Demonstrators Pressure Congress Days from Immigration Deal

WASHINGTON – Thousands of demonstrators participated in a rally organized by Latino and pro-immigration reform groups to urge Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill  – just days before lawmakers are expected to introduce major legislation on the issue.

The festive crowd gathered on the U.S. Capitol’s West Lawn on a warm Wednesday afternoon, waving flags from the U.S. and Latin American countries and holding banners from several civil rights and labor groups. Many of the speakers at the Rally for Citizenship were welcomed by “si se puede” (yes, we can) chants from the crowd.

“Now is the time, because 11 million people cannot continue to live in the shadows,” Jaime Contreras, the vice president of the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ of the Washington area and emcee for the event, said to the crowd. “Now is the time, because communities have suffered a broken system that has hurt economic growth and turned immigrants into a scapegoat.”

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who is among the group of eight Senate Democrats and Republicans working on a comprehensive proposal to overhaul the nation’s immigration law, spoke at the rally and predicted that immigration reform would happen by the end of the year.

“It is finally time for justice. I am here to stand with my colleagues in Congress to say that we will make comprehensive immigration reform a reality this year,” said Menendez.

“We have to get those in the shadows into the light to have an opportunity to earn their citizenship and be part of the [American] dream,” he continued.

Menendez emphasized the important role that immigrants play in America’s economy and described how many of them pick fruit, build houses, and care for the elderly and children.

“These are people doing the jobs that build America and it is time to give them the dignity that they deserve,” said Menendez.

“The ‘gang of eight’ senators, of which I am one, have come to an agreement on all of the major issues. We’re writing the bill that will be a strong foundation that we believe can be used at the Judiciary Committee starting next week and then move to the Senate, and ultimately be sent to President Obama for his signature,” he said.

Menendez, who recently said that immigration reform is the “civil rights issue of our times,” and his “gang of eight” colleagues unveiled proposals in January for a broad overhaul of immigration laws in the U.S.

“It is in the nation’s interest, it is in our economic interest, it is in the security interest of the United States to have comprehensive immigration reform,” he said at the rally.

Under the proposal introduced by the group of senators, undocumented immigrants would be allowed to register with the government, pay a fine, and then obtain a probationary legal status allowing them to work in the U.S.

The rally outside of the U.S. Capitol was part of similar demonstrations across the country on Wednesday urging Congress to pass immigration reform.

On Saturday, Menendez also participated in an immigration reform rally in his home state of New Jersey.

A bipartisan bill on immigration reform is expected this week, and a committee hearing on the legislation could be held as early as next week.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Tuesday that the members of the “gang of eight” are hoping to unveil the legislation before lawmakers leave town for the weekend.

“There is a time for everything. You either get it done or you don’t,” McCain said to reporters. “Now is the time to get it done as quickly as possible.”

Many Republicans are unwilling to support any measure that would put illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship. Some have expressed their openness to some form of legalization that stops short of granting citizenship, which they amount to amnesty that would only encourage more to cross the border illegally.

In addition to a path to citizenship, the bill is expected to offer a new visa program for low-skilled and farm workers, increased border control, and the elimination of some categories of family visas.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers continues to work on its own immigration bill, according to the Hill.

Speaking for a group of House members at the rally, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) made a vow to make immigration reform a reality this year. He also said that Latino voters delivered for President Obama last year, and now he must fulfill his promise to legalize many of the estimated 11 million living in the U.S. illegally.

“Work hard. Push us. Keep pushing us, and together we will deliver immigration reform this year. You need to guarantee that you give me and my colleagues in the U.S. Congress no place to hide. There are no acceptable excuses for failing to pass immigration reform this year and no excuses will be accepted,” said Gutierrez.

Many in the crowd said they were hoping Congress would act on immigration reform soon, including Alicia Gomez, a D.C. area local.

“I’d like to see immigration reform in the coming months, so that families are no longer separated and children aren’t left alone in this country,” said Gomez.