- The Washington Times - Monday, January 11, 2010

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.

The coalition kicked off its drive last summer with an event at the National Press Club, attended by religious leaders, labor leaders and ethnic rights groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, however, was not there, and it’s not clear how supportive it will be this time.

The Chamber of Commerce didn’t return a call seeking comment.

Last month, the first major bill was introduced by Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, and 92 other House members. That bill included a multistep path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, did not include a guest-worker program for future workers and left out several of the penalties that previous bills included for illegal immigrants.

Even Republicans who have worked with Mr. Gutierrez said this bill was a non-starter.

Meanwhile, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, is working on a Senate version aimed at garnering bipartisan support.

One hurdle will be grass-roots opposition. In 2007, millions of phone calls, e-mails and faxes from constituents to lawmakers overwhelmed the Senate switchboard. The outpouring was stoked by talk radio and groups such as NumbersUSA, a grass-roots organization that wants an immigration crackdown.

Immigrant rights groups have spent considerable time and money trying to rebut talk-radio hosts and groups such as NumbersUSA. Mr. Medina said last year’s departure from CNN of anchor Lou Dobbs, an outspoken supporter of stronger immigration enforcement, was a critical victory.

“With Mr. Dobbs finally being called to account, I think that’s also sent a message to many of these people,” he said. “At the end of the day, I think in the last two years that this debate has moved much much further in terms of the American people’s understanding.”

Religious groups make up a key component of the coalition. Last week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said it had distributed 1.5 million postcards to churches to have parishioners send to members of Congress.

But a poll released last month suggests that church leaders are out of step with those in their pews. The Zogby poll, conducted for the Center for Immigration Studies, found that 64 percent of self-identified Catholics said they supported enforcement to encourage illegal immigrants to return home. Just 23 percent said they supported legalization of illegal immigrants.

The poll found similar numbers among other religions. Protestants tended to be slightly more in favor of enforcement than Catholics, and Jewish respondents split about evenly between enforcement and legalization.

Mr. Camarota said the two sides of the Catholic divide are choosing different areas of emphasis.

“The bishops feel a very strong sense of compassion for illegal immigrants here and people who want to come to America. It seems Catholic parishioners, on the other hand, feel a very strong sense of compassion for low-wage American workers who face job competition,” he said.

Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the USCCB, said the worker argument is not persuasive and the process needs to begin now.

“Any legislation that’s drafted is not going to go into effect for a while, and it would be in anticipation of returning to economic health that we’re going to need workers,” he said.

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