Almost 200,000 demonstrators gather in Photo by Elisa Lagos

Almost 200,000 demonstrators gather in the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on March 21. Photo by Elisa Lagos

Tens of thousands of people descended on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Sunday to call on President Obama and Congress to enact immigration reform. Demonstrators carried American flags and signs, and some even held crosses with the names of those who died while crossing the border into the United States.

Nearly 200,000 demonstrators came from across the country, according to rally organizers. Some drove from as far as California or Florida to bring the immigration debate back to the forefront.

“We came in buses from Florida,” Jorge Sierra said in Spanish. “It’s important that Obama know we want (immigration) reform. If not now, when?”

President Obama laid a timetable for immigration overhaul last year when he said his administration would tackle reform by early 2010. Demonstrators in Washington said they want to hold Obama to that promise, but immigration reform has been largely overshadowed by the battle over health care and financial overhaul.

In a video message, the president tried to reassure demonstrators that immigration reform is still a top priority all while the House of Representatives prepared for a vote on the Senate’s health-care bill. The bill passed in a historic vote late Sunday.

“I think they will take (immigration reform) up. Obama’s next step will probably be financial reform, which is necessary, but immigrants are highly important to the economy as well. He can’t ignore the issue,” said Charlotte Jones-Carroll of Maryland.

Maria Cardenas and Jorge Sierra, both from Florida, participate in a large demonstration in Washington, D.C. Photo by Elisa Lagos

Maria Cardenas and Jorge Sierra, both from Florida, participate in a large demonstration in Washington, D.C. Photo by Elisa Lagos

The immigration debate last came to a head in 2007 when the country was embroiled in a bitter dispute that gave rise to the Minute Men movement and a 1,951-mile long wall along the U.S.–Mexico border.  There is already an inkling of reform on Capitol Hill as senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) outlined the beginnings of a new bill that would pave a road for illegal immigrants to become citizens. But many of those in favor of reform want more than a path toward legal status — they want the immigration system completely revamped.

“Citizenship is good, but they need to do something to help the children who suffer most when their parents are taken and deported,” said Maria Cardenas of Florida. “They need to find a way to keep families together. You don’t know how those children suffer. You don’t know what they go through.”

The last time the immigration reform legislation passed in Congress was the 1996 Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act that made it easier for the government to deport illegal immigrants. But as immigration increased and the number of undocumented workers reached approximately 12 million, reform supporters say the country needs immigration overhaul sooner than later.