WASHINGTON — On her trip to Washington to push for an overhaul of immigration laws, Cindy Garcia on Wednesday went straight to the office of Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, to tell him about how the looming deportation of her husband had affected her family.
Ms. Garcia, 40, is an autoworker from Detroit and an American citizen. She said she and her husband, a Mexican who has been living in the United States illegally for decades, since he was 10, had spent more than $50,000 over eight years on lawyers’ fees trying to fix his immigration status, to no avail.
Speaking emotionally in the senator’s office during a brief protest, Ms. Garcia said her two children, also American citizens, live on edge, fearing they could be separated from their father at any time. She and other advocates chose to focus on Mr. Rubio because he has been a leader in talks among a bipartisan group of senators who are working to craft immigration legislation.
As the debate gathers steam here over how to fix the immigration system, Ms. Garcia is one of the new faces on the side of those favoring comprehensive legislation that would include a quick and direct path to citizenship for 11 million people living in the country illegally.
In 2007, when Congress last tried — and failed — to pass a similarly broad overhaul, much of the action by groups that supported that effort came during pitched battles over policy positions, fought largely behind closed doors. The populist momentum came from Americans who angrily opposed that proposal, which they said would give a break to immigrants they saw as lawbreakers.
This year, the forces favoring comprehensive legislation are showing new levels of confidence and organization, and, in a change from six years ago, illegal immigrants and their American citizen family members, like Ms. Garcia, are stepping forward to speak for themselves.
“My husband has earned a path to citizenship,” she said on Wednesday. “They need to stop living in the shadows, and they should have the right to vote so they can vote on issues that affect our families.”
Immigrant groups, having learned from the bruising they took in 2007, and in immigration fights since then in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia and other states, this time are staying clear of the policy weeds in Washington, instead working their way toward this city from the outside. Ms. Garcia arrived in Washington after participating in a bus tour organized by immigrant rights groups in Michigan. The bus convoy, conceived with the freedom riders of the civil rights era in mind, went through Wisconsin and ended in Ohio with a small rally at Andy’s Cafe, the tavern near Cincinnati that was once run by the father of Representative John A. Boehner, the speaker of the House.
Organizers for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, the coalition that organized the tours, said similar bus rides, many of them carrying immigrants who were revealing their illegal status for the first time, had taken place since mid-February in 19 states, including California, Colorado, Florida and Texas.
In each state, bus riders visited the offices of federal lawmakers, focusing on possible swing voters in the House, delivering letters that pressed them for legislation that would provide an unobstructed path to citizenship, which would also help to unify families facing separation by deportation. [many members of Make The Road New York went to Albay as part of this campaign]
The advocates are calling on the senators who are writing legislation — including Mr. Rubio; Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Republicans; and Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York — to present a bill by next Thursday. The senators have said that they hope to unveil legislation by the end of the month.
Cristina McNeil, a Mexican-born American citizen from Boise, Idaho, who came this week to Washington, said she and other advocates had met in her home state with Representative Raúl R. Labrador, a Republican who has expressed skepticism about a direct path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but who favors programs allowing immigrants to work legally.
Ms. McNeil, who owns her own business, said she had pressed Mr. Labrador with an economic argument on behalf of legal and illegal immigrants. “We have been stopped from being able to grow in so many different paths because of the reason so many don’t have residency or citizenship,” Ms. McNeil said.
About 200 activists who participated in the bus tours showed up at a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill where family members, including many American citizens, described the toll of deportation on their families.
“We’ve spent the last five years building a lot of strength in the field,” said Ryan Bates, director of the Alliance for Immigrants Rights and Reform, a Michigan group. “We have political infrastructure now that is light-years beyond what we had during the last opportunity to pass reform,” he said.
In a sign of the shift in immigration politics, primarily because of the strong Latino vote for Democrats in the elections last November, the groups opposing any legalization for illegal immigrants have so far been more muted than they were in 2007. But they may be keeping their powder dry for the fight after legislation is formally introduced.
Some groups seeking comprehensive legislation are using political advertising to try to build support for lawmakers, particularly Republicans, who are taking large risks by backing a path to citizenship. A coalition of evangelical Christians groups announced it would run a one-minute ad for two weeks starting on Wednesday “at saturation levels” on 15 Christian radio stations in South Carolina.
While the ad does not mention Mr. Graham by name, it says, in the voice of the Rev. Jim Goodroe of the Spartanburg County Baptist Network, “Our South Carolina-elected officials need your prayers and to hear your voice.”
In the intense activity supporting reform this week, young immigrants who call themselves Dreamers — after legislation known as the Dream Act, which would give them a special path to citizenship — said they were starting a nationwide program of events where they would “come out” to declare their illegal immigration status with their parents and other family members.
“As an organizer, for years you keep hitting your head against the wall,” Joshua Hoyt, chief strategist of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said Wednesday. “Then you get to a tipping point, and all of a sudden the dam breaks open and things start happening very quickly.
“That,” Mr. Hoyt said, “is what is happening right now.”