GWEN IFILL: We begin with the today's big immigrants' rights rallies.
NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman narrates this report.
KWAME HOLMAN: This scene was repeated in dozens of cities across the country today, as hundreds of thousands of immigrant-rights supporters rallied for what they called a campaign for immigrants' dignity.
With an overhaul of immigration laws stalled in Congress, demonstrators have joined the debate in record numbers, hoping to persuade lawmakers to help the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants settle legally in the United States.
Appropriately, the largest gathering took place in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, where Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy rallied the estimated 200,000 on hand.
SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), Massachusetts: I look across this historic gathering, and I see the future of America.
KWAME HOLMAN: One of those marching in Washington today was legal immigrant Saul Soloranzo of El Salvador.
SAUL SOLORANZO, Salvadoran: Today, we are here to present our voice and our petition for a legalization program, because so many immigrants are helping this country. Our labor is needed and is recognized, but -- so, the status of the people here should be recognized.
KWAME HOLMAN: A bill in the United States Senate would allow a majority of illegal immigrants to remain in the country while seeking citizenship, but it was shelved last week, amid partisan blame-laying.
The House passed its own bill in December, but it's laced with several controversial provisions, one that would enforce criminal penalties against anyone in the country illegally. That bill, known as HR-4437, has been the main point of protest for demonstrators.
Again, Saul Soloranzo.
SAUL SOLORANZO: HR-4437 is the worst bill that there could be. It's not good for America. It's not good for immigrants. And it's not good for this country. And we hope that, at the end of day, that will not be part of any legislation. That bill criminalizes immigrants, and turn people that work with people into criminals.
And that's not right. That's not the way to go. And we want to send a message to those legislators that are proposing and pushing for those type of legislations that we have more than 50 million voters. And they can be penalized by not making the right choices.
KWAME HOLMAN: Today, an estimated 50,000 people marched through a suburban neighborhood in Atlanta, home to one of the country's fastest-growing immigrant populations.
Clad in white to symbolize peace, and waving American flags, protesters voiced their frustrations with a state-passed bill that, if Georgia's governor signs it, will cut social programs for those here illegally.
Today's nationwide demonstrations followed weekend protests in more than 20 cities, including Dallas, where an estimated 500,000 people gathered, the largest demonstration ever in Texas. But these huge pro-immigrant rallies also have brought out critics.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE 1: I am tired of people coming across with impunity. We don't know who is here. We don't know what diseases they have.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE 2: There's 360 million Americans that need to start standing up for their country, before we give it away.
KWAME HOLMAN: In Tucson, Arizona, on Sunday, anti-immigrant members of a group called The Border Guardians set fire to a Mexican flag.
But many on the march in Washington today argued that immigrants should be recognized for their valuable contributions to American society. Salvadoran Jamie Guray has been in the U.S. for more than 20 years.
JAMIE GURAY, Salvadoran: We're here to protect our immigration rights and also to show that we are also contributing to this country in a major way: economically. We're a major economic force in the United States. And we -- and we contribute culturally to this society.
KWAME HOLMAN: Leaders of today's demonstrations vow to keep the pressure on Congress until comprehensive reform is passed.
GWEN IFILL: Nowhere has the debate over immigration reform mobilized action more than along this country's expanding Latino community.
For more on that, we're joined by Reverend Luis Cortez, the president of Esperanza USA, a national network of Hispanic churches and ministries; Yanira Merino, the national immigration coordinator for Laborers International Union of North America, which represents 800,000, mostly construction workers, in the United States and Canada; and Victor Cerda, the former acting director of detention and removal operations for the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, under the Department of Homeland Security.
Reverend Cortez, I would like to start with you.
We saw the faces of the people protesting, demonstrating in cities across the country today. Who are they?
REVEREND LUIS CORTEZ, President, Esperanza USA: Well, it's ministers. It's homemakers. It's mostly American citizens. It is a misnomer to believe that the people who are marching are, in fact, not American citizens.
It's American citizens who are frustrated with the inability of Congress to come up with comprehensive reform, the type of reform we need in order to -- to have peace in this country. I think it's very important to show that, in all of these protests, it has been a peaceful protest, because it's people with their families.
This is, in fact, a protest of family values. He want to unite our families in this country. We think it's important for Congress to do that.
GWEN IFILL: Ms. Merino, why -- why the outpouring today and in recent weeks, when, for so many years, we have never seen anything quite like this?
YANIRA MERINO, National Immigration Coordinator, Laborers International Union Of North America: Well, I think everybody was waiting to see a bill coming out of the Senate.
And a lot people, a lot of immigrants put their hopes to see that, that that was going to be resolved, looking to have a comprehensive immigration reform that was going to answer to the crisis that we have right now.
When the -- when the Senate failed last week to come out with something, and the proposals that were coming out of the Senate were unworkable, that was when people really see that the only way is by us going to the street and raising our voices.
