Immigration-reform activists aren't supposed to talk publicly about a Plan B. They can't, or won't, answer questions from the media about what they will do if no bill passes this year to legalize the undocumented population. But as August wears on and there is no clear sense of what the House will do on immigration, some are starting to speak out.
"There are groups that are for immigration reform no matter what. Then there are groups like us, grassroots.... We have the other track," said Adelina Nicholls, the executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights. "The other track is Barack Obama."
The idea behind the "other track" is to freeze the current undocumented population in place through an administrative order, give them work permits, and hope for a better deal under the next president, with the hope that he or she is a Democrat. It's a significant gamble, but some advocates — particularly those outside of the Washington legislative bartering system — argue that it's better than what they stand to see under the legislation being discussed now.
Many advocates have been discussing Plan B quietly for months, but they have kept a disciplined public message solely focused on supporting a comprehensive immigration bill in Congress. Even if they are uncomfortable with some of the bill's provisions (like, say, excluding anyone who has been convicted of petty theft from legalization), advocates don't want to appear fractured before a group of politicians who are wary about voting for anything that gives unauthorized immigrants legal status. As soon as reluctant lawmakers smell dissension in the ranks, they flee.
The Obama administration is different. It has already flexed its muscle and shown that it is willing to exert authority to stop the deportation of hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth through its deferred-action program announced last year. The immigrant community argues that there is no reason that this administrative authority cannot expand further to include other "low priority" candidates for deportation — i.e., parents of "Dreamers" or parents of children who are citizens because they were born here, people who are employed, people who are caregivers, and so on.
The same advocates who now are pushing Congress for an immigration overhaul were pushing the administration then for the deferred action program for undocumented youths who were brought to the country as children. Once it finally happened, it worked like a charm. To date, the Homeland Security Department has approved some 365,000 applications.
The same legal reasoning for not seeking deportation for unauthorized immigrants — there is no safety-related reason to do so — applies to other noncriminal aliens, immigration analysts argue. Politically, all President Obama needs is proof that Congress can't get the job done. That could happen in a matter of months with the Republican-led House still unsure of how it will deal with the undocumented population. (To date, no legislation has surfaced in the House, although there is talk of a limited legalization program for undocumented children.)
Meanwhile, the immigrant-advocacy community has a host of complaints about the Senate bill that passed in June, which would provide a tangled, treacherous 13-year path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally. It would also double the border patrol and require all employers to electronically check that their workers have papers.
Activists fear the Senate bill would militarize the border such that no one could live there without constantly being stopped and asked for a passport. They fear that it will drive undocumented immigrants who don't qualify for legalization further underground. They have a hard time saying that they enthusiastically support it.
"We tentatively support it, but our concern is that the bill is only going to get worse. We're not committed to continue to support it," said Kate Woomer-Deters, a staff attorney at the Immigrant Rights Project for the North Carolina Justice Center.
"It's divisive to the community, kind of pitting needs against each other. I can't say we have a real position on this," said Juanita Molina, executive director of Humane Borders, a group that has tracked deaths along the Arizona border with Mexico for 12 years. "Some people feel like we need to cut our losses, legalize as many people as we can."
Others in the Molina's group "feel very strongly" that the legislation would be harmful because it would make conditions so much more difficult along the border. "These people find people dead in the desert," she said.
Nicholls, of the Georgia Latino Alliance, can't even say she supports the bill. "What we want is to stop the unnecessary expansion of military-style [enforcement]," she said. "We do not believe that the border is going to be sealed. It is an impossible dream."
Nicholls, Molina, and Woomer-Deters are all in Washington this week as part of a planning session with a broader activist coalition called CAMBIO, which focuses on the civil- and human-rights issues involved in immigration reform.
Most activists for immigration reform have been so wrapped up in getting legislation through the Senate that they haven't had time to look up and see what's down the road. They are doing so now. "We're saying, 'What if? What are the next steps? If we come to a crossroads, what are the next strategies, the next talking points?' " said Lizette Escobedo, communications and development director for the Latino group Mi Familia Vota. "Our groups on the ground are seeing this as a new challenge. And when you get a new challenge, you just need to turn up the heat."