WASHINGTON — With the nation focused on the final passage of President Barack Obama’s controversial healthcare reform through Congress on Sunday, another group competed for lawmakers’ attention.
Tens of thousands of people gathered at the National Mall in front of Capitol Hill as part of the March For America, a rally to demand that Congress institute a comprehensive immigration reform, as promised by President Obama on the campaign trail. The rally served as a reminder that while Obama enjoys a triumph with the passing of healthcare reform after months of acrimonious debate, more tough political battles over divisive issues lay ahead.
“It is not fair that they ignore us for so long,” said one attendee from Brooklyn, New York, who declined to be identified because of undocumented status. “What we want is equality for everyone because we are all human beings.”
Over 110 organizations from across the country sponsored the event, according to the event Web site, and the diversity of participants present at the march highlighted the multiplicity of immigration issues that comprehensive immigration reform hopes to cover.
The presence of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium (NAKASEC) served as a reminder that immigration reform is not just an issue that affects Latinos. About 10 percent of undocumented persons in the U.S. are Asian American and Pacific Islander, according to NAKASEC.
Multiple gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual (GLBT) organizations also attended. Unlike heterosexual couples, gay partners are unable to sponsor their partners who are foreign nationals. “We feel comprehensive immigration reform is not comprehensive unless it includes all families and that is why we are for the United American Families Act….which would allow gay and lesbians to sponsor our partners and children for immigration,” said Julie Kruse from the organization Immigration Equality.
Marion, a French national living in New York on a work visa, and her U.S.-citizen partner Tina attended the march after witnessing the large number of people losing their jobs in New York City. “It hit close to home that if we were a straight couple, we would get married and she could stay,” said Tina. Without the right to marry in New York state, however, Marion would have 30 days to find another job or lose her visa.
Other groups spoke about the need for proper healthcare for undocumented immigrants, raids against undocumented workers, and the separation of families under current immigration law. “There have been so many raids, families separated, and [the government] justifies it saying that [the immigrants] are criminals, but it is a lie. Most of us are just here to work,” said the Brooklyn attendee.
Organizations in favor of the Dream Act chanted their demand for “education, not deportation.” The Dream Act would allow undocumented students with a high school degree or GED who entered the country before age 16 and have no criminal record to pay in-state tuition at public universities in their state of residence.
“There are two, three generations living here without legalization. Their children couldn’t go to colleges or for higher education,” said Dr. Mujahiv Ghazi from the Council of Islamic Organization of Greater Chicago. “Improvement of the immigration laws is what we need today.”
Reflecting on the event the next day, Eunsook Lee, the Executive Director of NAKASEC, appeared satisfied with the march, but also eager to take the next step in the process towards passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
The lack of progress on immigration reform owes partly to the failure of lawmakers to introduce a comprehensive reform bill that appeals to both Democrats and Republicans. On Friday, however, Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) published an op-ed in the Washington Post offering a four-pronged plan for immigration reform, signaling that a proposal may be on the way.
Among the senators’ propositions: giving out biometric Social Security cards, strengthening border security and finding a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants living in the United States. They also suggested attracting skilled immigrants, who have PhD and master’s degrees, with green cards. The two legislators met with Obama last week, a first step toward satisfying calls for comprehensive reform.
Lee hopes that with the support that some Congress members showed for the march, an immigration bill will be introduced by April 15.
“It will be a long process to get a good bill.” Lee said. “The march gave it the necessary push we needed to get Congress to act.”