Video by Leah Villanueva
WASHINGTON–“Cuando” was the call and “ahora” the robust response Wednesday as tens of thousands of immigrant rights advocates gathered on the West Lawn of the Capitol to urge Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform containing a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
The 90-degree afternoon heat seemed no distraction for rally-goers who watched musical performances, appearances by immigration advocacy leaders and heard speeches from the NAACP, the National Education Association and local politicians. The Rally for Citizenship was hosted by CASA de Maryland and SEIU 32BJ, with support from national organizations, including the Alliance for Citizenship and Center for Community Change.
“Now is truly the time for immigration reform,” said Gustavo Torres, president of CASA in Action, the nonprofit advocacy wing of CASA de Maryland. “Because families cannot continue to be torn apart, because 11 million people cannot continue to live in the shadows and because politicians have finally realized that they cannot ignore immigrants, their families and their supporters.”
Washington’s Rally for Citizenship was designed as the culmination of several events in cities across the country marking the National Week of Action for Citizenship.
The event was timed to coincide with the unveiling of a draft immigration bill that has been under construction for months by a bipartisan group of senators, the so-called Gang of Eight.
Comprehensive immigration reform is a priority for the 113th Congress following last year’s elections, which saw Hispanic voters turn out in droves to support Democrats. Republicans have since called for a bipartisan deal, but largely remain opposed to a path to citizenship.
Other key issues in the debate include tougher border security and improved visa programs for agricultural guest workers.
Advocates at the event hoped to influence the approach of lawmakers.
“I think the first thing to do is give the chance to those who deserve it, because that’s how this country was built,” said Wimy Sanchez, 29, a Honduran from Silver Spring. “I believe in a path to a fair type of life, if citizenship is the end result that would be great, but people need a better life, to be part of this society.”
Just a few feet from Casa de Maryland’s advocates, Help Save Maryland, along with New Yorkers for Immigration and Enforcement and the Tea Party Immigration Coalition, held a much smaller “anti-amnesty rally.”
Mario Vega, 55, an American citizen and passionate CASA advocate who moved to the country from Nicaragua more than 27 years ago, abruptly stopped in front of the anti-amnesty rally on his way to the Capitol lawn. Vega grew red in the face, and began chanting loudly in Spanish.
“Learn some English,” Help Save Maryland director Bob Fireovid said quietly in response to the shouting.
Fireovid said he hopes that this comprehensive immigration reform bill fails. “I think it would mean more unemployment, more poverty,” he said.
The anti-amnesty rally did little to hamper the energy of the adjacent crowd. Maryland State Sen. Victor Ramirez, Montgomery County Councilman Hans Riemer, Prince George’s Councilman Will Campos and other local leaders including D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray raised the crowd’s energy leading chants of “Si se puede!”
Participants watched musical performances by the band La Santa Cecilia, singer Alvaro Torres and Bachata artist Andy Andy.
The crowd also joined faith leaders from across the religious spectrum in prayer. Elizabeth Alexander, the 2009 inaugural poet, read a poem in both Spanish and English.
In his keynote speech, president and CEO of the NAACP Benjamin Jealous discussed the intersection of immigrant rights and civil rights.
“We need common sense solutions that uphold our nation’s values and move our nation forward,” he said. “The very idea of America demands and deserves that we fix our nation’s broken immigration system in a way that would make Lady Liberty proud.”