GWEN IFILL: Well, but this plan -- this -- this demonstration was planned before the Senate decided to act or not act last week. Is this something that has been in the works for a long time?
YANIRA MERINO: Well, I have to say, the attacks to the immigrant community have been since 9/11.
I mean, we have been target to be blamed for almost everything that it happens, which is not fair, because, although we recognize that there is challenges affecting this vast minority of immigrants, but also we bring a lot and we contribute to this country, as previous immigrants waves have contributed to this country.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Cerda, explain what your -- from your point of view, where -- why this timing? Why now? Why this argument?
VICTOR CERDA, Former Immigration and Customs Enforcement Official: I think the argument has been building up over the last 20 years, when Congress last made change in our immigration laws.
And I think you're seeing from both sides of the spectrum. You have people who recognize that there are people here who keep coming for jobs that are difficult to fill. And, at the same time, you're looking at, on the enforcement side, on the national security side, an immigration policy, immigration laws that have not been enforced, cannot be enforced, and result in some vulnerabilities in our security.
I think those two factions are out there. They have plausible, realistic concerns there. And people want to see Congress make changes that hopefully will address our -- our -- you know, our -- our malformed immigration policies and laws that we have had for the last 20 years.
GWEN IFILL: So, this is seeking to put a different interpretation on the -- on the term security?
VICTOR CERDA: I think it's security-plus.
There are people -- and, you know, my perspective is, we do need to enhance security, through better enforcement of the immigration laws, through better border security. But, at the same time, I think there is a group of people who also understand that security alone isn't going to cut it. It has not done it.
And we do need to look at a potential guest-worker program to address an economic need that exists here in the United States.
GWEN IFILL: Reverend Cortez, I noticed in your earlier response, you talked a lot about the families who you said are now part of this, the face of this protest. I wonder if that hasn't been a strategic decision on the parts of organizers to kind of try to humanize the issue? LUIS CORTEZ: Well, I don't think so, Gwen.
I think the reality is that you have 40 -- 40 million legal American citizens who happen to be Hispanic. That 40 million number has about five million family members who don't have their documents. Most people who don't have documents came into this country legally.
INS has not functioned for a long time. It has not been able to do what it needs to do. And, therefore, a lot of people who have come into this country legally are waiting 10 and 12 years to get called. Because of INS not functioning, we have divided families.
No one is asking, by the way -- I think this is very important to state -- no one is asking for an open border here. It is recognized that we need to protect our border. But, also, the criminalization of all -- the federal criminalization of 12 million undocumented people is actually what we don't need for security in this country. You are now making 12 million people susceptible to terrorists, if they were to get into the country, because those 12 million people will have to hide.
We have serious concerns with what happened in the Senate, and we are very concerned that the two parties chose to make political -- play political checkers, instead of -- of looking at the human need and to look at a bipartisan approach, which is what we actually need in this country.
GWEN IFILL: Ms. Merino, let me ask you another tactical question.
I noticed that, in Kwame's piece there, we saw people -- a sea of American flags. One of the criticisms of the first weekend of protests a couple of weeks ago was, there seemed to be a sea of Mexican flags. And people thought this was anti-American.
Was there a decision made that, we are going to try to emphasize the red, white and blue? I noticed the Pledge of Allegiance was recited at the -- at the -- at the protest on the Mall today.
YANIRA MERINO: Well, I mean, we want to give a message that one of the reasons that we're out there is because we are saying, we want to be American citizens.
We're here. We work. We have families. Most likely, we are going to end up staying in this country, because we already have roots in those communities. So, we have adopted not only the pledge, but also the -- the banner. It's difficult sometimes to let go of your roots. That's what it is.
And I think the presence of all other flags reflected that. So, as organizers, we ask people to understand that the message that we want to give is that we -- we would like to be American citizens, and the flag represents a symbol, but it also represents a symbol for immigrants.
This country has given us many opportunities. And we have respect and appreciated that. And it is by carrying the flag is a message that we want to send to the rest of America. We're willing to. It was not a problem.
GWEN IFILL: When you say it's difficult to let go of your roots, how deep does that go? How -- there are some Americans who look at this protest and say here are people who want to do their own thing. They want to hold on to their own culture, yet, they want the rights of being Americans.
YANIRA MERINO: But I think that it doesn't contradict to each other.
America is a society when we -- we come together, and we culture -- culture -- I mean, our -- our beliefs and our cultures. And I think that's why it's so important to be here. I think that you're here, you adopt, you love this country. You are loyal to this country. But you always keep thinking where I came from and respect that.
That doesn't mean that your loyalty to the country that is giving you the opportunity to better yourself you will forget that, because you will not.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Cerda, let's talk about the law enforcement side of this, because that's -- that's where you came from.
It seems -- you said that a guest-worker program is necessary. But you also said that border enforcement is -- is -- should be primary. Am I interpreting what you said should happen first?
VICTOR CERDA: That's right.
