On Sunday,advocates for two of the most controversial issues of our time will intersect by chance at the same time and almost in the same place in Washington.
While the House of Representatives holds its most critical vote on history-making health care reform on Capitol Hill, tens of thousands of immigration reformers are expected to crowd into the National Mall nearby, flying multicolored flags, holding posters, and shouting slogans.
No doubt, the vote on health care will be first and foremost in the minds of most Americans and the media, as it has been for more than a year. But the rally for immigration reform
, which was scheduled long before the vote on health care, is no mere sideshow. They call it the March for America
, and it's been building up steam for months.
On what they labeled "Coming Out of the Shadows" week, grassroots volunteers and veteran organizers, militants and activists, legal and illegal immigrants, gathering under the umbrella of 200-plus advocacy groups
, will unpack their dreams and struggles and lay them at the feet of the Congress and Obama administration. The mission is clear: immigration reform now.
The numbers are huge: the United States has 11 million illegal immigrants (or in the movement's preferred phrase, undocumented workers) and millions more who are descendants of immigrants, and even more millions who have become American citizens. In the face of such numbers -- Hispanics are the nation's largest minority at some 40 million -- legislation opening a way for illegal immigrants to reach legal status is viewed by advocates as the only acceptable and sane solution. That's understood, on the right and left, Democrats and Republicans, border hawks and bleeding hearts.
But timing for such an overhaul couldn't be worse. After the long and bruising fight for health care reform, the Democrats and President Obama have exhausted political capital and worn thin the patience of the American people. You can almost picture Americans out there in the middle of the country, which is to say most of the country, nodding off or shaking their heads in disbelief at the thought that coming around the bend is another nationwide brawling town-hall-style shouting match -- this time over immigration laws.
No one looks to win reelection votes over this. Still, something's got to be done or at least it's got to look like something's being done. Obama, the candidate, promised immigration reform, won support in 2008 from the millions of Hispanics who believed him. But nothing has happened yet and many in the immigrant community, who support health care reform as well, are getting worn down waiting for their turn.
The president is not tone deaf, so on March 11 he promised he'd push for an overhaul of the system
-- that is, if (and a big if) he could attract serious GOP support. Last time immigration reform was debated in Congress during the Bush era, when even the conservative president and a conservative senator, John McCain, supported change, the legislation ended up in shreds.
But stepping to the rescue, not coincidentally just days before the March 21 rally, two major players, Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.), have offered an outline of a proposal
that, first, requires illegal immigrants to admit they broke the law before they can gain legal status and, second, demands that all workers carry an identity card to prove they are eligible to work.
"Last week we met with President Obama to discuss our draft framework for action on immigration,'' the senators said in a column
in the Washington Post on Wednesday. "We expressed our belief that America's security and economic well-being depend on enacting sensible immigration policies. The answer is simple: Americans overwhelmingly oppose illegal immigration and support legal immigration."
The blueprint includes tougher enforcement at the border and in workplaces, and it favors visas for highly educated immigrants over blue-collar and uneducated immigrants. This last nod to conservative thinking runs in direct opposition to the fact that many immigrants, whether from Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa or the Asian subcontinent, come from poor, uneducated backgrounds.
Allowing for bipartisan support, the Schumer-Graham proposal stands a chance, but it won't be a smooth path to a vote on passage in Congress, either this year or next. Still, against the odds, thousands of believers are expected in the nation's capital Washington this weekend. In a burst of spirit and hope -- those intangibles that drive underdog movements -- an organizer at DreamActivist.org declared that "undocumented youth all over this country will finally come out of the shadows and lay claim to their own futures...No longer will we let ourselves be intimidated, scared and ashamed...'' He beckoned the young and ardent to step up and claim their ground.
And so they have. In the ramp up to the Sunday rally, scores of young immigrants held "coming out parties"
in several cities, carrying banners that read, "Undocumented and Unafraid."
Many among them came to the United States illegally as children, but have since grown up here, stayed in school, and kept out of trouble. They include honor roll students, athletes, artists, aspiring teachers, doctors and soldiers, according to the National Immigration Law Center. They have lived in the United States most of their lives but they bump their heads against barriers to higher education, they cannot work legally, and they live in constant fear of detection.
A piece of bipartisan legislation known as the Dream Act
, first introduced in 2001 and reintroduced in the House and Senate on March 26, 2009, would deal with those intractable questions. Though the bill has gained Obama's support and bipartisan backing from members of both houses of Congress, it needs an up-from-the-gut shout-out to become law.
That's hardly in the cards. For now, the youth wave is swelling, their numbers increasing, and their voices rising. This new generation will soon become the face and shape of the movement.