Immigration reform was once a real thing on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers huddled in secret; political risks were calculated and taken; tentative deals were struck. But now, despite some suggestions from Sen. Chuck Schumer about a lame-duck legislative fix, there's really no chance of an overhaul of the dreadful U.S. immigration system. The groups lobbying for reform have failed to gain traction with their strategy of shaming Republicans into action, leaving advocates confused and conflicted about where to go next.
Indeed, many say that at this point, they don't even know what they're fighting for. Very few will say it on the record, but Arnoldo Torres will. "I don't know what all of this is about anymore," says the former executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens who played a major role in the 1986 immigration law that offered amnesty to 3 million unauthorized immigrants. "I don't think our side knows what it wants to do anymore."
Ask the question, and you'll understand what Torres means. Some reform advocates talk about pushing for piecemeal legislative fixes—a series of bills that would address citizenship for undocumented youth, legalization for other unauthorized immigrants, and more visas for high-skilled foreigners, for example. Others, especially those based outside of Washington, think the most effective move is to pressure the White House for an executive order that would provide immediate deportation relief to a bigger pool of undocumented immigrants than the "Dreamers" who were brought into the country illegally as children.
Count Arturo Carmona, executive director of the left-leaning Presente.org, among the latter group. He has given up on a new law and is now focusing solely on President Obama. Carmona says many reform advocates have become tainted by an inside-Washington thought process that feeds the fruitless hope that dynamics in Congress will suddenly shift.
Presente.org and other supporters of executive action bet that if Obama expands his deferred-deportation program to a broader population, Republicans won't dare stand in the way. They see this strategy as a bold, in-your-face idea, but it's not one that all advocates back.
Those who still want to curry favor with pro-immigration Republicans say Obama shouldn't intentionally irritate the GOP with yet another controversial administrative action. And still others who are eager to keep the White House listening to them say that pressuring Obama to act on his own is akin to fouling one's own nest, when the president's opponents in Congress are in fact the ones at fault.
Most immigration-reform groups are somewhere in the middle, in effect acknowledging that nothing they do will result in either a big immigration bill this year or dramatic executive action. What's most likely to happen is that Obama will offer some type of deportation fix at the end of the summer, but not enough of one to be called massive relief for the people here illegally. That would leave those in the advocacy community in more or less the same place they are now, unsatisfied and wondering what to ask for next.
"We're fully focused on pressuring Obama to expand deferred action, but we don't expect it to be very much," concedes Mario Carrillo, spokesman for United We Dream, an organization of immigrant youth seeking administrative action. "When that happens, we'll make sure our views are heard that it will not be enough."
For the next Congress, the advocacy strategy, such as it is, will depend almost entirely on the results of the midterms. If Latino voters can show they can swing at least a few elections, as they did in 2014, they will have made a powerful statement to any politician seeking the White House: Be willing to fix immigration, or we walk. That message will resonate the most with GOP presidential candidates, who will need Hispanic support if they expect to win a general election. But it couldn't hurt to pressure the Democratic candidates, either.
The problems with relying on the midterms are twofold, as advocates readily admit. First, getting Latino voters to the polls this November will not be as easy as it was in the last presidential election. Second, even if Latino voters make waves in 2014, they probably will not hand lawmakers a road map to follow.
The lack of a clear and unified approach weakens the reform movement. Individual players will probably struggle for a while as the overall game plan shifts from what was solely a legislative strategy to one that is, by necessity, a multipronged campaign to leverage pressure from the White House to Congress and back. It makes for high-stakes maneuvering that no one entirely understands or can control. The only real certainty is that the issue won't go away.
In the meantime, those who want immigration reform continue their protests, something Torres disdains. Protests communicate just one thing, he says: "Anger, anger, anger, anger." Anger, he adds, is not a policy solution.
This article appears in the May 3, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Fork in the Road.
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