Jaime Contreras hasn’t eaten much lately. He’s been too busy preparing for Wednesday’s “All in for Citizenship” rally expected to draw tens of thousands of immigration activists to the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
Contreras, vice president of SEIU 32BJ, the local chapter of the powerful Service Employees International Union, says the rally is a call to action for Congress to stop treating the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. like second class citizens.
“We’re going to have tens of thousands of people in front of the nation’s capital, sending a message, reminding our elected leaders that last November, our community spoke loud and clear that we voted and we voted for immigration reform,” he said.
The Hispanic community was a massive force in the 2012 elections, an increasingly powerful electorate whose demands for immigration reform have become difficult for lawmakers to ignore.
It’s not the first time activists have rallied for an overhaul of the U.S. immigration system. Similar marches took place in 2006, only to have a reform bill collapse in the Senate in 2007.
This time is different, according to Contreras.
“Republicans have come to a realization that the immigrant community is growing, that it’s vibrant, a hard working community that contributes to the country just like everybody else,” he said. “And for the first time, we have Republicans and Democrats trying to figure out who’s taking the credit.”
Chief among the movement’s demands is a path to legalization for illegal aliens and an end to the deportations that have divided hundreds of thousands of families in recent years. They’re issues that stir strong emotions on both sides, and counter-protests are planned for Wednesday.
Jim McDonald, a resident of Arlington, Virginia, will be part of the opposition. He identifies himself as an interested American.
“I’m an interested American because it’s outrageous that we’ve got people demanding citizenship that aren’t even supposed to be in the country illegally and they’re going to be on Capitol Hill doing it. It’s a personal affront to me,” he said.
McDonald plans to carry photos he took at the border between the U.S. state of Arizona and Mexico, a frontier he describes as porous.
Border security is a key point of the Congressional debate over immigration reform. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who is part of the bi-partisan team drafting a reform bill, is pushing for assurances that the border be secured before undocumented immigrants can begin gaining citizenship. The Obama administration says the southwestern border is tighter than it’s ever been.
Among the thousands who will be rallying on Capitol Hill are immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. Their plight has transformed the conversation from strictly a policy issue to a personal dilemma.
Contreras, who gained citizenship in 1996 while serving in the U.S. Navy, understands the dilemma. His parents brought him to the U.S. in 1988, when a war was raging in their home country, El Salvador.
“They brought me here because they didn’t want me to get killed,” he said. “I think any parent who does that for their kids should not be a criminal. And any kid who comes here at no fault of their own should not be a criminal.”
Still, McDonald and others like him aren’t swayed.
“I don’t think it’s my problem to straighten out what their parents did. The parents should be responsible for what to do with their kids. It’s their problem. It’s not our problem as a nation to resolve that kind of an issue,” he said.
The senators tasked with resolving the issue are expected to present their draft legislation to Congress next week.