Immigration-overhaul advocates make big August push

Carolyn Brown's documentary "On the Line" follows her experience observing conditions along the U.S.-Mexico border, giving a first-hand account of the perils of crossing illegally. Nia-Malika Henderson sits down with Brown to find out what the immigration debate looks like from the border. (The Washington Post)
August 13, 2013

An unusual alliance of advocates — including Internet moguls and evangelicals, representatives of big business and labor unions — is working across the country during the August congressional recess in an all-out push for immigration reform.

The broad effort, which also includes immigrant rights groups, is using diverse tactics, too. There are roundtables and rallies, sit-ins and voter registration drives, as well as expensive radio and television ads. In Georgia, activists plan to deliver Mexican, Korean and other international food to a congressman’s office Thursday to highlight the many immigrant communities that are part of his district.

Participants acknowledge that with such a broad coalition, there could be disagreements about the finer points of any eventual legislation. But for now, following Senate approval of a bill that would tighten border security and offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, they agree on their goal: getting the House to act.

“We’re trying to get to the playoffs,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy organization. “We’ve got to win August so we can go into September with momentum.”

House GOP leaders have said they will not support the Senate’s bill. Instead, the House has started work on more limited proposals focused on border security and visas for high-skilled workers and establishing ways for the children of illegal immigrants to seek permanent legal status or citizenship, with a decision expected after the five-week recess on how to proceed on other parts of the debate.

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Advocates for comprehensive legislation say they worry that House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) will proceed with the more controversial elements of the overhaul only if he has the support of a majority of his Republican members, and they are pressing their case with GOP leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers.

The National Association of Manufacturers, whose members warn about a shortage of skilled labor, unveiled last week what it called “a significant radio ad buy,” with 60-second spots set to run for two to three weeks in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin promoting “common-sense immigration reform” that includes a path to citizenship.

Opponents of this kind of approach are also pressing their case with rallies and ads but acknowledge that they are outgunned by the many forces supporting sweeping immigration change.

“It’s a staggering, well-financed hard push by the left and the right,” said Bob Dane, communications director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates tougher measures to discourage illegal immigration.

Several thousand pro-reform activists from across California are scheduled to converge Wednesday at the Bakersfield office of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority whip, as part of a Caravan for Citizenship organized by labor and immigration rights groups, including the United Farm Workers, the AFL-CIO and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

“Mr McCarthy has been very silent about whether or not he would support a vote in the House on a path to citizenship,” said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Los Angeles coalition who plans to drive a couple of hours north from the city to Bakersfield with his sister, a nephew and his 79-year-old mother. “They can vote no if they want to, but they should allow a vote.”

A spokesman for McCarthy said Tuesday that the congressman thinks that, rather than take up the Senate bill, the House should move in a “step-by-step approach that first secures the border.”

Many House Republicans had hoped to avoid discussing immigration altogether during the August recess, preferring to focus instead on the budget and President Obama’s health-care initiative, areas where they think they may have the upper hand politically.

The Bakersfield event is one of more than 350 this month organized under the Alliance for Citizenship, which includes labor, immigration, community and faith-based groups. The alliance is working in about 50 House districts. Next week, in addition to a flurry of town hall meetings, it is planning a sit-in at GOP Rep. Robert Pittenger’s office in North Carolina and a prayer vigil in Republican Rep. Charlie Dent’s district in Allentown, Pa.

Overall, pro-reform groups say they are trying to reach about 130 Republicans, with different organizations focusing where they think they can be most effective. Some events are friendly, others are more confrontational. Participants say the groups share a lot of information, including through frequent conference calls, but do not coordinate the activities.

The Partnership for a New American Economy, a group of mayors and business executives whose leaders include New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) and media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, is concentrating on first- and second-term House members, as well as on lawmakers who have spoken out on immigration issues, according to Jeremy Robbins, director of the group.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has about 60 events scheduled at which immigration will be discussed, including meetings with legislators and their staff members.

Several people involved in the effort said they had learned from 2007, the last time Congress debated sweeping immigration change. “The proponents were too expectant that the inner process of Washington would carry the day,” said a person who works at a Washington advocacy group that supports comprehensive legislation. “Then you saw rallies and phone calls that the opponents launched, and all of the sudden, all the news coverage ended up being about everybody saying ‘Hell no’ to immigration reform.”

A powerful new player in the debate is FWD.us, a well-funded group of tech executives brought together by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive, to push for immigration reform. The group is airing an ad, seen frequently on cable news programs, that features a young undocumented immigrant who wants to become a Marine.

Through a subsidiary, Americans for a Conservative Direction, that is used to lend support to Republicans, the group last week started running a television ad in Rep. Paul Ryan’s district, praising the Milwaukee Republican for “working for a smart, conservative solution to a tough problem.” Ryan has been pushing for a comprehensive approach in the House that would include a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes a path to citizenship, launched a television ad last week criticizing Ryan. “Amnesty for illegal aliens is not immigration reform, and it’s not good for Wisconsin workers and taxpayers,” the ad says.

Dane, the group’s communications director, acknowledged that his side’s efforts are being dwarfed by those of supporters of a sweeping change. “Are we having million man marches? No, but we are going after specific GOP leadership and letting them know the Senate bill is dead and needs to stay dead.”

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