As the health care debate comes to a close, there's no better time to introduce comprehensive immigration reform. Hundreds of thousands of immigrant rights supporters from all over the country congregated on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Sunday to demand immigration reform in 2010. It was the largest political rally to be held since President Barack Obama moved into the White House.
Dressed in white and carrying American flags, the crowd numbered between 200,000 to 500,000 people. The marchers spanned approximately 7 blocks, all the way from the Washington Monument to the steps of Congress. Although many media outlets and lawmakers were were occupied by the historic health care vote taking place in the House of Representatives on the same day, Obama took time from his busy schedule to record a video message to the marchers, in which he discussed the need for immigration reform "this year."
Obama the guest speaker
"I pledge to do everything in my power to forge a bipartisan consensus, this year on this issue," Obama said in the video, which was broadcast to the cheering crowd via giant TV screens on the Mall's perimeter.
As RaceWire notes, Obama explained to reform supporters that "you know as well as I do that this won't be easy, and it won't happen overnight, but if we work together across ethnic, state and party lines, we can build a future worthy of our history as a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws."
The message came hot on the heels of a proposed Senate outline of an immigration reform bill, written a few days beforehand by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). "For undocumented immigrants already here, the pathway to [a documented] status is basically this: pay a fine, pay back taxes, admit you broke the law, do some community service and then pass a back ground test," RaceWire's Seth Freed Wessler notes.
A similar immigration reform bill is in the House, sponsored by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), but it is unknown when Schumer and Graham will introduce their proposal to the Senate floor. Immigrant advocates want lawmakers to introduce a reform bill in the Senate this Spring so that there will be time to debate the issue in 2010. The Senate outline is just a rough draft and the proposal could change significantly after it goes through Congress.
Labor and immigration reform
An enormous coalition of religious organizations, businesses and human rights groups are behind the push for immigration reform and the march on Washington. The coalition also includes dozens of unions. Labor was noticeably split over the issue when it was debated in 2007, but now appears to be consolidating its support. Workers Independent News reports that the AFL-CIO, a union federation that represents around 12 million workers, is supporting reform so long as it "enforces workers' rights."
Union federation president Rich Trumka also supports legislation that "would give undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors and who graduate form U.S. high schools a chance to earn conditional permanent residency," reports Workers Independent News correspondent Jesse Russell.
Change to Win, which represents 5 million workers, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the fasted growing union in America, were also present at the march. While certain issues, like a possible guest worker program, are likely to be sticking points for labor when reform is debated, union members that have years of organizing experience are supporting efforts to create a pathway to citizenship.
Broken system hits home
It's important to remember that the fight to pass reform is fueled by the havoc that the broken immigration system wreaks on families and workers. Compound a broken national system with arcane laws on the state level and lives are ruined on a daily basis.
Inter Press Service reports on a Arizona bill that could lob "fines and criminal charges against family members and employers that harbor or transport undocumented immigrants." This means that even a U.S. citizen that is married to an undocumented immigrant would likely be charged if stopped by police while driving his or her spouse around.
The Texas Observer also reports on the booming immigration detention industry, noting that "as the number of immigrant detainees continues to grow, the waits for hearings continue to lengthen, and immigration reform languishes in congress, the atmosphere in [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] detention facilities has grown predictably volatile."
According to the publication, there were riots at a private prison holding immigrants in Pecos, TX "After a man in solitary confinement died from epileptic seizures." At another facility in Port Isabel, TX, hunger strikes protesting poor detainee treatment continue.
These stories are just a few examples of the countless daily abuses that happen due to a lack of immigration reform on the federal level. But now, for the first time in years, there's a real opportunity to pass reform and provide citizenship to the millions of hard-working Americans who are already living in the country. There is an legislative opening to end the madness.