WASHINGTON — Sen. Edward Kennedy needs Marna Vasquez, and vice versa.
Vasquez is a packinghouse worker from Porterville, in California's San Joaquin Valley. Kennedy is a rich and famous Democratic senator from Massachusetts.
Nonetheless, the 37-year-old former illegal immigrant and the 75-year-old lawmaker briefly shared a Capitol Hill stage this week to push for sweeping immigration revisions. Vasquez needs Kennedy's bill to help her friends and neighbors. He needs her voice to persuade congressional fence-sitters.
"I have a lot of faith that we're going to win," Vasquez said. "That's how we feel."
But there are strong feelings on all sides of the immigration debate, which resumes Tuesday in the Senate. The long-term prospects remain unclear. Vasquez's walk-on role helps raise the curtain, showcases Capitol Hill tactics and reveals a human face behind the policy dispute.
Spanning 762 pages, the complicated measure would offer legal status to illegal immigrants in the United States, now estimated to number some 12 million. It also would add border protections and establish new guest-worker programs.
Some two dozen amendments await what supporters call "the grand bargain." Some are innocuous, such as a proposal to fund "refugee scholars." Some are intended to sabotage the bill, such as a proposal to prohibit the newly legal immigrants from obtaining permanent legal U.S. residency.
The immigration fight spans many fronts.
Some are formal set pieces, such as the Senate debate itself. Some have the potential to be far more influential, such as private deal-making among senators. Some fill the airwaves, such as the ads running in Kentucky urging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to oppose the bill.
"With this increased airtime, we are hoping to mobilize even more Kentucky voters to take a stand," said Steve Elliot, the president of the conservative group Grassfire.org.
Then there's the multifaceted bit of theater known as the news conference.
Late Thursday morning, Vasquez donned a red United Farm Workers T-shirt to stand with Kennedy, UFW President Arturo Rodriquez and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Before a dozen camera crews, speakers cheered on an agricultural guest-worker program that's included in the comprehensive immigration bill.
Dubbed AgJobs, the package would grant U.S. residency to 1.5 million illegal immigrants with farm experience.
"Real fruit requires real people," Rodriguez said, summing up the case for securing a legal labor supply.
Feinstein and Kennedy have convened numerous news conferences in the past two years to champion immigration overhaul. Often, the senators flavor their orations with allies from well beyond Capitol Hill.
In January, Feinstein stood alongside Sacramento Valley pear grower Toni Scully, who spoke movingly of how a farm-worker shortage cost her much of the 2006 pear crop.
The news conference Thursday likewise targeted reporters covering the immigration bill. The organizers, though, also were addressing another audience: themselves. It was a rally in another guise, pumping up advocates for the task at hand.
But behind the prepared remarks and arid PowerPoint displays, real people live and breathe. Enter Marna Vaquez.
"Now," Vasquez said, "I understand what is important; to work together, to see that our dreams come true."
She and a Porterville friend, Angebala Zabala, left Los Angeles by train a week ago. In time, they were joined by about 100 other farm workers and immigrants on the so-called Dreams Across America Tour.
Supported by churches and unions, the trip delivered immigrants to Washington for nearly a week's worth of public and private lobbying. It was Vasquez's first trip to the capital, where strangers have shaped her life.
In 1986, Kennedy helped write the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which offered amnesty to more than 2.7 million illegal immigrants. That same year, Vaquez and her mother entered the United States illegally in a harrowing journey.
"We walked for 24 hours," Vasquez said in an interview. "The temperature was 120 degrees. One of the guides — the coyote — was screaming at us, saying, 'You have to go, you have to run.' We didn't have water. We didn't have food."
Her voice cracked slightly, and she apologized. It's hard to remember, she said.
Critics charge that the 1986 law's amnesty provisions became a magnet that attracted even more illegal immigrants. Feinstein herself, before she decided to support AgJobs, cautioned that "this is going — mark my words — to be a huge magnet" that boosts illegal immigration.
Amnesty will be much discussed during the Senate debate that resumes Tuesday, but Vasquez won't have much time to watch it on C-SPAN. Now a naturalized U.S. citizen, she'll be back at the packinghouse, working extra hard, she said, to send money to her brothers back in Mexico.