4/10/2013 _ WASHINGTON _ Mayra 30, with husband Saul Lopez, 35, and daughter Camila, 3, at the rally at the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Natalie DiBlasio, USA TODAY(Photo: Natalie DiBlasio USAT)
WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- It was a long and arduous journey from Guatemala to the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol, but Mayra Ragon says the trip was well worth taking.
Ragon was among thousands of immigrants and their supporters who gathered under a hot sun Wednesday to show support for proposals that would grant a pathway to citizenship for the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants.
Ragon, 30, and her husband, Saul Lopez, 35, live and work in Maryland. Both are in the country illegally. Their daughter Camila, 3, sitting in a stroller in the shade, was born in the United States. She is legal.
"We came 11 years ago because in Guatemala there is no opportunity to even have a house," Ragon says. "We came here to find opportunity and to give our daughter a better future."
Ragon says she and Lopez want to "get papers to be legal, but nobody is helping."
Organizers of the Rally for Citizenship hope they can press Congress to help. The rally featured speeches from immigration rights advocates, labor leaders, faith organizations and members of Congress working on immigration legislation.
Events were scheduled across the nation. Among them:
• In Atlanta, more than 1,000 people gathered at the Georgia Capitol, calling for an end to deportation.
• In San Francisco, demonstrators plan to build an altar with 1,000 paper flowers, symbolizing the number of people deported daily for immigration violations.
Immigration bills have been filed and killed repeatedly since the last major bill, allowing up to 3 million undocumented immigrants to become U.S. citizens, became law in 1986. But organizers of Wednesday's rally here say the political stars are finally aligned for another one.
"Every time you turn around, there's growing momentum for making this happen," says Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, one of the groups that organized the Washington rally.
Still, nothing is simple when it comes to immigration legislation. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the bipartisan Gang of Eight trying to develop a comprehensive bill, was supposed to brief his GOP colleagues on the specifics of their plan Wednesday. But Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said they ran out of time due to unrelated issues and couldn't do their briefing.
The group has been planning to file their bill by early next week.
The halting progress inside the Capitol did little to quell the enthusiasm outside. Rhythmic chants of "Si, se puede!" (loosely, "yes, we can!") rang over the lawn. A popular sign was "Ciudadania para 11 million."
Local bartender Juan Quintanila, 23, rode his bike to the rally. "I'm seeing Mexicans, Peruvians, Panamanians here," says Quintanila, whose parents are from El Salvador. "I see a lot of different Latin Americans working in a restaurant. You see them focused on making money. But a lot of them took off work to come here."
Quintanila mother, who came to the U.S. through a church, is a permanent resident now, but his dad still struggles with legal documents. "He came through the underground, through the border of Mexico." he says.
The 28 Catholics from St. Mary's Student Parish in Ann Arbor Mich., road a bus for 10 hours to attend the rally and to support the Hispanic community in their congregation. Deportation is a "very real problem in our community" said Father Dan Reim, a Jesuit priest at St.Mary's.
Last year, the church held a rally for a member of their community who was going to be deported. After after writing a letter to Janet Napolitano, she was not deported, Reim says. "We can't have people living in a separate class system," Reim says.
Sujey Flores, 28, stood in the shade of thin trees selling sliced mangoes with spicy chili sauce from a cart -- a task she says has performed in the U.S. for 16 years. The El Salvador native says she only needs to take the test to gain citizenship. She says immigration issues are not just for Latinos.
"I see African-Americans, Chinese, Filipinos not only Spanish people," she says.
But it was the Latino vote that spurred the political drive for change. Republicans struggled to garner Hispanic votes in 2012, leading longtime supporters of an immigration deal, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and newcomers to the national stage such as Rubio to call on the GOP to better serve the fast-growing electorate by exploring a broad immigration deal.
Now, bipartisan groups in the House and Senate are putting the finishing touches on their versions of immigration bills that would grant a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, tighten border security, require U.S. business owners to check the immigration status of new employees, and significantly alter the way the country distributes visas.
While sharp disagreements remain over the details of the proposals, President Obama has also supported a sweeping bill and has told Congress he would file his own bill if lawmakers don't act soon.
Not everyone in Washington sees the need for haste.
Some Republican senators, including Rubio, have called for a slow legislative process so members of the Senate get ample time to weigh the multiple, complicated components of the bill.
Roy Beck, president of the anti-amnesty group NumbersUSA, said a bipartisan task force of senators known as the Gang of Eight should be in no hurry to put forward an immigration proposal that could result in millions of foreign workers looking for work in the U.S.
"There ought to be a rally for the 20 million Americans who can't find a full-time job," Beck said. "If the Gang of Eight could look out on the (Washington) Mall and see all those Americans shut out of the job market, would they really make their highest priority a bill to immediately give work permits to 7 million illegal-alien workers while increasing visas for new foreign labor?"
On the Capitol's west lawn, however, Juan Garcia did not agree.
"We work, pay taxes, contribute to the American economy," said Garcia, 61, an immigration activist in Providence, R.I. "Now is the time. Stop all discrimination and injustice with the immigration system now. Stop breaking families. Unite families. Give power to working immigrants."
Contributing: John Bacon; The Associated Press