Hundreds of immigrants and their supporters rallied in Boston on Saturday to pressure Congress for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws that would include a path to citizenship for the 11 million foreign-born citizens living in the United States illegally.
Organizers say about 800 immigrants, community activists, representatives of workers' groups and political leaders rallied at Faneuil Hall. They marched to the nearby John F. Kennedy federal building that houses US Immigration and Citizenship Services offices and the local immigration court.
The rally was one of the first events of the "Power Up for Citizenship" initiative that immigrant rights advocates are launching nationwide. In New England, a similar rally was scheduled for Nashua, N.H., on Saturday and in Providence, R.I., on Sunday.
The rally occurred as bipartisan immigration legislation is taking shape in the Senate. The debate has focused on securing the border, creating a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally, designing a new visa program for low-skilled workers outside of agriculture, finding ways to keep businesses from employing people who are in the US illegally and improving the legal immigration system.
"Until we pass comprehensive reforms, we don't have a done deal here — that's why we are having these rallies, to hold the feet of elected officials to the fire," said Jason Stephany, spokesman for MassUniting, a coalition of community groups, faith organizations and labor groups, which helped organize the rally. Other organizations behind the initiative include the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and Service Employees International Union.
Massachusetts Democrats — Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Joseph Kennedy III — agreed. They addressed the crowd in Boston, with both delivering parts of their speech in Spanish.
"My Spanish may not be great, but it's coming from the heart," said Warren, who highlighted the fact that her son-in-law is among millions of immigrants who came to the US looking for a better life.
"I think it's far past time we have got to have commonsense, comprehensive immigration reform," Warren said. "We know what we need — we need a path to citizenship, we need to support our dreamers, we need to fix the visa system and, most of all, we need to help families to stay together."
Kennedy stressed that the US is a nation of immigrants that needs to fix its immigration system.
"A broken system has, for far too long, undermined the basic fabric of our nation," he said. "Right now we have the moment, we have an opportunity to change it."
Immigrants play a key role in the Massachusetts economy, the largest in New England.
The state had the seventh-largest population of legal immigrants in the country, with about 320,000 people holding green cards given to legal permanent US residents in 2010. Some 180,000 immigrants were eligible for citizenship but had not applied for naturalization at that time, according to the US Department of Homeland Security.
A record 40.4 million immigrants live in the US, representing 13 percent of the population. More than 18 million are naturalized citizens, 11 million are legal permanent or temporary residents, and more than 11 million are in the country without legal permission, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a private research organization.
Those in the US illegally made up about 3.7 percent of the US population in 2010. While overall immigration has steadily grown, the number of immigrants in the US illegally peaked at 12 million in 2007.
Rodrique Ngowi can be reached at www.twitter.com/ngowi