Every member of Congress has a strategy for responding to protesters who appear unannounced at their offices to lobby them on issues.
Some evade. Others escape. The rare few engage.
Immigrant rights activists seeking support for the Dream Act encountered all three approaches Tuesday as they walked the halls of Capitol Hill looking for lawmakers.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), who is running for a third term in a potentially competitive Northern Virginia district, spotted them and ducked into a lawmakers-only elevator.
Rep. Scott W. Taylor, a freshman Republican from Virginia Beach and a former Navy SEAL, greeted them warmly in Spanish and talked to them for six minutes while they filmed and photographed him.
Rep. Rob Wittman, a six-term GOP congressman whose district touches parts of Prince William and Fauquier counties, slipped out of his office when they arrived and sprinted down a flight of stairs, outpacing those who ran after him, shouting back that he was late for a vote.
About 15 activists from CASA in Action and other Virginia groups joined contingents from 27 states that planned to lobby 55 Republicans before rallying outside the Capitol. In addition to Comstock, Taylor and Wittman, they targeted Rep. Bob Goodlatte (Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Andy Harris (Md.).
This month, President Trump announced that his administration would end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects from deportation undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
The Virginia group included residents of Comstock’s district as well as a brother and sister from Wittman’s district who have benefited from DACA. The siblings identified themselves as Jennifer, 20, and Angel, 19, but declined to give their last names, concerned about deportation.
Comstock, Goodlatte, Wittman, Harris and Taylor have stopped short of saying DACA recipients should be deported but have not said how immigration laws should be changed to allow them to remain in the country.
The activists started their day in the nation’s capital at noon outside Comstock’s office in the Cannon House Office Building. In Comstock’s district, eight Democrats are vying for the chance to challenge her next year. Her critics have accused her of being inaccessible to constituents because she does not hold in-person town halls or other large public gatherings.
The activists outside her office put their hands together in the center of a huddle and chanted “Si, se puede,” or “Yes, we can!”
Turns out they couldn’t, not really.
They had no luck meeting with Comstock in her office but happened to spot her later in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building. She saw them coming and got into an elevator.
Sookyung Oh, an advocate for Korean and Asian American communities in Virginia, stepped inside with her, and the doors nearly shut before Luis Angel Aguilar, an advocacy and elections specialist with CASA, joined them.
Exasperated, Comstock walked past them back into the hall, saying to no one in particular, “Is this not a members-only elevator?”
It wasn’t, but the one next to it was, so she went inside, followed by Jerry Foltz, pastor emeritus of Wellspring United Church of Christ in Centreville.
He said later that he tried to talk to her about the Dream Act but got the feeling after a few seconds that she didn’t want him there.
“I don’t think it was much of a conversation,” he said. “Any more would be really aggravating to her.”
Oh, the D.C.-area director for Nakasec, an Asian American advocacy group, said it was great that Comstock has attended cultural celebrations important to immigrants and documented them on social media.
“But we also need her to see that there are real issues impacting our community outside of anything that these cultural events can help alleviate,” she said. “That’s her job.”
Earlier in the afternoon, the group showed up at Taylor’s office. He said he was heading to a military briefing but would walk with them to the end of the hall.
Then he stopped, turned around and faced them while cameras clicked.
“My party,” he said, “we’re in control — I think we should lead on this issue.”
He said he wrote a letter to the administration opposing a looming Oct. 5 deadline for dreamers’ DACA renewal applications, which he called “crazy.”
He traded small talk with them in Spanish and was off.
The interaction left the activists in good spirits for a later visit to Wittman’s office. But as soon as they entered, the lawmaker grabbed a folder from a staffer and walked past them. A race walk turned into a sprint as he bypassed elevators and took the stairs on his way to vote. The four protesters, out of breath, gave up.
“We asked for 10 seconds,” Aguilar said. “That was disrespectful because we have constituents from his district right here.”
Between office visits, the group attracted attention. A suited man walked off an elevator and spotted them filling the hallway. “Oh my goodness, what is this?” he said.
Oh didn’t miss a beat. “Democracy!” she shouted.