Worried immigration activists look for support on Capitol Hill

Tens of thousands of immigrant rights supporters will convene Wednesday on Capitol Hill to demand action at a key moment in the debate: Negotiators are struggling to write legislation and activists are getting antsy, arguing that every day that passes means 1,100 more immigrants are deported.

Similar protests were held in 2003, 2006 and 2010, and all served to highlight the growing immigrant rights movement in the U.S. — a movement that activists believe is on the cusp of a major victory.


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This year, activists will walk the halls of the Capitol to lobby their members of Congress before gathering on the West Lawn to flex the political muscles they developed in 2012.

“We have been here before. But this time is different. We are different. Washington is different. Politicians learned their lesson this past election cycle,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland, an advocacy group that is helping organize the rally.

The marchers’ immediate goal will be to prod Senate and House negotiators working to nail down the final details on legislation that would legalize the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., rewrite the system for future legal immigrants, and bolster enforcement at the borders and the interior.

Activists will demand that the legalization process be simple and quick, and will argue that there’s no need to do more to beef up border security or boost deportations.

But the rally Wednesday also will serve to demonstrate the growing political power of a movement that has been ascending for years, but which finally forced lawmakers to take notice after the 2012 elections.

“Our vote, along with the stars aligning in our favor in Congress, leads us to be very optimistic about the impact our presence in D.C. will have this week,” said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, director of communications at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “We are hopeful our presence and our voice this week will lead to an eventual introduction and passage of immigration reform.”


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Activists have voiced similar hopes for more than a decade — and at key moments have taken to streets and parks to stage mass demonstrations that highlighted the growing power of their movement, which is intimately entwined with the growth of Hispanic voters.

In 2003, with the Bush administration backing away from immigration reform after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, activists staged the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides in which hundreds of immigrants traveled from city to city to make the case for legalization.

The rides served as a key early test of the emerging coalition as religious leaders, labor unions and minority rights activists joined together to boost immigrant rights groups.

Massive marches in the spring of 2006 grabbed national headlines, as up to 5 million supporters turned out in cities across the nation to protest a House Republican bill that would have cracked down on illegal immigration and imposed penalties on those deemed to be aiding illegal immigrants.

The rallies made headlines for their sheer size, including an estimated 500,000 at a Los Angeles rally March 25. But they also earned bad publicity after some participants carried foreign flags — particularly Mexican flags — spurring a backlash among voters.

Douglas Rivlin, who worked for the National Immigration Forum at the time, said those rallies served for many Americans as a first glimpse at the power of the movement.

“The marches, just as the debate, probably hardened some positions on each side, but I think for the vast majority in the middle there was an awakening that there was this huge issue out there they hadn’t paid much attention to,” said Mr. Rivlin, who now works for Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, one the movement’s leaders.

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