Thousands of people rallied outside the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, pushing Congress to help legalize the millions of foreigners living in the country illegally, while lawmakers inside reportedly neared a consensus on an immigration reform bill.
Concerned U.S. citizens, illegal immigrants and their children spent hours traveling across the country on hundreds of buses for the “All in for Citizenship” rally. Under a sweltering sun, they chanted “Now is the time,” while waving American flags and holding signs demanding equal rights for equal work.
The decades-long push to overhaul the U.S. immigration system appears closer than it’s ever been to seeing actual success in Congress. Despite that, the legislative process could still be thwarted by differences of opinion on how to secure the borders while also addressing the illegal migrants.
The bipartisan group of eight senators working on a reform bill has largely agreed on its shape, The New York Times reported Wednesday. Several people familiar with the legislation told the newspaper the bill would give $3 billion to the Department of Homeland Security to implement a five-year plan to boost border security. No illegal immigrants could begin the legalization process until the plan is in place, the sources said.
It is seen as a compromise between Republican lawmakers focused on tightening the borders and Democrats dedicated to a pathway to citizenship. Both political parties, courting the powerful Hispanic vote, are pushing for a deal to happen before the next round of elections.
The activists outside the Capitol building said they’re tired of waiting. Hispanics made up most of the crowd, but Asians, Arabs, Africans and countless others joined in the chants for change and sharing stories, food and water bottles.
Bangladesh-born Farzana Morshed, a U.S. citizen and community organizer, traveled to Washington from New York out of respect for the Bangladeshis she’s seen deported from the United States.
“When I read the newspaper, I see a lot of people who are being deported. They’re scared all the time. It hurts me,” she said, adding that the people able to stay in the U.S. often face abuses at work because they have no rights.
Sigifredo Pizaña’s family has experienced both plights, deportation and exploitation. The 21-year-old was brought to the U.S. from Mexico a decade ago. He said his parents were seeking a better life. It didn’t work out.
“My dad was deported two years ago. My older brother was deported last year. My mom went back to Mexico. I’m here by myself,” he said. “I wasn’t prepared for this. I had to drop out of college.”
Pizaña, a resident of Grand Rapids, Michigan, qualified for deferred action, an Obama administration initiative that postpones deportation for undocumented immigrants who are younger than 30, and who came to the U.S. before they were 16. Under the program Pizaña can get a driver’s license and a work permit. He’s relieved.
“Before, I had a job working at a horse farm, seven days a week. I had to walk two hours to get there,” he said, adding that he wants to pay taxes and get the same benefits as full-fledged citizens.
The story of Pizaña’s family being forced out of the U.S. is appealing to opponents of the pro-reform movement.
Jim Macdonald of the New Yorkers for Immigration Control and Enforcement group said he’s seething over the issue.
“I think they should go back to their own country. They can be sent back in as humane a way as possible, but the first thing is they should be sent back,” he said.
Macdonald stood across from the pro-immigration rally holding a sign that said, “Secure Our Borders.” Beside him, Thomas Bowie of Maryland clung to a poster that said, “No Amnesty for Illegals.” He lamented that the pro-reform group “understands practical politics better than most Americans.”
“If we had the percentage of Americans who were against granting anything like amnesty come out that our opponents have had come out, Congress would sit up and take notice,” he said. “But at the moment, they’re just noticing our opponents.”
It wasn’t always that way. Congress rejected another comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007 that would have addressed illegal immigrants. It failed after a successful push by the conservative movement.
Times have changed, though. The Hispanic vote punished conservatives in last year’s elections, and the pro-reform movement is more organized than ever before.
Labor unions have worked for months organizing the bus loads of people who rallied at the Capitol. Lena Bembery, a representative of the United Auto Workers’ Union from Detroit, Michigan, said she came to Washington because “workers’ rights and immigration rights are inseparable.”
“When workers are treated impeccable in terms of immigrant rights, then it translates to all the struggles we’ve had and fights for equality and justice for working people, for people of color, for women,” she said.
Bembery, who is not an immigrant, said she’s ecstatic that many members of the movement are so young.
“When young people take on that battle, it shifts it to a place where it becomes a way that we live, and not a way that we imagine,” she said.
A 20-year-old Maryland resident born in Guatemala said he’s grateful Ms. Bembery and others like her are standing behind undocumented immigrants like him.
“We feel like we’re not alone over here. We’re all fighting for the same cause. So let’s hope it works,” he said.
Speaking behind mirrored sunglasses, he asked to remain anonymous because he said he doesn’t quite feel safe telling the world he’s in the United States illegally.