WASHINGTON—Thousands of demonstrators gathered on the west lawn of the United States Capitol Wednesday afternoon to push Congress to pass immigration reform with a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
A variety of groups organized the National Rally for Citizenship, an event that was months in the making and occurred just as lawmakers in the House and Senate reportedly are reaching the final stages of negotiations on an immigration overhaul.
The Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” has yet to introduce formal legislation, but on Wednesday Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced a sole hearing on the bill would take place on April 17. Some conservatives immediately complained that setting only one hearing on major legislation that most lawmakers haven’t seen yet is a recipe for disaster.
“Our immigration system is in need of reform and I am enormously disappointed that my colleagues are looking to rush another thousand-page bill through the Senate,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.
The Senate bill reportedly includes added border security measures, avenues for bringing in future low-skilled and high-skilled workers, and—most important to rally attendees—a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants residing in the United States.
“This is a land of opportunity,” said Lundy Khoy, 32. “People should be able to come here.”
Most of the people at the rally appeared to be Latino, but Caucasian, African-American, and other ethnicities—including Khoy—were interspersed among the crowd. Khoy was born at a refugee camp in Thailand after her parents fled unrest in Cambodia, and the family immigrated to the United States in 1981.
That enabled Khoy to obtain a green card, but not citizenship. In 2000, when she was a 19-year-old freshman at George Mason University, she made a “young, stupid mistake,” and was caught with seven ecstasy pills. Khoy, who now works as an enrollment adviser for the University of Phoenix, served four years of probation but now faces deportation as a felon.
“I feel like I’m getting a double punishment—for life,” said Khoy, who speaks without an accent and said she feels like an American. She said more than 13,000 immigrants are in situations similar to hers.
Khoy told her story at a noon press conference, which also included Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Reps. Judy Chu and Mike Honda, both Democrats from California. After a short break, waves of demonstrators began showing up just before the 3 p.m. start of the rally.
“I hope to help our people get permits to stay,” said Marco Rodriguez, a 35-year-old construction worker from Honduras who took the day off work to participate in the rally.
A small contingent of labor union supporters was also present, holding “UAW” signs and wearing T-shirts that said “Mobilizing for Justice Team.” Organized labor struck a tentative agreement with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce late last month on a potential guest-worker program that would give laborers more opportunities to enter the country legally.
A bipartisan group of House members is focused on addressing future immigration flow issues, including a guest-worker program, but it’s unclear if the Republican-controlled chamber would go along with a pathway to full citizenship, or only a pathway to legalization, for illegal immigrants.