesses stayed open.

Los Angeles labor leader Maria Elena Durazo says the marchers are asking politicians to legalize the status of the many illegal immigrants in the United States.

"They work hard, and how dare there be politicians to say, 'No, you're lawbreakers. You're felons,' " said Maria Elena Durazo.

Monday's rallies in cities from Chicago to Seattle were the most recent of many coordinated events that followed passage of a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would make it a felony for people to be in the United States illegally. The bill passed the House of Representatives in December, but received little support in the Senate and did not become law. It enraged many Latin American immigrants in cities like New York, where Hector Figueros is a union member.

"What we want the focus and attention to be is on the message, that we need immigration reform that is not punitive, that is not about sending people back to their homelands," said Hector Figueros. "But actually let them stay here with their families, with their children and continue to make a strong contribution to our economy."

This woman, who is not Latino, joined a Los Angeles rally:

"We are a country of immigrants, and we should not forget that," she said. "We need to support our brothers and sisters."

Small numbers of counter-protesters also took to the streets. This man in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, was angry about the demonstrations:

"I'm here because I'm upset about illegal immigration, and the fact that our government has done so little about it over the years," he said. "What I want to see is no amnesty, and a crackdown on employers who are hiring illegal aliens."

Some workers who took the day off to join the protests faced the prospect of losing their jobs. Some employers, however, were sympathetic. Sanjay Patel manages a coffee shop in the Jackson Heights section of New York, which is heavily concentrated with Indian immigrants. He supports the marchers.

"I have a lot of workers and I don't know how I am going to manage," noted Sanjay Patel. "I have to run with what I have. If I have one person in the store, they will run with one person."

The immigration issue is divisive for lawmakers, who 20 years ago provided limited amnesty for illegal immigrants. Millions more people have entered the country illegally since then, however. President Bush wants a guest worker program that would legalize the status of many illegal workers, and Senate leaders have been working on a compromise bill that could offer a path to citizenship for some illegal residents, while also boosting security on the border.