By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Thousands of supporters of immigration reform rallied around the Capitol on Wednesday, calling on lawmakers to support a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Demonstrators waved flags from the United States and Latin American countries, and held signs reading "Citizenship for 11 million" and "Basta ya! La deportacion," which translates to "Deportation, enough already."
The National Rally for Citizenship in Washington, D.C., took place a day after negotiators in the U.S. Senate said they were putting the finishing touches on an immigration reform bill that would likely be completed in their chamber this week.
Related protests were held in California.
Immigration reform has gathered strength in Congress following President Barack Obama's re-election in November. Hispanics, the fastest-growing voter bloc, heavily favored Democrats over Republicans in the election.
Republicans have since started to get behind immigration reform, an effort that had been mainly embraced by Democrats.
"Together we educate, rally, pray and knock on doors until a comprehensive immigration reform bill arrives at the desk of President Obama," Gustavo Torres, president of immigration advocacy group CASA in Action, told the crowd on the Capitol's west lawn. "You are the movement that will win immigration reform."
Activists said they wanted to ensure that any new law contained a mechanism to allow people currently in the country illegally to obtain U.S. citizenship. They do not want it tied to border security or other legislative objectives.
Ivan Gomes, a 37-year-old used-car dealer, traveled from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to attend the rally.
"We're here to send a message so that our voices can be heard and that something is going to happen," Gomes said as he waited in a long line to get into the Russell Senate Office Building before the rally.
"It's not just about politics," Gomes said. A native of Borneo, Gomes has lived in the United States for 13 years, but so far has been unable to get citizenship. "It's about people's daily lives. We're having families torn apart."
The rally of about 100 organizations was sponsored by immigration reform groups and unions, including the United Auto Workers and the Service Employees International Union.
La Santa Cecilia, a Los Angeles band that specializes in Latino fusion, revved up the crowd with its song "El Hielo," Spanish for "ice," about the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arm of the Department of Homeland Security.
The crowd spilled over the boundaries of the wide West Lawn of the Capitol and across nearby streets. Onlookers clung to the base of the statue of Ulysses Grant, one of the world's biggest bronze sculptures.
TRACTION IN CONGRESS
Immigration legislation in the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate will include an earned pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, bolstered border security and ways for business to meet the need for both high-skilled and low-skilled workers.
A bipartisan group from the Republican-led House of Representatives is working on its own version of a bill, one that also includes ways to earn citizenship.
Inside the Russell Building before the rally, protesters packed the Senate Agriculture Committee room to urge Michigan Senators Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin, both Democrats, to back immigration reform.
The chandelier-lit room erupted with cheers and chants as the two senators said they backed reform.
"We want to make sure that there is a wage built in, a living wage rate," Stabenow said. She added that she wanted two paths to regularize farm workers: one for those who move from state to state for work and another for those who return to their countries of origin between jobs.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest U.S. business group, and the AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation, reached an agreement on a guest-worker program in late March. The accord cleared the way for the writing of a full bill in Congress.
If the Senate and House bills pass their respective chambers, they would have to be reconciled before a final version is voted on and then sent to Obama for signing into law.
Other rallies for immigration reform were held in California on Wednesday, with one of the largest occurring in Los Angeles outside an office of Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat. Nearly 1,000 people attended that rally, said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which helped organize the event.
Police said no one was arrested in that demonstration.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson and Rachelle Younglai, Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Scott Malone, Cynthia Johnston, Grant McCool and Steve Orlofsky)