GWEN IFILL: So, how do you do that, especially when part of the -- part of the reason, impetus for this rally today, these rallies today, was that, at least with the House version of the bill, there were some effort to criminalize illegal overstays of visas and illegal immigrants?
How do you -- which comes first, and how do you know that -- that toughening enforcement doesn't obliterate the possibilities for anything else?
VICTOR CERDA: I think you have got to look at, in terms of -- there's multiple angles that -- you know, first, we have many lessons from history on enforcement, many options, many targets tried, but we have ultimately, in my opinion, have failed to truly secure the borders, to create a system that works.
You have to look at the countries involved. You have got to look at foreign countries. And they need to be partners with us. We need to look at Mexico as a strong partner more than in the past.
We need to look at the resources on the border and in the interior. And I think a very important aspect here is to look at the employers who will continue to try to hire undocumented workers. If you implement the guest-worker program, but, yet, you have employers out there who are still hiring people who would then be discouraged from participating in the guest-worker program, you're going to have still a problem there. You're still going to have an issue of enforcement and increased migration.
GWEN IFILL: So, there shall should be employer sanctions, ways of basically deputizing employers to enforce the law?
VICTOR CERDA: I think you -- not in terms of deputizing employers, but frankly giving more resources to Homeland Security, so that they do crack down on those employers, and also making the penalty a little bit more harsher than what it is.
To them, it's cost of doing business, a risk that they will accept, in terms of hiring illegal workers. But if you make it perhaps a criminal penalty, if you really make it an economic negative for somebody to consider hiring a worker, I think you will have a -- a impetus to deter people from going in -- into the country illegally.
GWEN IFILL: Reverend Cortez, there has been so much activity in churches around the country mobilizing people for these marches. Why has there been such a high profile, not only for Latino churches, like you represent, but also in the Catholic Church in particular across the board, to get people out to these marches, to get involved in this kind of legislation?
LUIS CORTEZ: Well, Gwen, the scriptures, which are the hallmark of what we do and why we do things, the Old Testament and the New Testament for Christian people is very clear about it.
We are to be a more open and receiving people. In addition, we have our history as a country, where we have always allowed immigrants and we have always allowed immigration. It was easier in the past. All you had to do was get here, and you would become a citizen. People have forgotten that. They have forgotten that the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, when they arrived, didn't have to go through the same immigration process you have to do now, where you have to wait 12 years sometimes.
So, I think the church understands and the people of faith understand both our religious traditions, as well as our -- our -- our country's tradition. We understand it. And we are trying to communicate. One thing that is clear, we have not heard from our brothers on the evangelical right. They have been silent, even though the scriptures are clear.
And, we, as an organization, Esperanza USA, have asked them to step forward. We're waiting to hear from them. And we look forward to hearing from -- from -- from that constituent, from that religious constituent, who, on this family-values issue, has chosen to remain silent.
GWEN IFILL: And, Ms. Merino, the constituency you represent, laborers, there is some concern among some American-born laborers that, in fact, this kind of legislation is going to take jobs away from them.
YANIRA MERINO: Yes, the concern exists, but that's why we're saying that you cannot continue having this 12 million or more people when it's out of status, because that actually plays to putting them in a position they can be abused and exploited, and -- and be used against affecting everybody's wages and everybody's jobs here.
So, the only real way to resolve this is by giving them a status, so that cannot be used against them. They have to have full rights. And we're advocating for very strong worker protections, because in order to -- for an employer to respect that, an employee has to have the right to say, you know, I'm not -- this is -- this is violating my rights.
GWEN IFILL: It doesn't...
YANIRA MERINO: And I have the right to speak up.
GWEN IFILL: It doesn't sound like employer sanctions and worker protections necessarily work together.
YANIRA MERINO: That's -- that's correct. That's correct, not from our part.
But we're saying that -- we are saying -- the unions are saying -- or at least my union, the Laborers International Union, believe that in any -- any comprehensive immigration reform, a strong worker protection is the key to guarantee protection for all workers in this country.
GWEN IFILL: Is this a turning point, Mr. Cerda, in the -- in this immigration-rights movement?
VICTOR CERDA: Well, you hope that it is a -- a turning point in the nation's immigration law and policy.
You hope that it's another opportunity where -- you know, nobody can take credit for solving the immigration problem in this country, because we have had it throughout the years. So, this is another opportunity for Congress, for the Senate, to step up to the plate and possibly offer a solution that may advance the -- the cause here, in terms of getting uniform policies.
GWEN IFILL: Even you two don't necessarily agree on what the elements of that solution should be.
VICTOR CERDA: That's correct. And -- and, again, I think that flows to the...
GWEN IFILL: Or you three, I guess.
VICTOR CERDA: ... complexity of the issue.
You know, worker sanctions, enforcement, even the religious causes and issues there are all -- are all on the table right here. But the reality is, that's what makes it a difficult job for those senators up there. And they have a challenge in front of them.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Cerda, Ms. Merino, and Reverend Cortez, thank you all very much. Thank you.