Update at bottom: Raids before rally aimed to 'intimidate' marchers, claims activist
Protesters from around the country gathered here Sunday for a march expected to draw tens of thousands of people to push Congress to move on a long-delayed immigration reform.
Organizers hope the "March for America" will put immigration reform, which failed in Congress in 2006 and 2007, back on the agenda after a year dominated by health care reform, the economy and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The question for our leaders is what they will do starting Monday, March 22 to deliver on the promise of reform. We have heard promises before," said Clarissa Martinez of the Hispanic organization La Raza on Friday, at a news conference previewing the march.
President Barack Obama promised to reform immigration laws during his campaign for the presidency, but a crush of other priorities has set back efforts to legalize immigrants and offering a path to citizenship.
Just last week, however, two senators outlined a bipartisan framework for comprehensive immigration reform legislation, drawing immediate praise from Obama.
The bill from Democratic Senator Charles Schumer and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham would lay the path to legalization for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, reinforce border controls and create a process to admit temporary workers and produce biometric Social Security cards.
Undocumented immigrants would also have to pass background checks and demonstrate they are proficient in English before they can earn lawful permanent residence and eventually citizenship.
Obama called on the senators to turn their plan into legislation, urging Congress to act "at the earliest possible opportunity."
Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, said of the latest effort: "We encourage the president and Senators Schumer and Graham to go beyond words and produce legislation.
The White House however has acknowledged that it does not yet have the votes to advance a new bill.
But ahead of key mid-term elections in November, the issue has been drawing more attention.
In the 2008 elections Obama won 67 percent of the vote of the record 10 million Hispanics who went to the polls.
Raids before rally aimed to 'intimidate' marchers, claims activist
In Monday's Washington Post, staff writer David Montgomery explores how immigration raids have cast a shadow on such events.
Weeks ago, as Gustavo Torres, executive director of the Latino and immigration advocacy and assistance organization, CASA de Maryland, was set to shake President Obama's hand, he was alerted to multiple raids back home.
It was just after midday, Thursday, March 11, and it seemed like an auspicious moment for Torres, executive director of CASA of Maryland, and a dozen other immigrant-rights leaders granted the 75-minute presidential audience. The president reaffirmed his commitment to reforming the broken immigration system. And the advocates looked forward to flexing the movement's grass-roots muscles during the upcoming march on the Mall.
Torres's job in the meeting was to raise the subject of workplace raids, which he believes sweep up people whose only crime was crossing the border in search of work. The Obama administration has significantly reduced the number of workplace raids, but most immigrants removed through all enforcement measures continue to be non-criminals.
Focus on people who've committed crimes, Torres urged the president, according to participants. Obama replied that he must enforce existing law, but he directed Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to meet with the leaders to discuss ways to lessen the impact on hardworking immigrants.
Torres received an urgent text message alerting him that "[p]olice vans, unmarked SUVs and squad cars had wheeled into the driveways and parking lots of two restaurants, an office and several residences in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. Dozens of ICE agents and local police surrounded the properties and secured the exits."
"At the raided locations, 28 men and one woman from Guatemala, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Bangladesh were detained," the Post article continues. "So far, none has been charged with a crime. All are suspected of 'administrative' violations of immigration law. All but six were released by Friday. The six are those who have prior immigration violations. The fates of the others will be decided by immigration officials in coming weeks."
Torres charged that the timing looked like an attempt to "intimidate" the marchers.
Meanwhile, administration officials used back channels to try to convince advocates that the timing was coincidental. They characterized these raids as fitting the administration's policy of targeting alleged criminal violators, including employers.
"It was part of an ongoing criminal investigation into worker exploitation," said a federal law enforcement official who declined to be identified in order to discuss the case.