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Immigration Activists Press US Lawmakers on Citizenship for the Undocumented

  • Michael Bowman

The fate of U.S. immigration reform could be decided in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives after Congress returns next month from a five-week recess. In the first of a two-part report, we examine efforts to pressure lawmakers in favor of a path to citizenship for the undocumented -- the most-contentious element of immigration reform.

While Congress was in summer recess, hundreds of activists converged on the California district of Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy, hoping to change his position on immigration reform.

Their demand: a House vote on a comprehensive immigration reform package that would allow 11 million undocumented immigrants to eventually become U.S. citizens. Organizer Dolores Huerta believes is should be everyone’s right.

“Every immigrant group that has come to the United States has been able to get citizenship, from the Founding Fathers, who were the first immigrants who came here, to the most recent ones who are here now,” said Huerta.

McCarthy was not present when demonstrators entered his district office. But a statement on the congressman’s website rules out a path to citizenship: “We should not provide any amnesty that would benefit those who defy our laws and enter the United States illegally.”

McCarthy’s position mirrors that of most House Republicans who have not been swayed by pro-immigration reform demonstrations in congressional districts across the country. Activists need to re-think their tactics, according to Republican strategist John Feehery.

“The single most counter-productive thing that immigration activists can do is go into a Republican office and protest. The single most effective thing they can do is register in a Republican primary [election] and promise to vote against any Republican that does not support immigration reform.

The Washington-based coordinator of the pro-reform lobbying effort, Frank Sharry, disagrees.

“Politics is about pressure. It is about organizing, it is about mobilizing. It is about getting your voice heard,” says he.

Sharry adds that lawmakers are feeling pressure from a broad coalition, not just street activists.

“They are hearing from the immigrants in their community, the business people, the tech entrepreneurs, the evangelical pastors, the Catholic bishops, and union leaders. That is a pretty unusual thing in American politics. So we are hopeful,” adds Sharry.

But House Speaker John Boehner has ruled out a vote on the comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate, preferring to start with law enforcement.

“It is clear that securing our borders and having the ability to enforce our immigration laws is the first big step in this process,” says Boehner.

Strategist Feehery says the Republican approach enjoys broad support.

“Poll after poll show the Republican [voter] base does not want a so-called 'amnesty' bill to pass. And anything of a comprehensive nature is called amnesty. So that makes it difficult for Republican leaders to get that necessary legislative fix done,” says Feehery.

Democrats, meanwhile, will not support any bill that excludes a path to citizenship. And so the political stand-off on immigration reform drags on despite activists' efforts.
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