Immigrant rights groups announced a new strategy on Tuesday: “electoral punishment” of any lawmaker who gets in the way of immigration reform.
“Persuasion only got us so far,” Kica Matos, a spokesperson for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), said in a statement. “From now on, any lawmaker who does not support comprehensive immigration reform should expect relentless and constant confrontations that will escalate until they agree to support immigration reform.”
Those words from the nationwide coalition of groups that want change come days after U.S. House Speaker John Boehner explained that reform was on hold because of a lack of trust in President Barack Obama.
“There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be entrusted to enforce our laws,” Boehner said. “It’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”
Was Boehner throwing up his hands? Trying to appease lawmakers in the House who do not support immigration reform? Shifting the blame with nebulous pronouncements? Or was he just trying to buy time? He didn’t elaborate.
His comments reflected a shift from December and January, when he sent signals that the time was right to move on changes to immigration. A few weeks ago, Republicans unveiled their immigration reform principles, which included legal status – but not a full pathway to citizenship that supporters of comprehensive change want – for undocumented immigrants.
After that, even Obama told CNN that he was open to considering legal status first for undocumented immigrants, if citizenship then followed.
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But some Republican lawmakers in the House balked at immigration reform occurring this year. After that, Boehner made his announcement.
On Tuesday, speculation surrounding his comments stretched from community activist meeting rooms to the editors of the nation’s largest news outlets. Some pro-reform groups are beyond speculation. They’re stepping up the action.
“We will fight until we get a Congress that will pass the permanent reform that the vast majority of Americans want,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, and a part of FIRM.
In Arizona, grassroots advocates who help immigrants got busy on the phone and Facebook, asking constituents to call Capitol Hill and convey their thoughts that the Speaker “stop playing politics with our families,” said Petra Falcon, executive director of Promise Arizona.
She was referring to the state of affairs in the nation’s capital. A bill that passed the Senate in June 2013 – and offered a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country – has sat dormant; four versions of a reform bill passed a House committee, but none has reached the House floor for a full vote.
Falcon thinks there is plenty of reason for hope that major changes to U.S. immigration policy – which have not occurred since 1986 – will take place.
“I think there’s a lot of courage in the movement right now,” she noted. “People have said, ‘Look, we are a country of values. We’re a country that cares about families…and this bill is about families, about keeping families together, about giving people the opportunity to fulfill their dreams.’”
Eben Cathey, communications coordinator for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, echoed a similar thought.
“The American people are tired of hearing excuses out of Washington,” he said in a statement. “It’s time to put politics aside and pass immigration reform that keeps families together and provides a pathway to citizenship for undocumented Americans.”
Since Obama took office in January 2009, there have been a record 1.9 million deportations. In Fiscal 2013, more than 368,000 people were deported from the country. Such actions tear families apart, grassroots activists say, and can leave the children of immigrants in the United States while their parents sit in detention and are later returned to other countries.
Any further delay to reform also affects U.S. industries, such as agriculture and technology companies, that rely on immigrants.
While FIRM is clearly incensed, other pro-reform groups say Boehner’s remarks aren’t all that significant and didn’t cover any new ground. The Speaker’s characterization of immigration reform as “difficult” certainly comes as no surprise, said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which includes faith, law enforcement and business interests.
“Let’s be honest here,” he added. “It’s not like the House of Representatives trusted the president a whole lot a year ago.
“Our sense is that Boehner was merely buying some space for his constituency to think this through,” Noorani said.
In fact, he never expected Congress to move on this issue right now anyway. There are other big issues, such as raising the debt ceiling, that are consuming lawmakers’ attention, he noted.
“A little bit of time, like a month or two, could be just what the doctor ordered,” Noorani said. In the meantime, his group plans to “really double down on the work that’s happening in Congressional districts across the country” as constituents urge lawmakers to move forward.
In 2013, momentum for immigration reform was building.
Interest groups ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the S.E.I.U. had come out in favor of reform. Across the country, there were vigils and town halls; organized fasts in Washington, D.C. and rallies involving tens of thousands of people; face-to-face confrontations with lawmakers and letter-writing campaigns.
For many people, though, the opposition is fierce, especially among tea party members. One of their big sticking points is a proposed path to citizenship, which would allow people who have illegally entered the country, or overstayed their visas, to eventually become citizens after meeting certain criteria. That rewards law-breaking, opponents say.
“By no means are we done,” Noorani said. “The 113th Congress remains in session through the end of December.”
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