WASHINGTON -- Lourdes Gallegos traveled in a van 18 hours from Florida to arrive here Wednesday, stand outside the U.S. Capitol and declare, “I love this country.”
Like many who showed up for a boisterous, sprawling immigration reform rally, the 44-year-old Polk County farm worker admires from the shadows.
Gallegos came to the United States illegally from Mexico but has lived in Florida more than half her life. “I want to be here legally and be able to work and provide for my family,” she said in Spanish.
Shouting “Time is now,” and “Si, se puede (Yes, we can),” tens of thousands of demonstrators — including about 70 from Florida — called on Congress to swiftly pass a comprehensive bill that would include a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.
It was a striking show of force as a bipartisan group of eight senators prepares to release far-reaching legislation. A path to citizenship is a central component, but it will not be as swift as some want.
The bill will make clear that border security needs to be intensified before steps are taken toward citizenship, a concession to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and other Republicans who are helping craft the legislation.
A border security plan, with a completed security fence, plus other steps, including an electronic system for workers to check the status of employees, will have to be implemented before a person could seek a green card, according to an outline of the legislation. If border security measures are not achieved within five years, then a commission of local officials will take action.
Members of the bipartisan “Gang of 8” kept a low profile after days of speculation.
“You can ask me whatever you want, but I’m not going to tell you,” Sen. John McCain told reporters. Told that some of the protesters were growing anxious with the speed of the debate, the veteran of past immigration battles said, “Their frustration is totally justified.”
Another negotiator, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said the bill would likely surface Monday or Tuesday, declaring to the crowd that all major issues have been worked out.
Release of the bill will set off a months-long and contentious debate.
The rally, coinciding with others held across the country, attracted people from all over and they stood for hours in 90-degree temperatures as speakers and entertainers whipped them into a frenzy.
“Citizenship Yes! Deportation No!” read signs. The crowd shouted, “Ahora, Ahora.” Now. Now.
“We have been here before,” said Gustavo Torres, president of the advocacy group CASA in Action, referring to attempts at immigration reform in 2007 and 2008 that failed. “But this time it’s different.”
To many there were obvious connections to the demands for civil rights that African Americans made a half century ago.
“Fifty years ago, we were marching for civil rights,” said Rep. John Lewis, a black lawmaker from Georgia who walked with Dr. Martin Luther King. “Today we march and walk again. … We want immigration we want it now. We want it today, not tomorrow.”
A man translated his words into Spanish, sending cheers across the West Lawn of the Capitol.
“I came here for a better life for my family. That’s all I want,” said Jenaro Rangel, who arrived illegally from Mexico in 2000 and works as a carpenter in Virginia. Scooping his 1-year-old son out of a stroller, he said, “We want to be equal.”
The crowd was overwhelmingly Hispanic, a group that is becoming a political powerhouse.
“This is a way to grab their attention,” said Flor Herrera, 31, a farm worker from South Florida.
She arrived illegally from Guatemala in 1999 and said she lives in constant fear of being split from her four children, who are U.S. citizens.
“I’m worried if immigration catches me and deports me, where I’m going to live,” Herrera said, who earns less than minimum wage picking cherries and green beans in Homestead.
The farm workers are concerned that their wages could be further hurt under a guest worker program that will be included in the immigration bill. “We want to be treated fairly,” Herrera said in Spanish. “Without farm workers there’s no food on the table.”
Fabian Avillaneda, 20, said he came to support his parents, undocumented farm workers in Volusia County. Avillaneda, brought to Florida from Mexico when he was 6 months old, was recently granted legal status under a policy pushed by President Barack Obama but the legislation being considered would give him — and his parents — a chance to become citizens.
“Everything would change. We’ll have opportunities and see the life we wanted to see,” said Avillaneda, who plans to study film editing in the fall at Daytona State College.
Felipe Benitez, a spokesman for the Alliance for Citizenship, said organizers have taken lessons from the healthcare debate. Democrats did a poor job explaining the changes, and falsehoods and distortions from critics took root, including charges it would create “death panels.”
“We have to have our grassroots base ready to deliver,” he said, adding there will be an effort to turn support in Republican congressional districts. “This will be won in the field.”