Inside the Capitol on Tuesday, Republican and Democratic lawmakers traded barbs over the fiscal issues. Outside, members of Congress were getting cuffed.
The Capitol Police’s arrests of Democratic Reps. Joseph Crowley and Charlie Rangel of New York; Keith Ellison of Minnesota; Al Green of Texas; Luis Gutierrez and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois; John Lewis of Georgia; and Raul Grijalva of Arizona were the preplanned culmination of a daylong immigration rally on the National Mall. Scores of officers descended on Garfield Circle, where the lawmakers and hundreds of activists refused to leave the street, leading to the arrests.
The protest made for good optics—lawmakers were led off in zip-ties—but it is unlikely to reshape the politics of immigration reform, which has lost momentum since the Senate passed a comprehensive bill earlier this year.
“It doesn’t have an effect as to what is going on behind the scenes here to try and get this thing done,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said of the rally, which he attended earlier in the day.
Still, thousands turned out to urge Congress to act. Although parts of the Mall have been closed due to the shutdown, groups are granted access for First Amendment activities, including World War II vets who are now allowed to visit the WWII Memorial.
“We will be arrested and we will be denied our liberty, but we do it so that one man—the speaker of the House—can free the Congress of the United States and allow Republicans and Democrats, men and women from all 50 states, to finally pass comprehensive immigration reform,” Gutierrez told the crowd before marching to the Capitol.
Then in Spanish, Gutierrez said the votes exist in the House to pass immigration reform, adding, “In our community, we say: We are not frustrated, we are not tired.”
Gutierrez and about 200 other immigration advocates were led away in zip-tie handcuffs as crowds bellowed “Si se puede!” At one point, a bus full of photo-snapping tourists was caught in the crowd. Each lawmaker had to pay a $50 fine, and an Ethics Committee report will likely be generated as a matter of course, according to an aide.
Lewis, an icon of the civil-rights movement, has been arrested at least 45 times, including five as a member of Congress. He compared the day’s events to the March on Washington, where he spoke 50 years ago. Back then, Lewis said, he noted: “You tell us to wait. You tell us to be patient. But we cannot wait. We cannot be patient. We want our freedom and we want it now. Fifty years later, there are forces telling us to wait, but we are saying we want comprehensive immigration reform now.”
For many advocates, such as 19-year-old Jasmine Ramirez of Nashville, Tenn., the issue is highly personal. She and other family members are undocumented, and while she qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, she would like to see the same protection extended to her parents.
“We’re not going to give up. It affects everybody—my family, my community,” she said. “I still think we’ll get something passed.”
But the enthusiasm of advocates chanting “This is what democracy looks like!” is not matched inside the dome, where the looming fiscal crises have cast a shadow over legislation on many other issues.
Over the weekend, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers said on Univision that, despite the focus on the debt ceiling and shutdown, there is still time to “fix what is a broken immigration system.”
“The speaker over the last few weeks has continued to talk about the importance of the House moving forward on immigration reform,” she said. “I believe that we have a window here between now and the end of the year and that this is a priority. And the speaker has also said it is his goal, his priority, to bring immigration reform to the floor.”
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner likewise signaled that immigration reform is on the horizon. “House Republicans will continue to work on commonsense, step-by-step reforms to our broken immigration system,” Michael Steel has told National Journal Daily.
The House prefers a piecemeal approach, rather than a comprehensive bill. The House Judiciary Committee has passed legislation on highly skilled and agricultural workers and on interior enforcement. But it has not touched a pathway to citizenship. Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte have talked about a “Kids Act,” which would legalize children of undocumented immigrants, but that bill hasn’t been drafted and lacks a chief sponsor.
“Unlike the Senate, the House Judiciary Committee is taking a step-by-step approach to immigration reform, carefully and methodically reviewing each component in detail so that we get immigration reform right,” Goodlatte said in a statement. “It’s crucial that we take the time to get immigration reform right rather than rush to pass another massive, Obamacare-like bill.”
Goodlatte also called a bill introduced by House Democrats last week a “nonstarter.” It’s essentially a carbon copy of the Senate bill, minus the $46 billion border-security measure, which was replaced by language supported by Republicans and Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee.
Diaz-Balart, the last Republican member of the so-called Gang of Eight negotiating comprehensive immigration reform in the House, told National Journal Daily the Democrats’ bill has “no shot of moving” in the House and that the gang has also effectively disbanded. “But there are a lot of talks going on, a lot of negotiations going on,” he said.
“I’m pretty optimistic. I think our biggest enemy is time.”
This article appears in the October 9, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Immigration Arrests: Good Optics But Little Change.