Thousands Clamor For Immigration Changes

Thousands of people marched Sunday in Washington, hoping to persuade President Obama to live up to his campaign promise to overhaul the immigration system. But despite the festive atmosphere, many felt a deep sense of frustration.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The health care vote overshadowed a political drama just outside Congress. Thousands of immigrants and their supporters packed the National Mall. They hope to persuade President Obama to deliver on his campaign promise to overhaul the immigration system.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden was at the rally.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

JENNIFER LUDDEN: The gathering felt like a picnic on the fringes, as families pushed strollers and spread out to soak up the sun. On the other side of a big stage and large video screen, it was more like a rock concert.

Unidentified Man #1: Si se puede!

Unidentified Woman: Si se puede!

Unidentified Man #1: Si se puede!

Unidentified Woman: Si se puede!

LUDDEN: Everyone squeezed tight, waving tiny American flags, and raising their arms to pass a gigantic U.S. flag around the diverse crowd. Organizers say activists came by bus and plane from more than 30 states. Speakers included a string of Democratic lawmakers, civil rights and religious leaders.

Unidentified Man #2: Look around. We are America.

(Soundbite of cheers)

LUDDEN: But despite the festive atmosphere, many felt a deep sense of frustration. Saul Laneras(ph) is a day laborer who walked here from Long Island. He's disappointed that President Obama has not kept his pledge to legalize some 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Mr. SAUL LANERAS (Day Laborer): He mentioned 100 days. He mentioned one year. We are 15 months later, and he's not doing anything. We need him to take the leadership right now.

LUDDEN: In fact, in Mr. Obama's first year, deportations have increased to nearly 400,000. Construction worker Luis Medrano(ph) of Maryland lamented the separation of families in a hand-painted sign. It showed a family with an ax hanging over its head, an ax wielded by President Obama.

Mr. LUIS MEDRANO (Construction Worker): I've got friends living in the house where I live. They have being separated, you know, the kids living without his mom now. He's suffering.

LUDDEN: Medrano said the boy is six, and his mother was deported last year after immigration agents raided the store where she worked. Twenty-five-year-old Jessica Granados(ph) said undocumented people like her have gotten no relief from a constant state of fear. She takes out her cell phone to show me a rumor that spread in New Jersey last week via text message.

Ms. JESSICA GRANADOS: Yeah, right here.

LUDDEN: What does it say?

Ms. GRANADOS: But it's in Spanish. It says Wal-Mart give authorizations to take some immigrants from the stores.

LUDDEN: Wal-Mart denied there were any immigration raids in its stores, but other New Jersey store owners reported a big drop in sales anyway, as people stayed home just in case.

Unions turned out in force. They are strong supporters of large-scale legalization, and many signs made the point that immigrants are workers and taxpayers. In a surprise videotaped message to the rally, President Obama himself criticized businesses who use illegal workers to game the system. But many also admitted that a biting recession and nearly 10 percent unemployment make their cause more difficult.

On the sidelines, Roy Beck watched the whole scene with bemusement. He heads Numbers USA, a grassroots lobbying group that wants to reduce all immigration.

Mr. ROY BECK (Numbers USA): Our core position is, is that those illegal aliens should be moved out of their jobs, and eight million Americans looking for work should be moved into them.

LUDDEN: In his video message, President Obama promised once again to try to seek bipartisan support for overhauling immigration this year. But Beck isn't worried, especially after the bruising fight over health care.

Mr. BECK: The administration, the Democratic leadership, they're not going to take on an amnesty. They've got to take on something popular.

LUDDEN: Immigration advocates warn that if the Obama administration does nothing before this fall's midterm elections, Hispanic voters will punish Democrats by staying home. That would make it even less likely that immigration will be passed in the next Congress.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

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