Juana Castizo, 59, of Mulberry, Florida, raises her hands in prayer as immigration… (Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel )
Reporting from Washington — Determined to push a major overhaul of the immigration system to the top of the nation's political agenda, tens of thousands of people rallied Sunday on the National Mall, challenging Congress to fix laws that they say separate families and hurt the country's economic and social vitality.
Organizers and supporters of the "March for America" campaign -- who demonstrated as House members cast a historic vote on healthcare -- want to make an immigration overhaul the next big undertaking in Washington.
"The reality is that immigrants keep jobs in America, they help businesses move forward," said Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, one of hundreds of community, labor and faith-based groups nationwide that joined the march.
The organizing group, Reform Immigration for America, said Sunday's rally was larger than the massive Washington demonstration in April 2006, when thousands protested around the country over immigrant rights and enforcement practices. On Sunday, the crowd stretched nearly five blocks on the mall.
Although the event had a festive, almost carnival-like feel to it -- young and old in T-shirts walking amid white tents and balloons while drummers and musicians played -- many participants came bottled up with frustration or sorrow.
One group carried white crosses etched with names of border crossers who died in the Arizona desert. Crowds chanted in Spanish, "Obama, listen, remember your promise!" -- referring to President Obama's campaign pledge to make overhauling immigration policies a priority in his first year.
Earlier this month, Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) proposed a new blueprint for immigration overhaul, which the White House has endorsed. Among other measures, the plan would require biometric Social Security cards to ensure that illegal workers cannot get jobs; additional border security; a temporary worker plan; and some path to legalization.
Yet Graham, the lone Republican senator inclined to support the overhaul, has already said he believed that passage of the healthcare overhaul would probably kill the immigration effort this year.
Immigration could also be crowded out by other domestic issues, such as financial regulations and energy policy. And advocates for putting the roughly 11 million illegal residents on a path to citizenship will face resistance from many Republicans, as well as some moderate Democrats, facing the midterm election in November.
With resources and emotions running deep from immigrant rights activists and opponents, "things are on a collision course as they were in 2006 and 2007," said Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington group that seeks immigration restrictions.
Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony alluded to Obama's promise when he said in a brief interview after his speech at the rally, "The Democrats campaigned for Latino votes with a lot of immigration promises, so we'll see if they don't act on what they promised."
Latinos, in particular, have criticized the Obama administration's record on enforcement, as the number of deportations of undocumented immigrants increased 5% to 387,790 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2009.
Others at the rally were blunt, saying that officials will pay a price at the polls if they ignore the calls from a small but fast-growing electorate. "I can't vote, but I have 60 family members who can," said Elmo Siap, 55, a Filipino businessman who came from Chicago.
Foreign-born workers account for 15.5% of all U.S. workers, and their jobless rate went up to 9.7% last year from 5.8% in 2008. For native-born workers, the unemployment figure was also 5.8% in 2008 but rose to 9.2% last year, according to the Labor Department.
Julio Salgado, 26, a senior at Cal State Long Beach, hopes the changes come soon.
He came to America when he was 11 and graduated from high school in 2001 with a 3.6 grade-point average, he said. But without a green card or a legal resident status, he said, he couldn't qualify for federal student loans for college. Even so, he said he would be graduating this spring -- nine years after first enrolling in community college.
"We've done everything we've been told to do as kids, but I'm at a loss here," he said.
Times staff writer Michael Muskal contributed from Los Angeles.