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Pressure mounting to legalize immigrants

- The Washington Times - Monday, April 26, 2010

They've pushed and pulled, marched on the national Mall and issued demands — including some to the president, which the White House hustled to meet — and now, immigrant rights groups find they've forced immigration and legalization to the top of the crowded congressional agenda.

The next test of their power will come Saturday, when the groups hope to turn out hundreds of thousands of supporters in rallies across the country, all demanding that Congress and Mr. Obama slow interior enforcement and move to legalize illegal immigrants.

"For us, what we're clear at is that our elected officials don't move out of courage," said Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). "They move when there's pressure from our community, and we actually demonstrate to them there's impact on people's lives."

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When this year started, immigration was an afterthought issue, as Congress was facing high national unemployment, a huge deficit, an unfinished health care bill, and energy and financial regulation bills next in line.

But immigrant rights groups refused to accept that calculus and have cajoled and pushed their way into the discussion. Along the way, they've been helped by politics, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's re-election bid in Nevada depending on tremendous Hispanic support.

The immigration movement is one of the two mass mobilizations in American politics now. The other is the "tea party" movement.

Since Friday, immigrants rights activists have been protesting in Phoenix, where the governor signed a bill into law that makes being an illegal immigrant a state offense.

Mr. Obama has criticized that law and said it shows why the federal government must act, but the groups say it's time for him to do more than just call for action.

"The avalanche of actions that have happened recently are really a demonstration by the immigrant and Latino communities in this country," said Gustavo Andrade, organizing director of CASA de Maryland, just days before Friday's events. "What we've seen from coast to coast is they are incredibly dissatisfied by the lack of leadership from the Obama administration on immigration in particular."

Unlike the tea party activists, these groups have Mr. Obama's ear.

Last month, leaders walked into a meeting in the Oval Office, two weeks before a March 21 rally on the national Mall, and demanded the president halt deportations and push two senators to announce a legislative framework for a bill that he would then embrace.

A week after that meeting, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, announced the outline of an immigration deal. Mr. Obama immediately endorsed it, giving immigrant rights supporters a boost heading into that March rally, which organizers say drew 200,000 to Washington.

But action has since stalled, prompting the new set of demands, and accompanying rallies.

This time, backers still want deportations halted, but also want Mr. Graham and Mr. Schumer to introduce their legislation.

"It's almost like when you leave your kids at home, you need to be sure they're doing what they're told to when you're not around," Ms. Salas said.

The groups learned the importance of mass action from their defeat in 2007. During that year's immigration fight, they were outflanked by organizations such as NumbersUSA, which lobbies for stricter immigration limits and which prodded its massive e-mail list to flood the Capitol with phone calls and faxes demanding that the bill be defeated.

By 2008, Hispanic rights organizations, such as the National Council of La Raza, ratcheted up their own campaign to try to define NumbersUSA and its allies as part of a campaign of hate. The efforts are thought to have helped chase CNN host Lou Dobbs from his television show.

But the rhetoric may have unleashed something even the leaders of the groups can't contain, as Hispanics throughout the country have come to see immigration as the political litmus test for politicians seeking their vote.

"This is now out of the hands of political operatives, lobbyists and even activists," Mr. Andrade said, pointing to last month's rally on the Mall for evidence.

"What happened that day was people were emptying out their apartments, they were going around and knocking on neighbors' doors, they were talking to their co-workers. Those numbers - they're going to be increasing," he said.

As for Mr. Obama, he is now in the same position as President George W. Bush, who also campaigned in 2000 and 2004 on a promise to pass a legalization bill. Mr. Bush encouraged bipartisan negotiations in the Senate in 2006 and 2007, but neither effort led to Congress approving a bill.

Marc R. Rosenblum, a senior policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute, who was on Mr. Obama's immigration policy team during the presidential transition, said the president is working with all sides, but, like Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama has not found a winning coalition of 60 senators needed to overcome a certain filibuster.

The White House declined to make anyone available for an interview but said the president has stepped up his efforts, including calling five Republican senators last week to ask them to join an effort to pass a bill.

Mr. Obama addressed the issue Friday at a naturalization ceremony for 24 U.S. troops, blasting Arizona's new law making it a state offense to be in the country illegally and saying that's more reason to act at the national level.

The president also called out the 11 Republicans still in the Senate who he said voted for an immigration bill in 2006.

"I'm hopeful that they will join with Democrats in doing so again so we can make the progress the American people deserve," the president said.

Behind the scenes, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also has made overtures. She had held at least 35 meetings with members of Congress since she took office to press for immigration reform.

But just three of those meetings have been this year, and only one — with Mr. Schumer — has happened in the last two months.

Mr. Rosenblum said the activists' pressure goes beyond the White House.

The National Council of La Raza sent an e-mail asking supporters to petition their senators to join the effort, while the New York Immigration Coalition held a news conference outside Mr. Schumer's Manhattan office last week to demand that he introduce a bill before May 1.

Still, leaders say it's more with sorrow than eagerness that they find themselves taking on the president, and several of them note that they voted for Mr. Obama and were among his vocal supporters in 2008.

"We were very patient because we said, understanding what else has to happen, we are going to do our job, and when you're ready, our expectation is you're going to move on this quickly," Ms. Salas said. "Everything has been checked off the box, but every time we go back [and ask], is it time now, their explanation is, 'Well, there's something else.' "

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