Thousands of immigrant rights activists rallied on the lawn in front of Capitol Hill on Wednesday, saying Hispanic voters delivered for President Obama last year and now want to cash in on his promise to legalize many of the estimated 11 million in the U.S. illegally.
Inside the Capitol, lawmakers were trying to finalize a bill that would deliver on that promise, combining more border security with a legalization program that would offer a long-term path to citizenship.
"Work hard. Push us. Keep pushing us, and together we will deliver immigration reform this year," Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who is part of negotiations in the House, urged those at the rally. "You need to guarantee that you give me and my colleagues in the Congress of the United States no place to hide."
The rally drew participants from across the country. It was the first major mass action since the November presidential election, when Hispanic voters rallied by immigrant rights activists turned out to vote for Mr. Obama and against Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
With Mr. Obama back in office and Democrats having expanded their majority in the Senate, and with Republicans eager to try to win a larger share of Hispanic voters, leaders on all sides are trying to work out a final bill.
Those at the rally said both parties have something to lose if they don't take action.
"People are looking to the future because the next generation will look and say, 'Who helped my family? Democrats? Republicans? Who helped the future?'" said Santiago Galarraga, 43, from Ecuador, who said he is not a legal permanent resident of the U.S.
Holding such rallies has become a staple for Hispanics and the immigrant rights movement. In 2006, mass marches in cities across the country drew as many as 5 million participants and helped spark Senate debate.
Four years later, with action stalled and Mr. Obama having broken his promise to pursue immigration reform during his first year in office, more than 100,000 people rallied on the Mall to demand that the president heed their call.
Mr. Obama promised action during his re-election campaign. But he also took the unilateral step of declaring that he no longer would deport most illegal immigrants 30 or younger and instead would grant them tentative legal status and work permits.
Some at the rally said the president can do more during the congressional debate.
Miriam Rojas, a 27-year-old from Peru, held up a sign that read: "Keep your promise Mr. Obama."
She said she wanted the president to step up pressure on lawmakers.
"He was doing good, but he needs to push it more," she said. "He can talk to Congress and push harder. I think he can do more."
Others, though, said blame rests squarely with Republicans.
"It is very obvious we should blame Republicans because they have been opposing every law that Obama has been trying to pass," said Salvador Zelaya, 46, a naturalized citizen from El Salvador. "So Republicans, they basically don't like us, and that is the feeling that every Latino and every immigrant has now. You know that they don't like us, and I believe that we gave them a good answer in the last election and that is why they are trying to work it out now, but they keep on playing games."
The rally Wednesday was smaller than the 2010 march.
Organizers said they are staging "echo" events across the country for those who couldn't make it to Washington.
Activists also walked the halls of the House and Senate office buildings to lobby their lawmakers, a sign of growing sophistication within the movement.
A bipartisan group of eight senators is trying to finalize a legalization bill within a week.
The key bargain in that deal is to grant immediate tentative legal status to illegal immigrants but withhold the full path to citizenship until after the borders are deemed secure.
Some Republican critics argue that the borders should be secured before any legalization occurs, while others say legalizing any illegal immigrants would reward law breakers and would create competition for American jobs.
Meanwhile, interest group NumbersUSA, which advocates for lower immigration levels, said the rally was misplaced.
"There ought to be a rally for the 20 million Americans who can't find a full-time job," said NumbersUSA President Roy Beck.
The push for border security is also controversial among the immigrant rights activists.
Some said if that's what it takes to get a deal, they will accept it, but others said that price is too high.
"I think that is just an excuse for not having immigration reform," said one woman at the rally holding a sign that read, "I March for My People." "The issue with the border is an excuse."
The woman declined to give her name, saying she was there representing "clients."
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