WASHINGTON – Immigration rights supporters gathered Monday for a march past the White House in an event they had hoped would be a celebration of Senate legislation to put illegal immigrants on the path to citizenship.
After that measure collapsed under election-year politics, the march turned into a protest against a House alternative that would instead make illegal immigrants felons.
"America is a nation of immigrants. Let us stay," read a sign carried by Jason Ayestas, 17, of Woodbridge, Va. A citizen, Jason said he was representing family members here illegally.
"I'm thinking about what they would do to my uncle if they catch him with us and send us to jail," Jason said. "Basically, he wanted to come here to work with us to send money back home."
Thousands of frustrated immigrants, their families and supporters planned to march from Washington neighborhoods that are heavily Latino toward the White House and then converge on the National Mall.
"We want to stop HR4437 (the House bill) and we are demanding the Senate go back to the drawing board and develop an immigration reform bill and really fix the problem," said Juan Carlos Ruiz, national coordinator for the National Capital Immigrant Coalition. "We want to be part of the solution to make this country better."
What comes next in the Senate is uncertain. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he intends to bring an immigration bill back to the floor, but he has refused to commit to doing so.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is promising to reconvene committee hearings to pass another immigration bill and return it to the floor.
Rally organizers said they are hoping to guarantee that the issue remains on the Senate agenda with a "National Day of Action for Immigrant Justice," made up of rallies throughout the country. Tens of thousands were demonstrating in the streets of Atlanta. Protesters in Pittsburgh, meanwhile, gathered outside lawmakers offices.
"From all corners of this country ... we are choosing to speak out in a nationwide movement for immigration justice that is strong, vibrant and growing in this country," said Eliza Leighton, spokeswoman for CASA of Maryland, which assists illegal immigrants.
President Bush has been pushing Congress to pass a temporary worker program that would allow illegal immigrants to have some legal status. He has said he opposes anyone who arrived in the country illegally moving to the front of the line to become a citizen, but he has been quiet on proposals that insist illegal immigrants first return to their native countries before participating in the worker program or getting legal permanent residence, the first step to citizenship.
Bush, in remarks after a speech on terrorism, called Monday's rallies "a sign that this is an important issue that people feel strongly about it."