Immigrant rights groups adjust focus to passage of AgJobs, Dream Act

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; 3:42 PM

Some immigrant rights groups are shifting the strategy in their so-far unsuccessful push to overhaul immigration law: They're calling the new tactic the "down payment" approach.

"We are aware that the clock is running out, and there are no guarantees that a Congress that is supportive of immigration reform will be returned in November," said Antonio Gonzales, president of the William C. Velásquez Institute, a Latino public policy group. "We took a deep breath and said, 'Okay, we need a Plan B.' "

That plan centers on lobbying hard for the passage of two bills: AgJobs and the Dream Act. AgJobs is a compromise between farmworker unions and agriculture business groups, which was negotiated more than five years ago and is intended to provide legal farm labor and protect the rights of immigrant workers. The Dream Act would give some undocumented students the ability to apply for permanent residency. Both bills have had Republican support in the past.

Lizette J. Olmos, spokeswoman for the League of United Latin American Citizens, called the bills "critical building blocks" toward assuaging frustrated Hispanic groups. The new approach is an admission that they're not getting any traction on the broader policy overhaul.

For the past 18 months immigrant rights groups have been pushing the White House to get behind a plan to create a path for citizenship for illegal immigrants as President Obama promised during his campaign. In recent months -- with the passage of a controversial new law in Arizona that targets illegal immigration -- it has become clear that such a plan is politically untenable.

There is also a sense among the immigrant rights groups that advocates of tougher immigration enforcement are having more success. In an effort to convince Republicans to support comprehensive immigration reform, Obama has instructed the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to "to make our national laws actually work," as he put it in a speech this month at American University.

The agency expects to deport about 400,000 people this fiscal year, nearly 10 percent more than the Bush administration's 2008 total and 25 percent more than were deported in 2007. The pace of company audits has roughly quadrupled since President George W. Bush's final year in office.

"The other side is getting more money for enforcement, more funding for fences, more money border patrols," Olmos said. "It was supposed to be a two-prong approach, not just one prong."

That is the message LULAC, the Hispanic Federation and other immigrant rights groups are taking to Capitol Hill this week.

They've got one potential supporter in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who told La Opinion, one of the largest Spanish-language newspapers in the United States, that he is open to considering the bills one by one. "We must have immigration reform," Reid said. "When we have enough groups telling me that we can't do it this year, then we will consider the Dream Act alone. But we are not at that point now."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company