Pro-immigration groups ready to fight

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Pro-immigration groups are more united, better-funded and, unlike the last battle in 2007, are ready to fight back against what they say is a wave of hatred from opponents as they gear up for another bruising immigration fight in Congress.

The groups range from businesses and Hispanic rights organizations to labor unions and religious denominations. They lost their fight for immigration reform three years ago after finger-pointing and disagreements between businesses and labor.

The groups also blame a Washington-centric strategy while their opponents ran a spectacularly successful grass-roots campaign.

“We’re in much, much, much, much better condition than we were in 2007,” said Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union and one of the key organizers of the coalition. “We have a united labor movement, and we have, I think, a tighter-knit network of immigrant rights advocates, organizations, churches and others around the country.”

Congress tried twice in recent years to reform immigration policy. The Senate passed a bill in 2006, though it was clear the House would never take up the measure. In 2007, with the House more open to a bill and with President Bush’s encouragement, the Senate tried again, but failed in dramatic fashion, with a majority of senators voting to filibuster the measure.

One key problem was that labor unions and businesses were split over how to handle the future flow of workers. Businesses and the Bush administration wanted a high cap on visas but also wanted the workers to be temporary. Labor unions wanted little to do with guest-worker programs and wanted any immigrants to have the same path to citizenship that illegal immigrants were given.

The same division remains, but groups have approached the issue differently this year. While trying to forge an agreement among themselves in 2007, they only fractured. This time, labor unions are rallying the left-of-center troops, and businesses are working on the right-of-center side. The goal is to come together when a bill emerges.

Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, which organizes business owners to push for immigration reform, said the coalition has become smarter and better funded.

“Especially on the left-of-center side, they’ve had unprecedented amounts of money in the past year, and they’re organizing the field, coordinating among themselves, they’re unrecognizable almost from what they were in 2006 and 2007,” she said. “The business side hasn’t had as much money pumped in and hasn’t transformed as much, but it’s also at a different level of the game.”

She said the business coalition had a Washington-based operation in the past, but now farm and restaurant owners are telling their congressional representatives about the importance of immigration reform.

The groups will have an early show of force this week with events in all 50 states to show they are mobilized in lawmakers’ home districts. In Cincinnati, for example, labor and business will join forces to rally 1,000 people. In Illinois, the home state of President Obama and of his chief of staff, former Rep. Rahm Emanuel, religious and labor leaders will target key congressional districts.

“The lesson we learned in 2007 is, it’s not about what happens in D.C.; it’s about what happens around the corner,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which serves as an umbrella for immigration-reform groups.

But Steven A. Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports stricter immigration limits, said the unity might be a myth. No matter how unified coalition leaders are, he said, they’ll face a skeptical public — particularly with a high unemployment rate.

He said “opinion leaders” are significantly out of touch with average voters on the immigration issue, which produces a wide but thin coalition pushing Congress to act.

“There are a lot of generals but not many soldiers there. That’s their fundamental problem: Most Americans don’t agree with them,” he said.

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