By all accounts, the day was huge. Around the country last week, more than a million immigrants and supporters boycotted work, took to the streets and made their voices heard. The point was to show the economic power of immigrants, and the point was madealthough disruptions to the overall economy were relatively minor. Nearly all fresh fruit and vegetable workers in California took the day off. Companies with mainly Hispanic workforces closed down for the day. The largest march was in Los Angeles, CA, where hundreds of thousands of immigrants filled downtown, some bearing signs that read: "Ahora marchamos, mañana votamos" ("Today we march, tomorrow we vote.")
The phrase was catchy, but what really happens tomorrow is unclear. Even some supporters worried that the protests risked polarizing the public rather than raising awareness about the 12 million illegal immigrants in the country. Much of the action, now, centers on what happens in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist hopes to get a sweeping Senate bill passed by Memorial Day. For weeks now it has been on hold, as Frist and Democratic leader Harry Reid locked horns over a procedural issue. "It's less up to the advocates at this point, it's up to Frist and Reid, and whether they can come to a deal," says Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute. Even if the Senate passed a comprehensive bill, it would need to go to a conference committee to reconcile it with a tougherHouse bill passed last December; the House measure would make illegal immigration a felony, and calls for construction of a 700-mile fence on the U.S.-Mexican border.
Adjustments. Frist is hoping to appease conservative critics by adding roughly $2 billion in additional spending for border protection to the Senate bill. The bill would allow illegal immigrants who could show they had been in the United States for more than two years to eventually become eligible for citizenship. Advocates believe the bill has enough votes to pass the Senate, if only it can come to a vote. "The problem needs to be addressed at the federal level," says Vanessa Cardenas of the National Immigration Forum.
But state legislatures around the country are certainly trying to fill the gap. In just the first four months of the year, state legislators in 43 states introduced 461 immigration-related bills. The state bills focus on public benefits and employment issues. In general, they restrict services to legal immigrants and provide penalties to employers that hire illegal workers. Georgia, for instance, passed a law requiring employers to participate in a new Immigrant Worker Verification System. "The states are trying to be responsive," says Ann Morse, who works on immigration issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "We still don't know if Congress will finish immigration reform this year." And truth be told, neither does anyone else.