Despite setbacks, immigration activists remain hopeful for reform
Lawmakers' damaged reputations after the 16-day government shutdown may be exactly what a stalled plan to reform America's immigration system needs.
At least, immigration advocates from both sides of the debate hope that's the case.
Before the shutdown, they and two border-state members of Congress from both parties were optimistic Congress would pass immigration reform, though everyone differed on what that reform would look like.
After the shutdown, those questions still remain, and it's compounded by critical time lost to act before Congress breaks for the holidays and then starts the debt-ceiling and budget battle all over again.
But immigration is low-hanging fruit for Republicans whose poll numbers tanked during the shutdown and would love support from Hispanic voters in November's 2014 mid-term elections, said Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which favors reform.
"The stakes are higher now," Appleby said. "With the water that was taken on by both parties, they need to demonstrate they can do something in a bipartisan manner."
A comprehensive bill passed the Senate in June with bipartisan support, but it's been stalled in the House as Republicans debate alternatives to the plan that includes a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. A key Republican player in the debate, Sen. Marco Rubio on Florida, said Monday he thinks a large immigration reform bill doesn't have the support to pass the House.
Still, immigration advocates say post-shutdown there's a growing trend of lawmakers working together on small pieces of immigration reform that could translate into momentum for fixing the whole system.
Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico, the only House Republican whose district borders Mexico, said a legalization plan isn't fair and suggested instead a guest worker program and reforming the country's legal immigration system, a compromise he said could be a way out of the stalemate.
"I think we in the House earlier in the year got trapped in the position that it's amnesty or nothing," he said in an interview before the shutdown.
Pearce's office put out an equally optimistic statement after the shutdown that said: "We can act now on the aspects of immigration reform we can all agree on."
Rep. Beto O'Rourke, a freshman Democrat from El Paso, is also positive about immigration reform's chances post-shutdown, though he doesn't support Pearce's guest worker program. Still he and Pearce are joining together in a bill to give judges more discretion on when to ban immigrants for life from the U.S.
"This bill might be a place were we can agree on," he said.
That kind of bipartisan partnership gives Laura Vazquez, a legislative analyst with the Hispanic advocacy organization National Council of La Raza, reason to hope immigration reform isn't dead after the bitter shutdown battle.
"Our premise is that immigration reform gives Congress the opportunity to redeem themselves after the shutdown," she said.
Vasquez said members of Congress are motivated to win points with the faith community, labor, business and Latinos by supporting immigration reform.
"There's an incredibly deep and diverse coalition that's really working together to push immigration reform," she said.
Republicans in Congress should also keep in mind that Latinos tend to think like independent voters, said Alfonso Aguilar, the director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and former immigration adviser to President George W. Bush.
"This is not a community you lose for an entire generation. They can vote for Democrats, but they can turn around and vote for Republicans," he said.
A handful of bills have passed House committees this fall on topics such as enforcement, agricultural worker visas and employment verification, though it's unclear if Speaker John Boehner will allow them to come to the floor for a vote.
At least one place of compromise could come on border enforcement. Both O'Rourke and Pearce said they support an idea to use specific metrics to send troops to the border, instead of a much-criticized Senate plan to ship 20,000 more agents to the border.
The metric proposal is a key provision in a comprehensive immigration reform bill House Democrats filed during the shutdown. The bill, which also calls for a 13-year path to citizenship, has 186 co-sponsors, including one Republican, Rep. Jeff Denham of California. It needs 218 votes to pass.
But the optimism in Washington doesn't necessarily translate to communities across America where immigration reform is a priority.
From California to Texas, conversations among local advocates are turning to how they can improve immigrants' lives beyond the halls of Congress, said Alejandro Caceres, the co-executive director of the Austin, Texas-based Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition.
Caceres said immigration advocates are starting to focus on pressuring local lawmakers to ease up on deportations and laws that communicate arrest data to immigration authorities as an example.
"When the government shut down, a lot of people were like, 'OK, what's plan B?'" he said.
In California, the state legislature passed laws in October that allow undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers licenses and restricted local authorities from holding undocumented immigrants longer than necessary.
But what really matters to Eulalio Ruiz, an undocumented Mexican lettuce harvester in Salinas, Calif., is a path to citizenship. And he said he's jaded by politicians' promises to provide that.
"Ever since December they said they were going to give papers," he said, almost incredulous that anything would be approved. "But we have hope. If they give papers, they'll give them to all who are here."
The current situation isn't tenable for undocumented immigrants like Anthony Ng, who came with his family to Southern California from the Philippines years ago. He's qualified for the president's deferred action status but his quickest path to citizenship is via his older brother, who married a U.S. citizen and is petitioning for Ng to become one, too. That could take decades.
"For me, waiting for 20 years for me to adjust my status is unacceptable because it basically means I have to stall my life," he said.
Even if Congress doesn't strike a deal this year, Ng probably won't have to wait 20 to have a better path to citizenship, say advocates like Caceres who feel like immigrants are starting to drive the conversation on reform.
"I do believe that if it isn't now, it will be in the next couple of years, and we'll have the upper hand and we'll be able to demand the things we want," he said.
Los Angeles Daily News reporter Brenda Gazaar and Monterey County Herald reporter Claudia Melendez and contributed to this story.