© Wally Skalij, Los Angeles Times
A crowd of immigrants-rights protestors march down Broadway toward 1st Street. Unlike in previous years, most of the attendees came with unions or communist or socialist groups.
Hundreds of thousands rallied in downtown L.A. for immigration reform in 2006, and last year's event drew 60,000. One student said attendance is dropping because 'people are starting to lose hope.'

Few people felt the low turnout at this year's May Day march as acutely as Salvador Ramirez.

Ramirez, an illegal immigrant from Jalisco, Mexico, pushed a cart among the few thousand immigrant-rights and labor activists Sunday on Broadway, selling American flags.

"It's really bad," said Ramirez, 48, who said he lost his job as an electrician due to his lack of documents and became a street vendor a year and a half ago. About halfway through Sunday's march, Ramirez had only sold about 10 to 15 flags, which he buys for $7.50 a dozen.

"I'm selling them almost at cost," he said. "It's not like the year before. Last year was great."

Only a few thousand people showed up for the nine-block march that started early and ended quickly. Los Angeles police declined to issue a crowd estimate, but marchers didn't even fill the intersection of Broadway and 1st Street, where the demonstration ended.

It marked a steep drop-off for a movement that prided itself for bringing hundreds of thousands onto the streets of downtown in 2006, and a million nationwide, to rally for legislation that would legalize the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants. Last year, galvanized by Arizona's controversial anti-illegal-immigration law, about 60,000 marchers participated in Los Angeles.

But six years with no significant legislative reform "has started to chip away at the spirit of the community," said Pedro Reyes, a former L.A. resident who recently moved to Santa Maria, Calif., where he teaches English to migrant farm workers. "It's definitely causing a toll."

Sunday's march lacked some of the enthusiasm and grass-roots feel of previous marches.

This year handmade posters were largely replaced with pre-printed signs and T-shirts. And instead of young couples pushing strollers, most marchers were union members - particularly from the Service Employees International Union, which turned out hundreds of people - or members of a socialist or communist group.

"We're here because Obama is a liar," said Carlos Escorcia, a member of the Nicaraguan socialist Sandinista National Liberation Front. "He promised legalization. When he could have done it, he didn't. This government's worse than Bush's."

Many expressed disappointment with the Obama administration's aggressive enforcement of immigration laws and increase in deportations - a strategy aimed in part at winning support for comprehensive reform from political moderates who believe the government has failed in past enforcement efforts.

But the president also had his supporters. Juan Carlos Castillo wandered the crowd in a plastic Obama mask, white suit and American-flag tie, shaking hands and posing for photos. "I believe in Obama," said Castillo, an immigrant from Quintana Roo, Mexico. "I believe he deserves four more years."

Nearby, a group of students - most of them illegal immigrants, some wearing graduation caps - said they supported the Dream Act, which would give legal residency to undocumented students who meet certain criteria. They carried a banner addressed to the president, urging him to "Stop Deporting Dreamers."

"Obama, Obama! Don't deport my Mama" they chanted.

One was Luis Serrano, 23, a history student at Los Angeles Valley College who hopes to attend a four-year college and get his teaching credential.

The chances for real reform, he said, seem "very slim" these days. The Sylmar High School graduate saw this as the reason for the march's low turnout.

"I think people are starting to lose hope," he said.