HARRISONBURG, VA. — Earlier this summer, there were predictions that the outcry from conservatives would sink the chances for immigration reform. Instead, advocates have out-organized opponents, rallying in cities across the country as they try to convince House Republicans that the politics of the issue have changed.
On Monday, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez took that message to two Virginians: Rep. Frank R. Wolf, whose district sprawls from the Washington suburbs west, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a key cog in the debate, whose district runs through the Shenandoah Valley.
"This movement is deep and it is broad and it is going to win," Mr. Gutierrez said as he stood on the steps of the Harrisonburg courthouse in Mr. Goodlatte's district, telling the 200 people who came to hear him speak that they have changed the debate and outworked the opponents of immigration reform this year.
In 2007, the last time immigration was debated, a public outcry — including angry constituents shutting down the Senate switchboard — helped doom the bill. This time, immigrant rights groups have increased their own presence, calling for supporters to be more visible.
Having taken a page from the tea party's moves to oppose the health care law in the summer of 2009, immigrant rights groups have used Congress' five-week summer recess this year, when lawmakers are holding town hall meetings in their home districts, to make themselves seen and heard.
Organizers also have vowed to hold events around the country Oct. 5 to push for an immigration bill, and to host a follow-up rally in Washington three days later. That is just about the time House Republicans would be turning back to the issue of immigration.
At the center of many of the events is Mr. Gutierrez, a diminutive Illinois Democrat with an outsized and impassioned voice on the issue. The 11-term congressman has traveled to a half-dozen states to rally with immigration-reform supporters and to implore opponents to join up.
Mr. Gutierrez said 40 to 50 House Republicans are ready to vote for an immigration bill like the one that passed the Senate in June. The legislation would legalize most illegal immigrants and give them a pathway to citizenship, while spending more money on border security and imposing more checks on workers in the U.S.
At least publicly, however, few House Republicans have embraced a Senate-style bill.
Mr. Gutierrez said he is willing to make major compromises — the price he said he is ready to pay to get some legislation that would stop the 1,200 daily deportations.
Earlier in the day Mr. Gutierrez walked into Two Amigos restaurant in Chantilly, Va., to chants of "Si, se puede," which translates as "Yes, we can." It has been a rallying cry for the immigrant rights community for years, and Mr. Obama adopted it for his two presidential campaigns.
Two Amigos is in the district of Mr. Wolf, a 17-term Republican whom advocates are hoping to convince that the increasing number of Hispanics in his district should push him to vote for legalization.
When immigrant rights groups rallied outside of his Herndon office this month, Mr. Wolf told The Washington Times that he was willing to meet with any group, but he cannot vote for a bill that includes a pathway to citizenship, which he said is amnesty.
Mr. Goodlatte's office declined to comment on Mr. Gutierrez's visit to his district.
The region may not be the friendliest territory for any issue Mr. Obama is championing. A little before the courthouse rally began, a green pickup truck drove by the courthouse with "Stop Obama's liberal socialist agenda" and "Nobama" written on the back window.
A child holding a sign asking cars at a stoplight to honk for immigration reform drew a decent stream of beeps, but also a number of head shakes and plenty of cars whose drivers ignored the rally altogether.
Mr. Goodlatte won re-election last year with 65 percent of the vote in the district and is not expected to be in danger next year, either.
That underscores part of immigrant rights advocates' problems in swaying House GOP members — so many House Republicans are in safe districts where their bigger problem is a challenge on the right rather than losing to a Democrat running from the left.
In interviews and at a town hall he held this month, Mr. Goodlatte ruled out creating a "special pathway" to citizenship for illegal immigrants — but Mr. Gutierrez said that could leave some middle ground if it means reopening some of the paths that used to exist in federal law, such as allowing people to readjust their status from within the U.S.
"I would have hoped he would have found time to be here so he could explain to us just that," Mr. Gutierrez told reporters. "I want to understand it. I don't want to reject it. I don't want to reject any avenue that leads to us resolving the problem."
Asked whether he was harming his cause by these visits, Mr. Gutierrez said he has insulated himself by taking on both sides, including criticizing his party leader, Mr. Obama.
The congressman has even been arrested protesting outside the White House, accusing the president of deporting too many people and not putting enough effort into winning an immigration agreement. He regularly points out that Mr. Obama is poised to deport his 2 millionth immigrant before the end of this year.
"When I go to the White House, I already know what seat to take when I go to the Roosevelt Room. I take the seat farthest away from where the president sits," the congressman said of the regular meetings the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has had with Mr. Obama. "That's OK. That's the way things work in Washington, D.C."
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.