Worried immigration activists look for support on Capitol Hill

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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.

Indeed, it was soon after the 2006 marches that senators struck a deal on a legalization bill and brought it to the Senate floor, where it passed 62-36. But they were unable to hammer out a compromise between their broad legalization and House Republicans’ crackdown bill.

A year later, senators tried again — only to see their bill fall to a bipartisan filibuster.

The issue simmered, serving as a dividing line in the 2008 election, with then-candidate Barack Obama promising to make immigration a top priority in his first year in the White House.

Mr. Obama won the election but turned instead to health care, angering Hispanic voters who felt betrayed. The anger was boosted by the president’s push to step up deportations.

In 2010, activists again staged a mass rally — this time on the Mall in Washington, where many had harsh words for Mr. Obama.

“It was an important moment in sending the signal to Democrats again that this was an issue that was not going away, and kept the pressure on Democrats to deal with immigration in 2010,” Mr. Rivlin said.

Wary of losing Hispanic voters in 2012, Mr. Obama granted tentative legal status to most young adult illegal immigrants last year — something he had for years said he lacked the authority to do. The president also vowed that if he was re-elected he would renew his efforts to pass a broad legalization bill.

Now, activists say that promise is due, and the rally Wednesday will serve as a reminder of the power the movement can bring.

“This is a point of escalation, and the show of force in my mind is the overall effort that began the day after the election in 2012,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which is helping organize the rally.

Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, which advocates for legalization from the conservative side, said the rallies have served a purpose, but he said they work best when they target both sides.

He said that means being willing to criticize Mr. Obama on enforcement as well as Republicans who oppose legalization. And he said activists should push for action on all sides of the immigration equation, including a guest-worker program for future foreign workers.

“Put pressure on both sides,” he said. “Put pressure on Republicans, but put pressure on Obama as well.”

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