Rallies across the US staged in bid to push the issue to the forefront of the agenda in Washington
Rallies took place in more than 150 cities across the U.S. on Saturday in an effort to restart the push for comprehensive immigration reform led by a group of bi-partisan lawmakers earlier this year.
Organizers of the "Day of Dignity and Respect" events in cities from New York to Los Angeles hope to draw fresh attention to an issue that was at the forefront of the national dialogue in July when the Senate passed an immigration bill that would have included a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented individuals in the U.S., but House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has refused to put to a vote.
Meanwhile, Democrats in the House introduced a similar measure Thursday, which will likely also face opposition from House Republicans, many of whom are wary of supporting anything that could be perceived as "amnesty" for individuals who broke immigration laws to get to the U.S.
House Republicans have also let it be known that they prefer a more step-by-step approach to the immigration issue in contrast to the broader measures in the Senate bill.
Some of those who took part in Saturday's events said their personal stories have been what has compelled them to take an active role in trying to make their voices heard and see meaningful legislation that would change their lives and the lives of their families by bringing stability that can come with citizenship.
Pushing for a DREAM
Abena Abraham, 17, who lives in Minnesota, came to the U.S. from Liberia in the late '90s when she was just 4 years old, a few years after her mother had arrived after leaving her home country amid civil war.
Being so young at the time, Abraham told Al Jazeera that she didn't know anything about her status until she was around 11 years old and saw a television program on members of the Liberian community facing deportation. Abraham was surprised to learn that her family was among those facing deportation.
"I had no idea that I wasn't born here," she said. "I just assumed that since all my classmates were Americans, that I was too."
Abraham said that when her mother came to the U.S., she applied for political asylum, but later moved from the address she listed on her application. Because her mother didn't inform immigration authorities of the move, she missed the notice informing her that her petition had been accepted and what next steps she needed to take. The petition was moved to the bottom of the pile.
Abraham's mother, though, eventually was able to secure a lawyer and apply for a temporary protection status. Abraham said she and her mother have been able to stay in the country under a program known as Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) - a memorandum ordered by President George W. Bush in 2007 granting protected status to Liberian nationals because of civil unrest in the country. It has since been extended multiple times by President Barack Obama.
Despite the reprieve, not fully knowing whether she would be able to permanently stay in the country has proved to be emotionally and mentally difficult for Abraham, she said.
"It's really affected me because I haven't had the opportunity to become a citizen. I just was really downhearted, going to college wasn't an option for me. I felt like my dreams had been crushed," she said.
If the comprehensive immigration legislation is approved, Abraham could apply to be covered by the proposed DREAM Act, part of the immigration bill that was passed 68-32 in the Senate earlier this year. It would allow certain immigrant students who grew up in the U.S. to apply for temporary legal status and eventually get permanent legal status and become eligible for U.S. citizenship if they go to college or serve in the military.
Abraham, who was to speak Saturday as part of events taking place in Minneapolis, wants to see Congress act now and acknowledge that immigration is "not just a Latino issue" and not just about undocumented individuals coming into the U.S. over the border with Mexico.
"Some have come in a legal way and they told us if we do the right thing, we could live the American dream," she said.
'Closer than we've ever been'
The measure that passed the Senate in July would be the most significant overhaul of immigration law in years.
The Senate bill, which also has strong support from the Obama administration, includes billions of dollars for border security, a legal immigration system to allow tens of thousands of high- and low-skilled workers into the U.S., and a 13-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S.
"[We are] closer than we have ever have been to getting this passed," said John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, an organization that provides legal services education on immigration.
Keller also said he believes that there are enough votes in the House right now to pass something that amounts to comprehensive immigration reform even if the current debate in Washington don't bear that out.
Keller also pointed out that labor unions and business advocacy groups are fighting on the same side with regard to the immigration issue. For example, the AFL-CIO, a labor federation with more than 13 million members and the Chamber of Commerce, which represents the interests of more than 3 million businesses, both agree that the immigration system needs reform.
"It makes it very compelling when you have such strange and unusual allies on one issue," Keller said.
'Stop making this a game'
And while issues like border security and a path to citizenship continue to be points of contention among lawmakers, individuals caught in the middle of the debate, like 21-year-old Hernan Carvente and his family, continue to wait for what's next.
Carvente, who decided to volunteer with the Pilgrimage for Immigration Reform event that took place in Queens, N.Y., on Saturday said the struggles of his mother and father — both undocumented immigrants from Mexico — were what motivated him to come out in support of reform.
Carvente said he has watched his parents struggle amid the "stigma" of their legal status and said they feel trapped by their inability to pursue an education.
"I had no hope because my parents had no hope for themselves," he said, adding that their fear of deportation often added to their worries.
But he said that his own experience within the criminal justice system and four years in a juvenile facility, made him "come out with a strong passion for wanting to advocate for different injustices."
Carvente said he wanted to see lawmakers make immigration reform possible "for the people that you're supposed to represent."
"This is the time for both parties to put their differences aside and stop trying to make this a political game."
This piece first appeared in Aljezerra America