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Hundreds of Pro-Immigrant Advocates Lobby Congress

Hundreds of pro-immigrant advocates from at least 20 states were headed to Washington to lobby members of Congress on Wednesday, taking their issue from the streets to the Senate.

While reaction to President Bush's address on immigration was mixed, some activists were buoyed by the fact that the issue at least remains a priority.

"The one clear message coming out is that the White House is engaged," said Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza. "They're willing to invest in this issue."

The call to arrange face-to-face meetings with members of Congress and their staffs was put out just a week ago when the We Are America Alliance, a loose coalition of the nation's biggest pro-immigrant groups, was formed.

Participants were asked to pay for their own travel, so organizers had expected to get only about 100 activists, said Cory Smith of the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, a member group.

By early Tuesday, however, more than 400 had confirmed — and as many as 1,000 were expected, said Joan Maruskin, who works on immigration issues for Church World Service in Washington. The group will register participants, provide breakfast and help visitors navigate the Capitol.

With the Senate taking up immigration and with Bush's prime time speech, there was a renewed sense of vigor among the activists, she said.

"The incredibly exciting thing is to see the spirit that is moving everyone," she said. "It's amazing."

The labor activists, religious leaders and grass-roots organizers taking part in the campaign were expected to slightly adjust their messages to lawmakers depending on local concerns, but most planned to work from a shared outline provided by the alliance.

The groups' top priorities are reuniting immigrant families and providing a path to citizenship. While they generally oppose Bush's plan to deploy National Guard troops to help secure the Mexican border, most acknowledge the need to reduce illegal immigration.

In Atlanta, a busload carrying about two dozen legal immigrants and their supporters departed on a 1,300-mile roundtrip to Washington on Tuesday evening. "Senators will see what's really going on," said the Rev. Julian Herrera, a Pentecostal pastor and organizer. "They'll see what's our potential."

Other participants planned to drive their own vehicles or fly to Washington, said organizer Teodoro Maus, the former Mexican consul in Atlanta.

More than 100 Irish immigrants from nearly a dozen states also were on the way, said Kelly Fincham, executive director of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform. "We're targeting 100 congressmen — we'll be knocking on people's doors," she said.

In Los Angeles, many planned to stay home to register voters or visit the California offices of federal elected officials and the state Democratic and Republican parties, said the Rev. Giovanni Bizzotto of St. Peter's Italian Church.

Still, Bizzotto and about 20 others flew to Washington to "keep the pressure on the Senate to give us a legislation that would be good for the people," he said.

Not all pro-immigrant groups agreed with the lobbying plan. "The current proposals in the Senate fall far short of the basic issues," said Monami Maulik, director of Desis Rising Up and Moving, a New York City group of mainly Southeast Asian immigrants that has not joined the We Are America Alliance. The group planned to rally Wednesday evening.

"We will not accept such a highly compromised bill," Maulik said.

Still, many said that, after scores of protest marches nationwide in recent weeks, the next step is shifting the energy to influence public policy.

"The public attention is now, for the first time in a long time, really, really centered on this debate," said Hector Figueroa, treasurer of Service Employees International Union chapter 32BJ, which has members from Connecticut to Washington. "Right now is a great opportunity for us to push this issue with the American public."