By Rebecca Ballhaus
Frustrated by congressional inaction, protesters flooded the National Mall Tuesday to demand passage of immigration legislation, an issue that has faded from the spotlight in recent months.
"I want my voice to be heard," said Janet Buruca, age 20, a U.S. citizen who lives in Washington, D.C., and who says she has a cousin who is facing deportation. "We are good people. We don't want no more family separations."
"Don't deport my mom," one hand-scrawled sign read. "#TimeIsNow," said another.
Organizers estimated around 15,000 people attended the rally. No independent crowd count was available.
Following the rally on the Mall, protesters marched to the U.S. Capitol for an act of "civil disobedience." There, police arrested 208 protesters, including Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D., Illinois), Keith Ellison (D., Minn.), Joseph Crowley (D., N.Y.), Al Green (D., Texas), John Lewis (D., Ga.), Raul Grijalva (D., Ariz.), Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.) and Jan Schakowsky (D., Ill.). This marks Mr. Lewis's 45th arrest, according to his Twitter feed.
The rallies came amid mounting frustration, particularly in the Hispanic community, over slow action in the House of Representatives on immigration. At the start of the year, the legislation was seen as a good opportunity for bipartisan cooperation, and the Senate did pass a bipartisan bill. But there have been no floor votes in the House.
The Senate's comprehensive bill, which passed in June, includes an overhaul of visa rules, an expanded guest worker program for low-skilled immigrants, billions of dollars for border security and a path to citizenship for nearly 12 million people in the U.S. illegally.
The House Judiciary and Homeland Security committees have cleared a half dozen bills addressing discreet immigration issues, but none have been scheduled for a full House vote.
"We want a vote on immigration in the House, and we want it now," Sen. Robert Menendez (R., N.J.), told Tuesday's rally.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.), one of the few Republicans who have worked to pass a comprehensive House bill, said both parties have failed to finish the work.
"We've heard a lot of lip service and a lot of promises," he said.
Some frustration was also directed toward President Barack Obama, whose administration continues to deport people in the country illegally. Advocates have pressed Mr. Obama to unilaterally halt the deportations, something he has said he doesn't have the authority to do.
"The system is breaking up families," said Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block of Bend the Arc, a Jewish social-justice group. "There are still over a 1,000 people being deported everyday even during the shutdown."
Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.) likened the movement for immigration reform to Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington in 1963. Then as now, he said, protesters told legislators: "We cannot wait. We cannot be patient The time is now."
Ahead of the rally, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.,) who opposed the Senate bill, said the legislation would hurt American workers. "There's something odd about House leaders like Nancy Pelosi protesting on the Mall to get jobs for illegal aliens and pushing legislation to reduce job opportunities for U.S. citizens," he said in a statement.
Several speakers thanked the Obama administration for permitting the protest on the National Mall despite an ongoing government shutdown. A National Park Service spokesman said the event was allowed under a rule permitting events where people are exercising their First Amendment rights.
Several Republican members of Congress have accused the administration of hypocrisy for allowing this protest but resisting access for National World War II memorial, which is closed to tourists during the government shutdown. Typical was this tweet from the Twitter account of Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.): "@NatlParkService denies veterans access to WWII Memorial but Oks immigration rally on the National Mall???"
Veterans who asserted similar First Amendment rights have been given access to the war memorial, the parks spokesman said.