Immigrant advocates aren’t ready to give up on changing law

McClatchy Washington BureauNovember 20, 2013 

— While Republicans may have shut the door against an immigration overhaul this year, advocates who want a new law have stepped up their lobbying efforts in an almost mad dash to reignite negotiations before next spring – when, they fear, time completely runs out as the 2014 campaign season kicks into high gear.

This week, a group of activists, faith leaders and union organizers is fasting and sleeping in a tent outside the U.S. Capitol. President Barack Obama earlier asked church and business leaders to send a “clarion call” to leaders in the House of Representatives. And dozens of children knocked on the office door of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, last Thursday morning.

“Politicians are human. He’s a father,” said Jennifer Martinez, a 16-year-old from Redmond, Wash., who approached Boehner when he was having breakfast at a Capitol Hill diner and told him her story of being separated from her father for several months. “Yeah, in politics, people do things that benefit them. But at the end of the day when they go to sleep at night, is it really going to fulfill them? I really doubt that.”

It was only a year ago that many Republican leaders , like Boehner, appeared to be harnessing their political futures to passing an immigration overhaul. Obama’s re-election, with overwhelming support from Latinos, plunged the GOP into an identity crisis as members wrestled with an image problem.

The Republican National Committee conducted a months-long review that concluded in March that Hispanics thought Republicans “do not care” about them. Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called on the party to embrace changing the immigration law or risk shrinking to the GOP’s core constituency.But a year is an eternity in Washington.

That was demonstrated last week, when Boehner announced that the House had no interest in negotiating on the Senate’s immigration proposal.

“The idea that we’re going to take up a 1,300-page bill that no one had ever read, which is what the Senate did, is not going to happen in the House,” Boehner said. “And frankly, I’ll make clear that we have no intention of ever going to conference on the Senate bill.”

There are only a few days left in the legislative calendar and Republicans have turned their focus almost exclusively to the health care law, bolstered by a botched rollout that’s sent Obama’s approval ratings plummeting.

But Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the majority whip, told immigrant rights groups this month that while there wasn’t enough time for a vote on immigration by the end of December, he was committed to addressing the issue next year.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a staunch supporter of an overhaul, said the immigration issue had been declared dead so many times that no one should listen anymore.

“Every time they’ve declared it dead – and it’s been at least a half-dozen occasions this year alone – it seems to come back with more energy and more vigor than before,” he said.

Nonetheless, advocates who’d pressed for a House floor vote by the end of the year are readjusting their strategy and expectations. They see a six-month window to bring immigration to a vote before campaigning season kicks into full gear.

Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, one of the strongest proponents for a comprehensive overhaul, said he welcomed a House plan to introduce a series of bills as long as the result was a comprehensive solution. He also offered some wiggle room on the highly charged “path to citizenship.”

“If they’d detail a proposal that is a ‘no special pathway’ approach and they do a number of things within that proposal that would, in fact, allow for normal channels to be used by undocumented immigrants in America (to attain citizenship), we could make that work,” he said. “But they have to come forward with something.”

The Democratic-led Senate passed a comprehensive bill in June that would provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants who already are in the country illegally and would tighten border security.

House Republicans oppose having one omnibus-type bill, instead preferring a series of measures that address the issues one at a time. They’re reportedly considering bills on enforcement, on how to handle the children of the undocumented and on whether to provide some of the 11 million a chance to remain in the United States legally but not necessarily with a special pathway to citizenship.

Many Republicans are wary of passing any immigration legislation that would set up a conference with the Senate, fearing that the Republican-led House might lose out on a battle over a path to citizenship. For months, the House leadership had assured them that even if immigration legislation passed, Boehner wouldn’t allow the measure to go to conference if a pathway to citizenship were on the table. Boehner confirmed that publicly last week.

Still, advocates have spread out across Capitol Hill to make their case. Among them were dozens of little children, such as Leslie, 7, and Ariana Vivas, 9, of New York, whose father was deported last November. When they knocked at Boehner’s office Thursday no one answered, so they slipped cards with photos of deported family members under the door.

A day earlier, Boehner had told the two nervous teenagers who approached him during his breakfast at a diner that finding a solution was important to him.

Martinez and another teenager tried to appeal to his family values.

“You’re a father,” she said, according to video of the exchange. “Imagine missing out on your kids’ football games and soccer games.”

Boehner said he understood and that he wanted to move legislation forward.

“It’s not going to be an easy path forward,” he said. “But I’ve made it clear since the day after the election that it’s time to get this done.”

Email: fordonez@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @francoordonez

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