WASHINGTON — Thousands of immigrants and activists rallied nationwide Wednesday in a coordinated set of protests aimed at pressing Congress to approve immigration reforms that would grant 11 million immigrants living here illegally a path toward citizenship.
Organizers said demonstrations were taking place in at least 18 states and in Washington, D.C., where activists gathered on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol early Wednesday afternoon.
"We won't win immigration reform just coming to Washington. We need to walk the streets all over the country," said Ben Monterroso, national director of civic participation of the Service Employees International Union, which represents nurses and lower-wage employees including janitors and child care workers.
In Atlanta, more than 1,000 people gathered at the Georgia Capitol Wednesday midday, calling for comprehensive immigration reform and an end to deportation.
In San Francisco, demonstrators planned to build an altar at the federal building with 1,000 paper flowers, symbolizing the number of people deported daily for immigration violations. A gathering in San Diego was being billed as marking "Undocumented Coming Out Day."
Senators writing a comprehensive immigration bill have said they hope to finish their work this week, opening what's sure to be a raucous public debate over measures to secure the border, allow tens of thousands of foreign workers into the country and grant eventual citizenship to the millions living illegally in the United States.
Groups opposed to illegal immigration say they aren't worried that lawmakers or voters will be swayed by emotional messages, and argue that extending legal rights to immigrants living illegally in the U.S. will create financial problems for cash-starved governments and spur more illegal immigration.
Reform activists said the size of the pro-immigrant movement would be on display at rallies around the country, including in the nation's capital.
The activists already claim victories nationwide, including a successful lobbying effort against a plan in North Carolina to provide driver's licenses to immigrants with the words: "NO LAWFUL STATUS."
The immigrant activism movement gained national attention in 2007 when President George W. Bush and a bipartisan group of lawmakers unsuccessfully tried comprehensive immigration reform. Some high school and college students who were brought to the U.S. as young children began living openly and holding rallies.
The movement gained new supporters in 2010, when Congress debated but did not pass the DREAM Act -- legislation that would have granted legal status to young immigrants living illegally in the country.
President Barack Obama announced in June his deferred-deportation program allowing young immigrants to apply for work visas. During his State of Union address in February, Obama called on Congress to quickly pass immigration reform.