Immigration-Reform Advocates Don’t Know What to Do Next

After failing to goad Republicans into action, they don’t know what to do next.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 28: People march and rally in front of the White House to demonstrate against President Barack Obama's immigration and deportation actions April 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. Chanting, 'With the stroke of a pen you can stop deportations, we demand you take action now!' 12 protesters were arrested by U.S. Park Police after refusing orders to move away from the north side of the White House during the rally, which was organized by th National Peoples Action, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the White House Hunger Strike for Not1More and Sunflower Community Action. (Photo by)
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Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
May 5, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.

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