Lawmaker Arrests Over Immigration: Good Optics but Little Change

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) is arrested by U.S. Capitol Police after blocking First Street NW in front of the U.S. Capitol with fellow supporters of immigration reform, on October 8, 2013 in Washington, DC. Last week, House Democrats introduced their own immigration reform bill.
National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
Oct. 8, 2013, 5:03 p.m.

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.”

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