Thousands converged on the National Mall in Washington D.C. Tuesday to demand that Congress pass a measure that would overhaul the U.S. immigration system, and in particular, provide a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants.
Capitol police also arrested scores of protesters, including eight members of Congress, who allegedly engaged in acts of civil disobedience as part of the rally.
Carrying U.S. flags and placards that read “The Time Is Now” and “Sí se puede,” the demonstrators came from around the nation for an event meant to inject momentum into a stalled effort in Congress to work on an immigration reform bill.
Prospects for passage of a sweeping bill that would tighten border security, get stricter on immigration enforcement and provide a path to legalization seem dim, given the few legislative days left for 2013 and the current partisan standoff over the budget that has caused a partial government shutdown.
A comprehensive bill passed in June in the Senate, but the House has addressed the issue in fits and starts. Conservative members in the House say they will not rubber-stamp the Senate bill, and they vow not to pass any measure that would provide “amnesty” to people who are here illegally.
“Our communities and our families do not have the luxury to rest or relax,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, in a speech hours before he became one of the lawmakers arrested. “One thousand one hundred people will be deported today, 1,100 people will be deported tomorrow, and the next day.”
“Those of us who have the piece of paper and peace of mind that ensures our return home tonight to our families must fight for those who do not have that piece of paper or that peace of mind,” Gutierrez added.
Organizers of the event had predicted that tens of thousands would attend it. Efforts were unsuccessful to get an estimate of crowd size from Capitol Police, who did not answer the phone. Many federal workers are on furlough because of the shutdown.
Al Jazeera America network estimated the crowd to be between 3,000 and 4,000.
The demonstration, called “Camino Americano: March for Dignity and Respect,” began at about noon and continued through the early evening. It featured “stories of suffering and strength and demanded passage of commonsense immigration reform,” according to the OctoberImmigration.org website, which had a schedule of speakers.
Speakers included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, and veteran congressional champions for immigration reform such as Gutierrez, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida, and Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey. Others on the schedule of speakers and performers included civil rights legend Julian Bond, singer Lila Downs and the musical group Los Tigres del Norte.
The rally, which was planned for some time, capped a series of rallies and town hall meetings held in the summer and through this past weekend leading up to it.
Members of some the country’s largest unions helped with crowd control, according to Douglas Rivlin, spokesman for Gutierrez.
The people who participated in the act of civil disobedience blocked traffic around the Capitol. Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group that favors more flexible immigration laws, was among those arrested.
"I am honored and humbled to be part of today's act of civil disobedience,” he said, according to a statement sent by the organization. “There are 11 million reasons why I've decided to get arrested today. In today's America 11 million people work hard, sacrifice for their families and make this country stronger, but are denied the opportunity to live freely and contribute fully.”
“We will keep turning up the heat until our lawmakers see the light,” he said.
Some have criticized the decision to allow the rally to proceed.
“Obama closed the National Mall to WWII vets. You can visit it tomorrow, but only if you’re in the illegal alien rally,” wrote Rep. Steve Stockman (R., Texas) on his Twitter feed, according to published reports.
Stockman referred to veterans who had tried to visit the National World War II Memorial on the National Mall during the first day of the partial government shutdown last week.
The visitors forced their way through the barriers to get near the memorial. The next day, they were allowed after they argued that they had a First Amendment right to be there.
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente