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WASHINGTON – Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison and seven other members of Congress were arrested by U.S. Capitol Police on Tuesday during a boisterous rally on the National Mall to press for legislative action on immigration reform.
Ellison, joined by civil rights legend John Lewis and other House Democrats, was marched in plastic cuffs to a police van, where officers inspected his pockets before he was taken away to be booked for “crowding, obstructing and incommoding.”
Police said about 200 people — including several Minnesotans — were arrested as protesters blocked a street that crosses the Mall between the Capitol and the building’s reflecting pool, where they were met by a phalanx of police.
The rally culminated a wave of protests nationwide — including in Minneapolis — aimed at putting immigration reform back on the agenda amid a government shutdown prompted by partisan brinkmanship over the federal budget, health reform and the debt limit.
Ellison said after his release that the move was an act of civil disobedience designed to urge Congress to pass legislation that would allow the nation’s undocumented immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship.
“Part of my job is to try to draw attention to appalling conditions that Americans are going through, but that for me doing something dramatic may allow a critically important issue to languish,” he said. “Sending out a news release I didn’t think would work.”
For Ellison, it was his second arrest during four terms in Congress. He was arrested in April 2009 in front of the Sudanese Embassy in Washington during a rally to protest the expulsion of aid groups in Darfur.
Some, including Fifth Congressional District GOP Chairwoman Nancy LaRoche, called it an act of “showboating” in the midst of the government shutdown impasse. “This is a distraction from what now is an emergency,” she said.
Advocates of immigration reform praised the lawmakers’ for helping raise awareness about long-stalled legislation backed by President Obama that would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who submit to background checks, pay fines and meet other requirements. A compromise reached with a group of Senate Republicans earlier this year also would have required beefed up border security.
John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, praised Ellison for “going the extra mile to make sure that an issue we could pass today if there was a vote doesn’t get lost in the general cynicism about Washington right now.”
The march involved several thousand protesters who gathered on the Mall even though the open-area park is closed because of the federal government shutdown. The National Park Service, citing the First Amendment, allowed the protesters to gather. But Capitol Police arrested those who refused to get off First Street NW.
Many shouted in Spanish, “Si, se puede!” (“Yes, we can!”), and thanked the lawmakers as they were marched off in cuffs.
Besides Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights marches in the 1960s, Ellison was joined by fellow Democratic Reps. Charlie Rangel of New York, Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, Raul Grijalva of Arizona, Joe Crowley of New York, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Al Green of Texas in submitting to arrest to bring attention to the plight of immigrants. Ellison said he paid a $50 fine and was released.
Several immigration rights activists from Minnesota also were arrested, including Javier Morillo, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26. Others at the rally did not risk arrest.
Among them was Carolina Castillo, a student at Southwest Minnesota State University. “We need immigration reform and citizenship for everyone,” said Castillo, 21, of Marshall. “Not only for the students, but also for our parents, our neighbors, for everyone.”
Castillo is a member of Asamblea de Derechos Civiles (Assembly of Civil Rights), a group of Minnesota-based immigration activists. The group organized immigration reform rallies in August at the Minnesota offices of Republican U.S. Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen as part of a national effort to pressure Republicans who have been identified as possibly “persuadable” on immigration reform.
Follow Kevin Diaz on Twitter @StribDiaz