To rally with immigrant advocates on the National Mall on Sunday, El Salvadoran factory worker Saul Linares said, he walked more than 250 miles--a greater distance than he had to walk to enter the United States illegally a decade ago. His trek from Long Island took eight days. The dozen jornaleros, or day laborers, who began the journey with him didn't even get as far as New Jersey. Linares slept at churches along the way, and at one of them convinced Ramiro Huinil, a Guatemalan construction worker, to keep him company for the rest of the journey. The two men traveled to the rally on foot "to demonstrate how we suffer," said Linares, now a legal resident of the United States. "I didn't have to walk for long to come to America, but a lot of people do. They walk for long long days to come to the US. It's very difficult to get visas to come legally."
Though most physically got there by less dramatic means, the tens of thousands of other immigrants and their advocates who rallied in Washington, DC, this weekend were engaging in an exercise similar to Linares's. Despite the political odds against them, they were making an impassioned gesture--one that may end up being entirely symbolic, because of the political odds against them.
The effort to legalize the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants inspired massive street demonstrations by supporters as well as a nasty, often racially charged backlash when it was last in the spotlight, three years ago. It seems unlikely that lawmakers would want to revisit that now, with unemployment at 10 percent, mid-term elections on the horizon and the long, bruising battle over healthcare climaxing the very day of the rally less than a mile away at the US Capitol. The only Republican backing a Senate blueprint to legalize undocumented workers--Senator Lindsey Graham, co-architect of that blueprint--has said that bipartisan support for it could not be achieved this year if healthcare passed.
The demonstrators seemed to know what will be required to tackle the issue: Change Takes Courage," their signs read. It was an acknowledgement of the political challenges they face, as well as a moral call to action. They chanted: "¡Obama, Escucha! ¡Estamos en la lucha!" (literally: "Listen, Obama! We're in the battle!"). The "battle" in their message to the president carried two connotations: that of their determination to fight for legalization, as well as their daily struggle, living in constant fear of deportation and subject to exploitation by employers.
Elizabeth Rodas, a lab technician from New Jersey and a US citizen, traveled to the rally with her undocumented husband, a construction worker from Ecuador, and their 15-month-old daughter. She said that recent immigration raids in Elizabeth, where they live, have left her terrified of losing her husband. "Any day they could take him away, and what would I do?" she said. "What would I do without my husband?"
Emma Moreno, director of the Spanish caucus for Teamsters Local 743 in Chicago, said that without an overhaul to the country's immigration laws, employers would continue to abuse undocumented workers. "They say they don't want undocumented workers," she said, "but they hire them [anyway] through temporary agencies, and they pay them less than minimum wage. These immigrants have made a big contribution to this country." Legalizing them "is something that morally the country has to do for them."
If nothing changes, advocates say, a second-generation will be subject to low wages, no benefits and the lack of workplace protection. About a million young people entered the United States illegally with their parents when they were children, but were raised and educated as almost-Americans, with the same expectations as their peers. Many go to college, but emerge with degrees they can't put to use because they have no legal right to work here. The rally included a large contingent of these students and their supporters, including Izzy, a 20-year-old studying fashion design at Dominican University outside Chicago. Her father is a forklift driver, and her mother works in a factory. They brought her across the US-Mexico border when she was 3 years old, imagining prospects for her better than their own. But she doesn't know if she can fulfill their dream without immigration reform: "I'm just hoping that something will happen," she said. "All I can do is wait."
Advocates, angry that deportations have increased by 5 percent since Obama took office, emphasized at every turn at the rally that Latinos could do more than wait. They could also vote. And they had voted, two-thirds of them for Obama. "The immigrant community came out hard in a swing state and voted for change in large numbers," said Subhash Kateel, an organizer with the Florida Immigrant Coalition. "They haven't seen the change."
Since their rallies in 2006, advocates have pushed hard to naturalize and register more immigrants. "There are more and more voters who care about this issue as one of their top issues," said Regan Cooper, director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, which helped sign up 12,000 new citizens in that state. Organizers also highlighted how their coalition has broadened to include evangelical churches and African-American groups not present in large numbers in 2006. The speakers included the Reverend Jesse Jackson and NAACP head Ben Jealous, for instance.
In a video address broadcast on giant screens at the rally, President Obama reiterated his promise to "fix our broken immigration system." Despite the warnings of reprisals at the polls, advocates were keen to count that restatement of his commitment--following his swift endorsement of an immigration reform plan unveiled last week by Senator Graham and Senator Charles Schumer--as proof that they had brought pressure effectively to bear.
The vote for healthcare by Representative Luis Gutierrez of Chicago, a staunch ally of immigration reform advocates, likely played a role in those last-minute affirmations of support. As such, instead of seeing themselves as out of the shadows but overshadowed by healthcare, some advocates believe they now have some leverage on account of it. "It's a glimmer of hope," said Domingo Garcia, president of the Dallas chapter of the Latino advocacy group LULAC, who shepherded 400 people to the rally. As for the Republican support that President Obama has said he needs, he and other Latino leaders are already strategizing; they believe they might be able to sway Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, whose loss to Governor Rick Perry in the primary means she does not have to worry about a backlash at the polls in November.
Juan Hernandez, who directed Hispanic outreach for John McCain's presidential campaign, said he is also hopeful that other Republicans can be brought on board, no matter the rancor over healthcare. "We can't continue saying mañana, mañana, mañana," he said, before taking the stage at the rally. "We have 12 million good people, who are not a security problem, who are the gasoline of the nation, and people of faith and conservatives are marching here" in support of them.