Immigrant rights group slam Obama, Democrats for slow action with legalization bill

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By N.C. Aizenman and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Leaders of nearly a dozen grass-roots immigrant rights groups excoriated President Obama and congressional Democrats on Monday, accusing them of moving too slowly to legalize the status of undocumented immigrants and citing a record number of deportations in 2009.

"Our community is angry. Our members feel betrayed," said Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "We never believed in our wildest dreams that President Obama would have a record like this."

The critique, among the harshest to date from Obama's erstwhile supporters, comes as the president is struggling to deliver on a campaign promise to overhaul the nation's immigration laws and with time running out for legislative action before this fall's midterm elections.

Advocates have promised to bring tens of thousands of demonstrators to Washington for a March 21 protest and to punish Democrats at the polls in November if an immigration bill is not brought to a vote.

"No legalization. No reelection," Emma Lozano, executive director of the Chicago-based Centro Sin Fronteras, told reporters.

White House officials said the president will be meeting soon with Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to discuss the bipartisan immigration bill. The president's "commitment to fixing our broken immigration system remains unwavering," said Nicholas Shapiro, a White House spokesman.

Immigration advocates in Washington and lobbyists working with the two senators said privately that the effort amounts to political damage control.

"We just don't see how this can happen in 2010. The best we can do is to get an outline [of a bill] out and have a couple of hearings," said one lobbyist, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing talks. "This is a way for everyone to say, 'We are doing something, and we are committed to getting something through Congress after the election.' "

That may not be enough, said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

"A legislative show is not going to be acceptable," he said. "The necessity here is a bipartisan piece of legislation that gets to the Senate floor, and that will be the marker that immigrant voters and others will use in November 2010 and November 2012 and beyond."

In February, the immigration advocacy group America's Voice reported that Hispanic voters could prove decisive this fall in 40 gubernatorial, Senate and House races. The list includes eight Senate seats, including the one held by Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), as well as those in California and New York.

The tough line at Monday's news conference taken by the grass-roots groups -- which tend to work directly with immigrants in local communities -- stands in contrast to public statements by the main national immigrant organizations lobbying the White House and Congress. Those groups have refrained from criticizing the president so directly.

The outcry, however, reflects the growing disillusionment on the ground in Latino and immigrant communities.

"People are suffering. Millions and millions of people cannot drive, cannot go to school, live in fear," said Dae Joong Yoon, the executive director of the Korean Resource Center in Los Angeles. "In 2008 many of our community members voted for change. . . . We've been waiting, waiting, waiting. But since then our president, our Congress members, have been in a deep sleep. So now we're saying, 'We can't take it anymore! Wake up! Do something!' "

Staff writer Scott Wilson contributed to this report.


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