WASHINGTON — Nancy Chavez feels the pain of being away from her 2-year-old every time she leaves her Salinas, Calif., home to go to work in the fields picking broccoli and lettuce.
Hopes of a better future haven’t materialized yet, said the 21-year-old, who recently dropped out of high school to help her single mother, an immigrant who’s in the United States illegally, support her family. But when Chavez parted with her daughter Tuesday, it was less bittersweet: She was going to join thousands of people rallying for immigration legislation in Washington as senators draft a bill that might bring sweeping changes to the country’s immigration policy.
“Things didn’t work out liked I’d hoped, like my parents hoped,” said Chavez, who’s a legal resident, her voice breaking. “But I have faith things are going to change, and this is going to be our year.”
Hundreds of delegations from across the country took to the Capitol on Wednesday, urging lawmakers to ease the path to citizenship for the 11 million residents living in the country without proper documentation.
A group of eight senators might act as early as Thursday to present an overhaul bill that would legalize those workers, strengthen border security and penalize businesses that hire immigrants without proper documentation, among other measures.
Several groups, such as the grass-roots organization NumbersUSA, worry that the proposal would take job opportunities away from millions of unemployed U.S. citizens.
“If the gang of eight could look out on the (National) Mall and see all those Americans shut out of the job market, would they really make their highest priority a bill to immediately give work permits to 7 million illegal-alien workers while increasing visas for new foreign labor?” NumbersUSA leader Roy Beck asked in a statement.
But with chants of “Obama, escucha! Estamos en la lucha!” (Obama, listen! We are in the fight!) many paperless workers were making their voices heard Wednesday. One young woman worked her way through the crowd wearing a graduation cap and gown to support passage of a DREAM Act, which would legalize many immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.
“I think it’s the right time for our country to pass reform that allows everyone to be treated equally,” said the woman, 24-year-old Elizabeth Morales of Grand Rapids, Mich., who recently received deferred action through Michigan’s state version of the DREAM Act. “We’re not just gonna stop fighting.”
As a sea of supporters for a path to citizenship braved the hottest Washington afternoon yet this year, the rally kicked off with chants and speakers.
“Now is the time, because 11 million people cannot continue to live in the shadows,” co-emcee Jaime Contreras, the vice president of the Service Employees International Union local 32BJ of the Washington area, yelled to the crowd. “Now is the time, because communities have suffered a broken system that has hurt economic growth and turned immigrants into a scapegoat.”
For 37-year-old Luis Zarco of Charlotte, N.C., an overhaul would halt deportation proceedings that began in 2011 when he was pulled over for running a red light. The hardest part of the past two years has been dealing with the trauma to his 9-year-old daughter, who came with his wife to retrieve his car the night of his arrest.
“She saw everything, and tried to take me out of the (law enforcement) car and open the doors.” said Zarco, who traveled to Washington with more than 200 people from North Carolina. “For a long time, she thought every person with a uniform was coming for me or her mom.”
Children should have to think only about school and playing, he added, not fear that their parents will be deported.
“For the real, good people, I think they deserve an opportunity to have legal status in this beautiful country,” Zarco said.