Rally May Gauge Future of Immigration Movement

Immigration lawyers Hassan M. Ahmad, left, and Mayo J. Wilson speak about immigration issues at the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring.
Immigration lawyers Hassan M. Ahmad, left, and Mayo J. Wilson speak about immigration issues at the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Karin Brulliard and Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 7, 2006

Immigration activists plan to mass in front of the Capitol today, renewing their appeal for legislative reform as Congress reconvenes after a recess in which many members experienced a backlash against illegal immigration back home.

The turnout at today's rally may provide a barometer of the vitality of the immigrant rights movement, which sent millions to the streets this spring but has generated less public attention in recent months. Local organizers said they expect hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from the East Coast, but protests this week in Phoenix and Chicago drew disappointing crowds.

Organizers said they have little hope that Congress will act on immigration this election year. But, they said, they see the new round of protests -- and voter registration drives that started slowly this summer -- as part of a still-nascent pro-immigration movement.

"It's obviously really important that we get good numbers but also that the message gets across to Congress," said Jaime Contreras, chairman of the National Capital Immigration Coalition, which is organizing the rally. "I have no doubt that this issue is not going to end this year, and it's going to be an ongoing issue."

Immigrant activists are seeking legal status for all illegal immigrants and a halt to increased raids and deportations.

But Republicans, facing mid-term elections, appear more likely to focus on funding enforcement measures -- such as border patrols and fencing -- through routine spending bills they intend to pass this month.

A month of House Republican hearings in August helped entrench conservative opinion against a Senate-passed immigration bill that would couple stringent border security measures with new pathways to legal work and citizenship for undocumented workers. Compromising with the Senate now could risk alienating the Republicans' core voters, who have soured on the party over government spending and other issues.

Immigration "is a very serious issue with the American people, and the American people feel pretty strongly, as House Republicans do, that we ought to be securing our borders and enforcing our laws," said House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "When I traveled the entire month of August, I heard it nonstop. They don't want the [Senate] bill. They don't want amnesty for illegal aliens."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) conceded yesterday that a deal on immigration before the election is now "next to impossible."

Several towns and states nationwide also moved this year to clamp down on illegal immigrants, which some observers attributed to a backlash inflamed by the spring protests.

The National Conference of State Legislators counted nearly 550 new pieces of legislation concerning immigrants in state legislatures this year, covering topics such as employment, public benefits, education and law enforcement. Seventy-nine bills have been enacted, mostly after massive pro-immigrant marches in March, April and May. This year's pace of enacted legislation exceeds last year's, the group said.

Twenty panicked immigrant families fled Valley Park, Mo., near St. Louis, in August after the city council approved an ordinance that barred landlords from renting to immigrants under the threat of a fine of $500 per unit, according to the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

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