Thousands Rally In Support Of Immigration Overhaul

The issue is a minefield for congressional Republicans, who face enormous consequences regardless of the outcome. Many party leaders believe legislation is critical to improving their standing with Hispanics, while many in the conservative base threaten a revolt if the resulting legislation makes it possible for undocumented immigrants to gain legal status.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep, reporting this week from Caracas, Venezuela.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene, in Washington. Thousands of immigrants and their supporters, from around the country, flocked to the U.S. Capitol yesterday; they were there for a National Rally for Citizenship. It was the largest public show of support yet for efforts in Congress to pass a big immigration overhaul this year.

It came as a group of senators was putting the finishing touches on an immigration bill that will likely be debated well into the summer. NPR's David Welna was at yesterday's rally.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: If there was an anthem for yesterday's Citizenship For All Rally, it was likely the song sung by Marisol Hernandez, of the Los Angeles group La Santa Cecilia.

MARISOL HERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish)

WELNA: Change, everything changes, is how the Spanish lyrics translate. And things have indeed changed since the last big push for immigration reform fell apart in Congress, six years ago. Jaime Contreras, of the Service Employees International Union, pointed that out to the crowd.

JAIME CONTRERAS: We've been here before but this time, it's different. We are different. Washington is different. Now is truly the time for immigration reform!

(CHEERS FROM CROWD)

WELNA: Under a hot sun, many in the largely Spanish-speaking crowd waved American flags. One man held a sign proclaiming, "We Built This Nation." Others brandished signs reading, "The Time Is Now." Chicago congressman Luis Gutierrez was one of more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers who addressed the crowd.

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ: You need to guarantee that you give me and my colleagues and the Congress of the United States no place to hide. There are no acceptable excuses for failing to pass immigration reform this year. And no excuses will be accepted.

(CHEERS FROM CROWD)

WELNA: And New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez sought to assure the throng that things are moving forward on an immigration bill.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ: The Gang of Eight senators, of which I am one; Democrats and Republicans have come to an agreement on all the major issues. We are writing the bill, as we speak. And it will be a strong foundation that we believe can be used at the Judiciary Committee starting next week; then move to the Senate, given input in the House of Representatives and ultimately, send to President Obama to sign.

WELNA: That immigration bill will likely reflect a wide array of lawmakers' concerns. Some want to be sure that immigrants they represent get a better shot at citizenship. Richard Neal was one of half a dozen Irish-American House Democrats holding a news conference before the rally.

REP. RICHARD NEAL: Think of those families who can never return to Ireland when a loved one dies. They can never go back for a graduation. They can never go back for a First Communion or a Confirmation because the trouble is, they might not get back into America.

WELNA: Meanwhile, at a Senate Homeland Security Committee meeting, another member of the Gang of Eight was putting the heat on Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher over border security, which some Republicans say should precede any path to citizenship. That senator was Arizona Republican John McCain.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: What can the members of this committee have, as a basis to determine the level of border security?

MICHAEL FISHER: Well, one of the things that we're doing in rolling up at the strategic level is...

MCCAIN: Are you sharing that with Congress?

FISHER: We're just starting to, sir.

MCCAIN: Oh, you're starting to.

FISHER: Yes, sir. This has been an evolution...

MCCAIN: That's good to know.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHATTING)

WELNA: At about the same time, a group of Latin American immigrants was paying a visit to the office of another Gang of Eight member, Florida Republican Marco Rubio. Twenty-year-old Antoniela Sanchez, who has family members not lawfully in the country, says Rubio's aides assured the group he's still pushing for a big immigration bill.

ANTONIELA SANCHEZ: So we're leaving here a lot more hopeful, but we know that this is just the beginning. And we have to get to work in order for everyone else - not only in the Senate, but the House of Representatives - to approve this bill as well 'cause it's not all up to Marco Rubio to pass it, or to write it; but it's about having others approve it.

WELNA: She and other advocates vow they'll keep going back to Capitol Hill until such a bill does get approved.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol

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