WASHINGTON — Thousands of people from across the country gathered Tuesday on the National Mall to demand a revamping of U.S. immigration policy, and about 200 people – including eight members of Congress – were arrested for blocking the street directly in front of the Capitol.
Following similar rallies in more than 160 cities, the Camino Americano: March for Dignity and Respect called for comprehensive immigration legislation that would provide for a path to citizenship before the end of this year.
Local and national advocacy groups, including CASA in Action and the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, hosted the event that featured speeches from congressional leaders, including House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
Pelosi said legislation must be passed to secure the nation’s borders, protect workers, unite families and provide a path to earn citizenship.
“It’s good for business. It’s good for workers. It’s good for families. It’s good for our nation’s success. So we must do this,” she said.
The event closed with a march to the U.S. Capitol, where protesters were arrested while blocking 1st Street; U.S. Capitol Police were standing by and began making arrests around 4 p.m.
“We will be arrested, and we will be denied our liberty,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said moments before leading the march. “But we do it so that one man, the speaker of the House, can free the Congress of the United States and allow Republicans and Democrats – men and women from all 50 states – to finally pass comprehensive immigration reform.”
In addition to Gutierrez, also arrested were Reps. John Lewis, D-Ga.; Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.; Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.; Joe Crowley, D-N.Y.; Keith Ellison, D-Minn.; Al Green, D-Texas; and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.
Capitol Police said the arrestees will get a misdemeanor charge and many will likely be released Tuesday night after paying a $50 fine.
Eleven members of the North Carolina-based immigration advocacy group Latin American Coalition were arrested, including 18-year-old Jessica Contreras, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico.
Contreras was 5 years old when she moved to Charlotte, N.C., where she is a high school senior.
“I go to school, and I want to be able to go to college to give back to the community and to give back to the country that I call home,” Contreras said.
She said she wants to see immigration legislation that will help students such as her be able to apply for scholarships to afford a college education.
Before her arrest, Contreras said, “I’m really excited actually because people in the past have done civil disobedience to fight for their rights, and I want to do it, too, because I believe it’s the right thing to do.”
Rausel Arista, 35, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico living in Monroe, N.C., was also arrested. Arista works as a community organizer for the Latin American Coalition and said he joined the rally to give others who are also undocumented and living in the United States the opportunity for a better life.
“The only thing they need is just the opportunity to participate in the community, in the economy, and to be a part of this great nation,” Arista said. “You cannot hide this thing. It’s 11 million people who are here, and they need to be recognized. You cannot keep these people under the shadow.”
Danny Cendejas of the Texas Organizing Project, which addresses immigration and other issues, also attended the rally. Last week, Cendejas attended a rally in Dallas calling for immigration restructuring, and he flew to Washington Tuesday for the rally on the National Mall.
His stepfather is an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador who pays taxes and owns a landscaping company but remains at risk of deportation, Cendejas said.
“In Texas, we have one of the highest numbers of undocumented people,” Cendejas said. “We have over 1.7 million. That’s hundreds of thousands in Dallas alone. For myself, this hits close to home.”