The political debate over immigration in America took center stage last week as two million immigrants and their supporters rallied throughout the nation in response to recent attempts to take legal action in Congress.
What began as an organizational meeting two months ago has now become a nationwide movement involving unions, businesses, churches, community leaders and other groups to represent the estimated 11 million people living illegally in the United States.
The protests are in response to a bipartisan bill that faltered in Congress that would have put most illegal immigrants on track for citizenship if they meet certain requirements, such as remaining employed, paying fines, and learning English.
According to the New York Times, if the bill were to pass, it would need to be reconciled with a tougher bill from the House of Representatives that passed in December which would speed up deportations, tighten border security and criminalize illegal immigration. House Republicans have warned that they will defeat the bill if it passes in the Senate.
"Today we march. Tomorrow we vote,'' the crowd chanted in New York, one of over 150 cities that held rallies. At the National Mall in Washington, D.C., speakers warned that if Congress adopts a plan that immigrant communities don't support, there will be political retribution during the November elections.
"We want to be legal," said one protester to the Times. "We want to live without hiding, without fear. We have to speak so that our voices are listened to and we are taken into account," he said.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, who helped design the bill, went to the National Mall to support the protesters. "It's about good people who came to America to work, to raise their families, to contribute to their communities and to reach the American dream," he said.
At the march, many speakers commented on the solidarity of immigrant protesting and organization. "Immigrants are coming together in a way that we have never seen before, and it's going to keep going," said Jaime Contreras, president of the National Capital Immigration Coalition.
The movement has also taken on a grassroots feel. ''There is no one leader, and that's a good thing,'' said Nativo Lopez, president of the Mexican-American Political Association.
"They've done things so that it's not coming across as a crazy leftist protest," said senior Alison Uscilka of the movement. "It seems like people are listening to it more because it's not a big angry protest like anti-war protests have been. They're just average American people with flags and families."
The issue is hardly a partisan one. In the light of the protests, President Bush has called on Congress to legalize millions of immigrants by creating a temporary work program. Leading Republicans in Congress intend to pass legislation that does not prosecute illegal aliens as felons. A Washington Post-ABC poll found that 63 percent of those surveyed support a plan to loosen border patrol and allow more immigration.
President Bush's significant effort to attract Latino voters is at stake now that the battle over immigration policy and border security is coming to a head, according to experts. As immigrants and new citizens begin to emerge as a potent political force, the look of the American voting population is bound to change.
"Here are all these people and I'm wondering what the religious right would say about this," said Mills mother Suzanne Chavez, mother to freshwoman Sarah Chavez. "I'm wondering what Jesus [Christ] would say about the brilliance of these people and if they should stay in the country," she said.
"Personally I do think there should be restrictions [on immigration], but I don't want to be all conservative about it," said freshwoman Shayna Elbling.
Sarah Chavez agreed. "There has to be some kind of a system," she said.