Flexing their political muscle, a swell of tens of thousands of immigrants and their supporters took to the nation’s front yard of the National Mall on Sunday to demand immigration reform move atop the crowded legislative agenda and to warn President Obama and Congress that their patience is running out.
Declaring immigration the next civil rights fight, the marchers called for legalization of all illegal immigrants and said they’ll vote against anyone who doesn’t back them.
“President Obama, members of Congress, do not mess with us,” said Mary Rose Wilcox, a member of the Maricopa County, Ariz., Board of Supervisors.
Organizers claimed at least 200,000 people in attendance and said news reports put the figure as high as 500,000 for the three-hour rally and march to Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. Sponsors said the rally was the biggest political mobilization since Mr. Obama’s inauguration a year ago.
Mr. Obama delivered a taped address to the crowd, repeating his pledge to try to work with a bipartisan coalition in Congress to pass a bill.
“If we work together, across ethnic, state and party lines, we can build a future worthy of our history as a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws,” he said.
Speakers were divided over his efforts so far. Some praised the president for pledging support, but many seemed to argue that he has failed them by not forcing the issue onto the agenda earlier, and by stepping up deportations.
Handmade signs in the crowd - “Reform not raids” and “Obama keep your promises” - indicated that the immigrant rights community is expecting more than words of encouragement.
“President Obama, stop pointing fingers at the Congress. You have the power, and if you fail to deliver, we will hold you accountable,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland.
Mr. Obama promised during the presidential campaign to take up immigration reform early in his tenure. After more than a year in office, his agenda has been choked by efforts on health care, climate change and the economy.
Last week, the immigration rights movement received a glimmer of hope when Sens. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, and Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, published the framework of a reform proposal. The legislation would include a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a program to increase immigration through future workers, and a plan to change all Social Security cards into biometric identification that would help stop illegal workers.
Mr. Obama called the plans “promising,” but it’s unclear whether it will be able to break the long-standing gridlock on this issue in Congress. Attempts to enact immigration reform legislation failed in 2006 and 2007.
Opponents of a legalization bill acknowledged that their opponents made a strong showing.
“It’s impressive that the various organizers were able to amass that much money to put on an event like that,” said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, who said his side couldn’t match it. “There aren’t people and organizations that make huge money off of reducing immigration. We’re here as proxies for the 25 million Americans looking for a full-time job who can’t find one.”
Mr. Beck had planned to try to interview members of the crowd and ask their views on immigration and on the U.S. for a Web video. But organizers spotted them and assigned a group of people to shadow them, blowing whistles to drown out their questions and holding balloons to obscure their cameras.
He said U.S. Park Police eventually asked them to leave the main area. After moving across the street into a less densely populated area, Mr. Beck said, he found some people to interview, including a man who said all Americans of European ancestry should be deported to Europe.
Event organizers learned the lessons of previous rallies and marches, where Mexican and other nations’ flags dominated, and drew criticism.
On Sunday, some other flags were sprinkled into the mix, but American flags easily outnumbered those at the smaller “tea party” rally earlier on the grounds of the Capitol to protest the health care bill being debated in Congress.
“Let me see those American flags,” said Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, leading a chant of “USA.”
Underscoring the continuing political split on the issue, several dozen Democratic members of Congress were recognized on the stage, and a handful spoke. But among Republicans, only Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida spoke.
No Democrat got a better reception than Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois, who one young speaker even said he wished had been elected president. Mr. Gutierrez has taken leadership of the immigration issue after the death last year of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.
“We’ve been patient long enough. We’ve listened quietly, we’ve asked politely, we’ve turned the other cheek so many times our heads are spinning,” he said. “Here in this place, where Americans facing injustice travel to have justice delivered, we travel to place our demands.”
Mr. Gutierrez has his own bill that is more lenient toward illegal immigrants than the framework Mr. Schumer and Mr. Graham introduced last week. His plan doesn’t include the biometric Social Security identification card, nor does it envision a guest-worker program.
Speakers at the rally included a former police chief; bishops and clergy of various faiths; leaders of black, Hispanic, Asian and Irish rights groups; and labor unions.
“The Catholic Church stands with you, and is in this fight until the end,” said Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of the Los Angeles Diocese.
The only major part of the coalition trying to pass immigration reform that failed to participate in the rally were business leaders, who have been uncertain about how closely to work with unions.
Despite the broad coalition, the prominence of Spanish from the stage, including public service announcements about children lost in the massive crowd, made clear who the real backbone of the movement is, and who the biggest beneficiaries of a legalization program would be.