More than 1,000 New Yorkers were among rivers of people who marched through the streets of Washington on Wednesday calling for reform that would allow millions of immigrants to not just live and work in the country but also to some day join it as proud Americans.
National immigration advocates estimated that anywhere from 75,000 to more than 100,000 people descended on the Capitol and the west lawn of the National Mall to say that it's time to give immigrants in the country illegally a chance to come out of hiding and pursue their dreams.
The demonstration came as the clock ticks for consideration of immigration proposals from a bipartisan group of U.S. senators known as "the Gang of Eight"; from members of the House of Representatives who plan to release a new reform "framework" on Thursday; and from a White House blueprint issued earlier this year.
Many of those at the rally said they had a sense that they were part of a historic change that they see within reach this year.
"Never before had we been so close to this change," said Gaby Pacheco, a leader in national immigration advocacy from Florida among young "Dreamers" -- those brought illegally as minors -- who sparked the latest wave of activism for reform.
The rally was centered around a call to Congress and President Barack Obama to enact changes allowing most of the otherwise law-abiding 11 million to 12 million immigrants who entered the country illegally or overstayed visas to remain and begin a path toward citizenship. Advocates also want an increase in the legal flow of future immigrants and for same-sex spouses to be recognized for family-based visa petitions.
For many like sisters Rosa and Martha Arias, both Patchogue residents, the fight is less about streamlining policy and more about their dreams and family ties.
Martha Arias, 30, said that in rallying for reform she has her daughters in mind -- a 13-year-old born in Ecuador whom she hasn't seen in 10 years because she can't travel, and a 10-year-old American girl born on Long Island who needs her mother to stay.
"My heart is broken in two. One part is with my daughter in Ecuador and another with my daughter here," she said. "I want to put my heart back together when I have them both here with me."
The emotional appeal for reform, though, didn't convince immigration enforcement proponents, who see reform proposals as a form of amnesty. A massive legalization program, said one pro-enforcement group, would create unfair competition in the labor market.
"There ought to be a rally for the 20 million Americans who can't find a full-time job," said a statement from Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, a Washington-based pro-enforcement group.
The New York group of activists, brought together by advocacy group Make the Road New York, first joined a protest of about 2,000 people against deportations, held outside headquarters of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Washington, then walked miles in the sweltering heat toward the capitol.
There they heard speaker after speaker who encourage them to keep on the fight toward reform. They waved American flags and some from their countries of origin and held signs with messages like "We Are America" and "I am an immigrant in a country of immigrants."
"Don't give up and don't give in," said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat from Atlanta known for his involvement in the country's historic fight for civil rights. "Some of us will stand with you. Some of us will go to fight with you."
Luba Cortés, a 19-year-old youth advocate from Amitiville, said her hope is that the demonstration would help people understand that the debate is about people, not about a system of rewards and punishments.
"Even talking about illegal immigration is a way of dehumanizing people," Cortés said. "It's just not fair to shut the door on the faces of the next generation of immigrants."