Immigration backers eye â€˜14
They promise to keep pressure on House Republicans
By Dan Nowicki and Daniel Gonzalez
PHOENIX - This was supposed to be the year of immigration reform.
But with hope quickly fading that an immigration bill will pass by the year's end, advocates are shifting their focus to 2014, girding for an even tougher battle as the already-contentious issue drifts into the perilous political waters of an election year.
Reform advocates are determined to keep the immigration debate alive, vowing to continue pressing lawmakers to pass immigration reform, if not this year, then next.
"We need to keep fanning the flames," said Eduardo Nevares, auxiliary bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix and immigration-reform advocate.
Reform supporters are gearing up for next year's elections, when they hope to send a message by targeting Republicans in congressional districts where demographics give Latino voters more clout.
"As much as it looks bleak for action this year, we haven't given up," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a Washington, D.C.based organization that champions comprehensive immigration reform. "If this Congress doesn't get immigration reform done, then a lot of us are going to work as hard as we can to elect a Congress in 2014 that will."
In the meantime, reform advocates haven't completely written off this year, which started off with Obama and influential Republicans declaring their support for immigration reform.
Activists from several states have camped out at House Speaker John Boehner's Washington, D.C., office. They also have held vigils at his home and confronted him while eating at a diner.
A step-by-step approach on immigration reform is gaining momentum after House Republican leaders refused to take up the comprehensive bill passed by the Senate in June.
But the heightened partisanship that accompanies congressional midterm elections will make passing any bill more difficult as the year progresses, analysts say.
Obama announced he is willing to go along with the House GOP strategy of passing a series of "piecemeal" immigration bills in a specific sequence rather than the comprehensive approach preferred by the White House and the Democrats who control the Senate.
Obama said the House bills must address the same components as the Senate's bipartisan comprehensive package, which includes a pathway to citizenship for most of the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally in addition to addressing border security, the legal immigration backlog, new visas for foreign workers and other issues. The Senate passed its bill June 27.
"They're suspicious of comprehensive bills, but if they want to chop that thing up into five pieces, as long as all five pieces get done, I don't care what it looks like as long as it's actually delivering on those core values that we talk about," Obama said.
Boehner dealt a blow to the morale of reform supporters when he announced House Republicans would not negotiate with the Senate on its comprehensive bill. But he has since reiterated that House Republicans are continuing to work on their own immigration bills and called Obama's comments encouraging.
Several House immigration bills have moved through committee, but so far Boehner has brought none to the floor for a vote from the full House.
Petra Falcon, director of Promise Arizona, an advocacy group pushing for reforms that allow immigrants to gain legal status and citizenship, said she remains hopeful that a bill will pass in the few remaining weeks of the year.
But if it doesn't, her group will push lawmakers to pass immigration reform in 2014.
In 2014, the group's main focus will continue to be applying pressure on lawmakers by building an electorate that favors immigration reform.
For the past several years, Promise Arizona and other immigration- reform groups have been targeting Republican- held congressional districts in Arizona by going door to door and registering Latino voters.
"In 2014, we've got to continue broadening the electoral base," Falcon said.
Sharry, of America's Voice, indicated efforts to lobby the Obama administration and Homeland Security Department on deportation policy would continue parallel to political efforts. "The president says he supports the Senate bill, and yet the administration is deporting people who would qualify for legal status," he said. "It's arbitrary and cruel."
But others in the immigration- reform movement don't necessarily agree administrative action would be the best route.
Some worry such a move by Obama would further inflame congressional Republican opposition to a legislative solution on immigration that many say is needed.
"I hope that doesn't happen because I think that would divide the nation in a bad way," Nevares said.
Mary Cruz, center, and other immigration activists pray outside the house of Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio. NICK OZA/ARIZONA REPUBLIC