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Small Groups Dominate US Immigration Debate


The war in Iraq and immigration reform continue to dominate the political debate in Washington. While much of the debate takes place in the halls of Congress, small but influential grass roots groups are making themselves heard in a big way, both in Washington and nationally. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has a report.

Take the issue of immigration reform. Congressional efforts to pass a reform bill have stalled for the time being, in part because conservative Republicans like Congressman Virgil Goode of Virginia oppose efforts to create a path to U.S. citizenship for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

"My message to them is, not in two weeks, not in two months, not in two years, never! We must be clear that we will not surrender America and we will not turn the United States over to the invaders from south of the border," said Virgil Goode.

Goode and other lawmakers who oppose the current immigration reform proposal as too weak on border enforcement are not alone. They are getting a huge boost from grassroots groups around the country that flood congressional offices with e-mails and phone calls in opposition to the immigration bill.

Deborah Robinet has come from San Diego, California, to help organize what is called the March for America, a rally of more than 60 anti-immigration groups that have come to Washington to be heard on the issue.

"With all the faxes and the e-mails, and some of them are feeling threatened," said Deborah Robinet. "Oh, I feel so sorry for them. Protesting is very, very important because it is in your face."

After stepping away from the rally stage in front of the Washington Monument, Congressman Goode tells VOA that Robinet and other grassroots organizers are having an impact in the immigration debate.

"I hope the grass roots will keep the calls and the e-mails and the faxes and the messages up," he said. "If you do not keep the grass roots effort alive, it will be tough to stop. With the grassroots effort, it stopped it [the immigration bill] or slowed it before and I hope it will slow it in the future."

Political analysts agree that the grassroots opponents of the immigration bill have had some success.

Fred Barnes is editor of the Weekly Standard magazine and a frequent guest on VOA's Issues in the News program.

"You know, on this I have written favorably about it, I have talked favorably about this compromise," said Fred Barnes. "I have never gotten so much e-mail, all hostile, and it does stir up passions. And the opponents of this bill have had the intensity."

Grassroots movements have a history of being uneven in both their organization and effectiveness. But Deborah Robinet says coordinating a common message and action plan among dozens of groups spread out around the country is a lot easier in the age of the Internet.

"For the most part, the media does not like us and so we had to do all of this through the Internet," she said. "It took six months to put this together. We are so grass roots that we put are own money in. We barely scrounged up enough money to take care of the port-a-potties."

The crowd on this occasion is small, but Robinet says the rally will build over a period of days.

It is also clear the rally draws mainly conservatives who would normally support President Bush and the Republican Party.

One man who traveled from Pennsylvania to oppose the immigration bill is disappointed that the president is supporting the proposal.

"I voted for him and I cannot understand why he does not understand that is vital to the security of America," he said.

Immigration bill supporters acknowledge that the opponents have had an edge in winning enough public support to so far block the bill in Congress.

But supporters are using their own grassroots tactics including marches and petitions to demonstrate their support for immigration reform.

California Congressman Joe Baca, a Democrat who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, spoke at a news conference that featured immigrant rights supporters who had come to Washington to lobby on behalf of the reform bill.

"They have brought with them signed letters by more than one million, and I state, by more than one million, urging Congress [to pass reform legislation]," said Congressman Baca. "Right behind these boxes, this is only half probably of the one million because the American people want this, the statistics and the numbers in the polls indicate that we want comprehensive immigration reform and we want it now."

No matter the outcome of the immigration battle, both sides insist the ongoing debate over immigration reform reflects the importance of grassroots organizing and action.

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