A coalition of activists supporting immigration reform are pushing lawmakers hard to pass a bill before the end of the year and before Congress enters midterm election campaign season - a slim window of opportunity for activists across the nation - and it’s not just traditional supporters of immigration reform who are stepping up to the plate.
Youth leaders have organized what they are calling "30 days of escalation" to demand Congress and President Obama to take action to pass an immigration reform bill. The immigrant youth-led network, United We Dream (UWD), is hosting vigils, marches and Congressional office takeovers in Florida, Texas, Arizona, Arkansas, New York, Virginia and other states.
They are demanding that members of Congress like Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) join Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) in cosponsoring HR 15, a reform proposal currently in the House. They are also pressing President Obama to halt deportations and calling on House Speaker John Boehner to bring the issue to a vote. Rep. Denham announced over the weekend that he is signing onto the bill. He was joined this week by Rep. Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. David Valadao.
HR 15 is a version of the Senate immigration reform bill that passed the Judiciary Committee earlier this year, but it replaces an amendment related to border security with language that is supported by both Democrats and Republicans.
The new amendment will require more reporting on border security by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on issues like border surveillance as well as evaluations from the Government Accountability Office on issues such as the DHS’s methodology and effectiveness. The new language will still dedicate billions of dollars toward fencing, infrastructure, border patrol agents, and tracking and surveillance technology, including drones.
The bill does provide a pathway to citizenship for the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants already living within the United States. But reform advocates have expressed concerns about the bill’s elimination of the diversity visa program, the elimination of the sibling category from the family immigration system and the exclusions of some undocumented immigrants from citizenship and other legal-status provisions.
The chances are slim for the measure to come to a vote in the House, as there are fewer than 20 days left in the legislative calendar. With the looming battle over the budget ahead, many of those days are already filled.
But other piecemeal bills on issues like border security and giving legal status to DREAMers stand a better chance in the House, and some of those have already passed House committees. Other bills are being drafted proposing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but have not yet been released, while reform activists say they are pushing for any action they can get from Congress.
"We’re not fighting for a piece of paper. We’re not fighting for a bill. We’re fighting for our families. We’re fighting to stay together," said Greisa Martinez, a Texas-based organizer with UWD. "Every day that [President Obama] and his party and Republicans don’t take action is another day another 1,200 families are being separated."
In Texas, organizers said they were planning a vigil outside Rep. John Carter’s (R-Tex.) office. Carter was originally part of the Senate’s "Gang of Eight," but walked away saying he didn’t trust President Obama to enforce the legislation the group may produce. Organizers there are also planning a vigil outside a federal building where undocumented immigrants are transferred to detention centers.
Recently, immigration reform activists have been using direct action tactics in places like Arizona, where a group of immigrants have been blocking buses which transfer undocumented immigrants to detention centers where they are then deported. A group of undocumented activists who crossed into the United States from Mexico last month, known as the "Dream 30," have recently launched a hunger strike from within a Texas-based detention center. The family members of the activists have since launched sit-ins at Sen. Bob Menendez’s (D-NJ) office to attempt to pressure him to support the protesters’ release.
"We know no matter what the outcome is, we will continue to fight," said Texas UWD Organizer Ray Jose, who is undocumented. "Immigration isn’t going to be fixed in one bill, in one campaign, in one fight. It’s a continuous battle that we know we have to keep fighting."
But in addition to young immigration reform activists like Jose, many of whom are undocumented, more than 600 business executives, religious leaders and conservative groups descended on Washington, DC, Tuesday to urge House Republicans to bring comprehensive legislation to the House floor for a vote. GOP lawmakers confirmed to many of these business leaders in meetings that they are not endorsing a comprehensive approach to immigration reform before the year’s end but could get behind a more limited bill.
Some group’s sponsoring the event include FWD.us, a political action group founded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg; Rupert Murdoch; the Chamber of Commerce; and the Partnership for a New American Economy, led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The business and conservative leaders flew in to Capitol Hill from more than 40 states and met with 150 Republican lawmakers.
But Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) confused the issue with House Republicans this week when he called on them not to pass the Senate Bill he helped author earlier this year. According to The New York Times, a spokesman for Sen. Rubio "said that the senator was not backing away from his support for the Senate bill, but simply reflecting the political reality in the Republican-controlled House, where many conservatives refuse to support any immigration bill because they fear it could be used as a ‘Trojan horse’ and lead to amnesty."
House Speaker John Boehner has indicated he thinks reform could be accomplished this year, and President Obama gave a speech last week in which he pushed lawmakers to pass reform this year, saying the problem shouldn’t be swept "under the rug one more time."
But young advocates for immigration reform don’t necessarily see the president as their ally.
"We’re keeping both sides accountable. We’re keeping President Obama accountable, asking him to stop the deportations . . . but we’re also keeping the pressure on Congress to pass a concrete, clear path to citizenship for our families," Martinez said.