Correction to This Article
A May 18 Style article incorrectly said that Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) voted for an immigration bill, passed by the House in December, that would declare illegal immigrants and those who help them to be felons. Cardin voted against the bill.

An Up-the-Hill Battle

Immigrants from Baltimore, Md., make the rounds on Capitol Hill
Making rounds yesterday on Capitol Hill, immigrant advocates wore blue-and-white stickers that read: "We Are America." (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2006

Seven a.m., and she's selling tamales on the Baltimore streets. By 10:30, she's lobbying her congressman on Capitol Hill.

Is Alicia Villalva, who stole across the border to make money and send it home to Mexico, properly a constituent? She has been living here for nearly 20 years, without a Social Security number, without citizenship. She has never cast a vote for Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), yet here the big man is.

They are seated face to face in his inner sanctum. He says, "I think where I am [on immigration] is where you want me to be. . . . The fact you're here in Washington today shows you're reaching out and want to tell your story."

Villalva has just finished telling four of his senior staffers her story, words in Spanish and English, tears spilling down her cheeks. How she left home at 15 because her family was starving. Survived the desert to "help my dad," whom she didn't see again for nine years. Now, married, she has three children, who are Americans.

"The only thing we want to do is work and build the country," says Villalva, and the Hill staffers watch her, riveted.

"You bring a very, very important aspect to the debate," says Amanda Rogers Thorpe, Ruppersberger's senior legislative assistant. "I get phone calls all the time saying, 'Deport them all right away!' "

As an undocumented worker with a fictional taxpayer ID number, does she get a voice? Should she, like hundreds of other immigrants who walked the waxed halls of Congress yesterday, have a chance to petition the government?

"I pay taxes," says Villalva. This is American.

* * *

"We Are America," say the blue-and-white stickers on the lapels of the earnest petitioners in the long, echoing corridors on the day the Senate votes yes to an amendment for a big border fence. You could say, Well of course! Immigrants have a personal stake in the debate unfolding in Congress over immigration reform. People are always animated to become Super Citizens when the usual blah-blah-blah of lawmaking suddenly touches their lives. They end up stalking the Hill with sheaves of talking points, congressional face books and thumbnail sketches of key legislators.

Which is what the immigrants had yesterday.

Still, it was something new -- almost alien, for a group of people frequently dismissed as such -- to approach and be received as fully vested Americans. If one had to complete a practicum for the naturalization test, this could be it.

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