Supporters of immigrant rights in the United States hope to increase their political influence after this week's rallies and boycotts across the country. Immigration has become a hot political issue in the United States, and both major political parties are trying to figure out what impact the issue will have in the November congressional elections and the presidential election in 2008.
A group of protesters in Orlando, Florida, was typical of the more than one million illegal and legal immigrants who came out in force to make their economic and political presence felt around the country.
"We are not criminals,” they said. “We are mostly people who come to work and come to stay here. We work."
Immigrant rights groups intend to build on that public display of potential political power by helping hundreds of thousands of immigrants become citizens and registering them to vote over the next few years.
But the American public remains deeply divided over the immigration issue. Recent public opinion polls indicate a majority of Americans want to better control the nation's borders to stem the flow of illegal aliens, who number an estimated 11 to 12 million inside the United States.
In some cases, the immigration protests have sparked a backlash by conservative groups demanding that the government do a better job of enforcing existing immigration laws.
Retired U.S. Army Colonel Al Rodriguez heads a group of Hispanic Americans that opposes illegal immigration.
"We understand the important contribution immigrants have made to the economy and the industry of this great nation,” said Rodriguez, “but the difference is that we and millions of others like us did it legally. We are all here today to tell those illegal protesters, ‘you do not speak for me.’"
The political divide on immigration is also reflected in Congress. A bill passed by the House of Representatives focuses on border security while the Senate is deadlocked over a more comprehensive bill that also offers illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
President Bush is among those who favor a guest worker program that would legalize the status of many illegal workers.
"One of the things that is very important is when we debate this issue is that we not lose our national soul,” said the president, “and one of the great things about America is that we have been able to take people from all walks of life bound as one nation under God, and that is the challenge ahead of us."
But Republicans are deeply split on the issue, with conservatives like Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo insisting that illegal immigrants be sent back to their home countries.
"A majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives will not accept any form of amnesty," he said. Another faction of the Republican Party is more sympathetic to businesses and corporations that rely on less expensive immigrant labor.
Political experts say both parties have a lot at stake in the immigration debate. "The Hispanics are the largest growing group in our society and in the electorate,” explains Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington,” and since the parties are at parity today, they are about equal. How the Hispanic votes goes in the future may determine which of the two major parties becomes the majority party."
Democrats are hoping to take advantage of the Republican divide on immigration and win over Hispanic voters. However, Democrats are also split on the issue, with many concerned about the impact of cheap immigrant labor on U.S. labor unions, a major source of support for many Democratic Party candidates.
"While in one sense they want to help people and help the immigrants come in and they want to benefit from the Hispanic vote,” said Wayne, “they do not want to increase the opportunity for businesses to pay much less than the standard (wage) rate."
What impact the recent demonstrations will have on immigration legislation before the Congress remains unclear.
Congressman Jose Serrano, a Democrat from New York who supports immigrant rights, is optimistic. "I believe that the reason the Senate is trying to look for a compromise or something less malicious is because of all the protests," he said.
But others fear that bridging the immigration divide during a congressional election year is unlikely.
"The parties are faced with a kind of insoluble and impossible situation whereby whatever they do, they will alienate a large number of their constituents, some of whom have rights to vote and some of whom do not," said Robert Barsky, an expert on immigration politics at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.
No matter what Congress does this year, experts agree that immigration is likely to be a top issue both in this year's congressional elections and in the presidential contest in 2008.