Immigrants and immigrant-rights activists gathered in Washington Thursday to press for legislation that would provide a path to legal residency and other rights for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. VOA's Michael Bowman reports, the event was held on the mall near Congress, which is back in session this week after an August recess.
Santiago Carrillo sat near the rally stage with a large American flag draped over his right shoulder. A construction worker and native of Honduras, he specializes in drywall installation and has been employed illegally in the United States for 12 years. He says undocumented workers make enormous sacrifices to come to the United States and help their families, and deserve to be treated better.
"We want to work legally and be able to travel to our home countries and see our families. In my case, it has been 12 years since I saw my family in Honduras. We immigrants are not terrorists. We came to do good, clean work," he said.
It has been several months since President Bush gave a prime-time television address urging comprehensive immigration reform to strengthen America's borders and, at the same time, provide a path to legal status for many law-abiding undocumented workers. Since then, the U.S. Senate has passed a bill that mirrors the administration's proposal. But a House version passed late last year would treat illegal aliens and those who assist them as felons, and require that undocumented workers return to their home countries before applying for citizenship.
The vastly different bills would have to be reconciled into a single, final bill, pass both houses of Congress and get the president's signature to become law.
Rally organizer Saul Solorzano, who fled El Salvador's civil war more than 20 years ago, says it is important to keep pressuring Congress to act. "I see the benefits of all the undocumented labor to this country, and I also know how beneficial it will be for the country and for people to have [legal] documents. I think America is stronger if everybody is documented. It is safer," he said.
Immigration has become one of the most-divisive political issues in the United States, one that is hotly debated in many congressional races ahead of November elections. Opponents of the Senate bill say that allowing illegal immigrants to stay would be, by definition, condoning and rewarding illegal behavior, which would encourage even more people to enter the Untied States illegally.
President Bush has said that it would not be practical or even possible to deport America's illegal population.
Previous immigration rights rallies drew hundreds of thousands of participants in Washington, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Thursday's event was far smaller.