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Despite setbacks, immigration activists remain hopeful for reform

First Published      Last Updated Oct 30 2013 08:23 am
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"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.