April has been an exciting time in our nation’s capital, with calls for immigration reform gaining steam and reports of proposed legislation coming out any day now. Last Wednesday and Thursday, Lauren and I were on Capitol Hill participating in two major events.
Wednesday was the A10 Rally for Citizenship on the West Lawn of the Capitol, with thousands of supporters from across the country in attendance. It was a hot day for a rally – the temperature rose to 90 degrees, though it felt even hotter in the crowd of sweaty, spirited supporters. Lauren and I arrived early and claimed a spot near the front, just behind the press. Looking behind us as the rally progressed, the crowd stretched back to cover the entire lawn, with more watching from the other side of First Street, crowded around the Capitol Reflecting Pool. American flags waved around us, some paired with the flags of Mexico, El Salvador, and other places from which people had come to this country.
Speakers took the stage, from faith leaders to elected officials, from union organizers to poets and musicians. Some called for reform in memory of the thousands who have died trying to cross our southern border. Others talked about families separated, children in foster care after their parents are deported. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois noted that when he leaves home on business, his wife and children don’t have to worry about whether he will come back, a fear that the families of the undocumented in our country face every day. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey argued that national security is a reason to support immigration reform, not hinder it, saying, “We cannot protect America if we don’t know who is here to fulfill the American dream and who is here to do it harm.” Though they represented a diversity of backgrounds, the message of each was the same: the time is now for immigration reform.
Lauren and I have each participated in National Day of Action in the past, and the atmosphere this year was unlike anything we’d experienced before. In other years, many on Capitol Hill told us frankly that immigration legislation was not something they were even considering, as other issues took precedent. This year, immigration reform seemed to be on everybody’s radar. Staff of the same offices that only recently told us they would not consider reform were now receptive to conversations about possible solutions, including a path to legalization for the undocumented. Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, even took the time to personally meet with a group of us in his office, explaining his vision for reform and what he is doing to educate fellow members of Congress about the complexities of our immigration laws.
One highlight of National Day of Action was the opportunity to hear from several members of Congress whose personal experiences shape their understanding of the need for reform. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii told AILA members of her family’s immigration from Japan. Rep. Gutierrez recounted the economic conditions in Puerto Rico that motivated his parents to start a new life in the United States. Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, an Iraq War veteran and double amputee, shared her family’s story. Born in Thailand to a Thai mother and U.S. Marine father, Rep. Duckworth recounted the toll on her family when they moved to the U.S. and her mother’s arrival was delayed while her immigration visa processed.
The day concluded with the American Immigration Council’s Immigrant Achievement Awards. Winners of the Immigrant Achievement Awards shared their inspiring stories, and General Colin Powell, who received a Public Service Award, spoke about how his parents came to the United States from Jamaica and how that heritage has shaped him.
There is talk of the Senate releasing its proposed bill this week, as early as tomorrow. In the debates that will follow, Americans and their elected officials will do well to remember the human stories behind the conversation -- the stories of those who gather in the heat on the Capitol lawn to call for better immigration laws, the stories of our leaders, whose immigrant background has driven their accomplishments.