Streets outside the House of Representatives were blocked Thursday for about 10 uninterrupted minutes before police moved in to place handcuffs on a contingent of more than 100 women wearing red T-shirts with the words, “Women for Fair Immigration Reform.”
Their message was meant to reverberate — for the day and coming months — inside the nearby office buildings of elected lawmakers. And it was straightforward: Now is not the time to let comprehensive immigration reform fizzle.
The day’s civil disobedience, followed by visits with lawmakers, occurred at a moment in Washington, D.C. when it remains unclear whether House lawmakers will act on immigration policy this year. The Senate has approved a comprehensive immigration reform package.
We Belong Together, a national grassroots group, served as a key organizer of the event in which participants said too much is at stake to stop now, given that immigration touches the entire country.
There’s family unity, the issue of deportation, a path to citizenship, the economy and recognition that immigrants contribute to the country, they said.
An estimated 400 people attended the event, making it one of the largest acts of civil disobedience by women in recent history, said the Rev. Susan Sneed, a participant. She put the arrest number at 121.
Since 1986, U.S. immigration law has not undergone a major overhaul. This year, reform efforts gained much political and popular momentum, especially with the realization that the country’s population has grown in diversity.
“Immigration reform is not just a piece of legislation but the ability for us to take care of our families,” Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of We Belong Together, said in a statement.
“Immigration reform is about being able to live, breathe free and remember the values that brought us all here in the first place: democracy, freedom and justice.”
At the intersection of Independence Avenue Southeast and New Jersey Avenue Southeast, within view of the U.S. Capitol, women from Texas, Pennsylvania, Washington state, California, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, New York and other places gathered at about 10:15 a.m. (ET).
They joined arms, proceeded from the sidewalk and entered the streets. Then, they folded their legs and sat in a circle at the intersection.
At times, their hands, clutched with others, slowly swayed in the air, according to a live video feed that supporters broadcast.
“Yes, we can! Yes we can!” the protesters and supporters on sidewalks shouted. “What do we want? Immigration reform! When do we want it? Now!”
They also modified a popular chant heard at rallies: “The women united will never be defeated!”
Participants included domestic workers, undocumented immigrants, grandmothers, deferred action students, U.S. citizens, faith leaders, domestic violence survivors and 11-year-old Josie Molina Marcaraeg. She is active with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.
She is a U.S. citizen but her father, she told hundreds of people at news conference that morning, is in deportation proceedings.
“Courage is all of the children who go to school every day wondering if their parents will still be there when they come home,” she said, according to a statement.
Before blocking the intersection and arrival of the U.S. Capitol Police, other speakers at the news conference addressed why comprehensive immigration reform is important to them, their families, colleagues and neighbors.
“Our fight for civil rights is not done. We refuse to sit by when civil rights abuses are perpetrated on other groups,” Bertha Lewis, president of The Black Institute, said.
“An injustice to one is an injustice to all.”
Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, talked about being the daughter of immigrants and helping an organization that supports women who work in other people’s homes.
“I refuse to stand by while women bear the brunt of the ‘broken’ immigration system,” she said. “I am proud to be risking arrest today with 105 courageous women who are stepping forward for what is right.”
The group and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum also were key organizers of the event.
It was a day of free speech and elevating concerns to elected lawmakers. In the middle of the intersection, advocates unfurled a large white banner in support of comprehensive immigration reform in Congress.
The day’s peaceful civil disobedience is the second one outside Congress since early August but it comes at a different moment for federal lawmakers, who have a tighter fall legislative calendar.
Since Members of Congress returned from their summer recess on Monday, possible military action in Syria has consumed much of the national debate.
Congress also only has about two weeks to find a solution to funding the federal government. Funding for many federal operations will end at the end of September.
In addition, the Affordable Care Act, which remains controversial for many people, still has its critics. They might maneuver legislatively in the coming weeks before the health care marketplaces, a cornerstone of the law, open on Oct. 1.
While the Senate approved a comprehensive immigration reform package in June, the House of Representatives is considering ideas that would address specific issues, such as border security and possible citizenship for some undocumented immigrants.
The Senate bill includes a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
Recently, there’s also been talk that the House might consider immigration legislation in October.
One House committee chair has talked about the possibility that immigration legislation might not even come to a vote in that chamber, noting that federal lawmakers often consider bills but never bring them before the entire body for final action.
Also, some federal lawmakers are philosophically opposed to offering a path to citizenship to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
With the chance of immigration reform moving through both houses of Congress this year unclear, some grassroots groups and policy analysts have talked about the possibility of limited executive action from President Barack Obama as an alternative.
But on Thursday in Washington, D.C., grassroots advocates remained determined that immigration be a Congressional priority.
“I want my grandkids to grow up in a world that’s like the dream Dr. King spoke (of) right here in D.C.,” the Rev. Susan Sneed, who is from Metropolitan Congregations United in St. Louis, said in a statement.
“I am putting my body on the line for that dream.”
She also is affiliated with Gamaliel, a Chicago-based group made up of faith organizations in the country.
The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles said its members and executive director, Angelica Salas, attended to lend their voices at the rally.
“Doing things the same over and over again has not led to a fix to our ‘broken’ immigration system,” the group said in a statement.
Petra Falcon of Promise Arizona, which works with immigrants in the Southwest, talked about how a federal push for deportations continues to hurt millions of women, children and families.
“It’s morally unconscionable and it makes no sense given that our economy needs immigrants in order to prosper,” Falcon, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.
OneAmerica, a Seattle-based social justice group, said two women affiliated with their organization also were present in Washington, D.C.
“Women and children constitute three-quarters of immigrants to the U.S. and disproportionately bear the burden of our failed immigration system,” Ada Williams Prince, the group’s policy and advocacy director, said in a statement.
During the summer, immigration reform activists visited numerous federal lawmakers in their home districts to raise awareness about how immigration policy affects people.
At one point, even critics of reform efforts conceded that the summer was dominated by these local visits.
Participants at Thursday’s act of civil disobedience hinted they know comprehensive reform might not occur this year.
If policy reform fizzles, they said, they are ready to ask elected officials a simple question: What was your role in this issue?
For now, with Congress back in session, millions of people will be watching to see what might unfold before the year ends.