More than 5,000 protesters from across the country, including illegal immigrants from four continents, marched through Washington yesterday and staged a noisy demonstration in Lafayette Square urging Congress to grant a new amnesty for all illegal immigrant workers.
They arrived by van, bus and train from New York, North Carolina, Florida, Michigan, Texas and California, some leaving days earlier for the journey. The vast majority were immigrants from Latin America, but there also were contingents from Liberia, Sierra Leone and elsewhere.
"These people are here, they're working, they're paying their taxes," said Fakhral Alam, general secretary of the Bangladesh Society of New York, who said there are about 100,000 illegal immigrants from his homeland in the United States. "It's time for another amnesty. These people aren't going back anyway. They're staying."
It has been 13 years since Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty to nearly 3 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Now, according to government estimates, there are more than 5 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, with an additional quarter-million arriving every year.
Their circumstances are particularly dire, advocates said yesterday, because illegal immigrants today have little hope of legalizing their status. In the past, they could win permission to stay by paying a fine and finding a relative or an employer to sponsor a visa. But strict laws passed in 1996 eliminated those provisions and bar those who have been in the country illegally for more than a year from becoming permanent residents unless they leave for 10 years.
"It was one of the hardest punches the community has endured," said Saul Solorzano, director of the District-based Central American Resource Center.
A 21-year-old farm worker from Florida who was waving an inflated green space creature labeled "Mexican alien" during the march said he has been in the United States seven years. His parents and five brothers are permanent residents, he said, but he and his sister are not.
"It was easier before to get permission to stay, but now it's almost impossible," he said. "That's why we need an amnesty."
Hundreds of participants in the rally were members of various labor unions. Though organized labor once viewed illegal immigrants as a threat to the job security and wages of their members, support is building within the labor movement for a new amnesty because of the shifting demographics of the nation's low-wage work force.
"We're behind it one hundred percent," said Edison Severino, 29, a Dominican construction worker and one of about 1,200 members of the Laborers' International Union from New York at the rally. "These workers don't have any place else to turn.
"I know how it feels because I was once illegal," he said. "You can't travel to see your relatives. It's hard to get a job. When I got one, they squeezed everything out of me and paid me peanuts in return."
CAPTION: Demonstrators march along Columbia Road NW en route from Meridian Hill Park to Lafayette Square. The protest of U.S. immigration rules drew thousands from across the country.