News / USA

Immigration Reform Gains Strength from Early Failures

Demonstrators participate in a rally for immigration reform at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, April 10, 2013.
Demonstrators participate in a rally for immigration reform at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, April 10, 2013.
Anatole Senkevitch isn’t Hispanic. He’s not young or “illegal,” either. But he is the face of the U.S. immigration reform movement. Or at least one of them. He’s a foot soldier in a carefully choreographed political campaign that has carried the movement closer to its goal than ever before.

The retired architecture professor in the pressed khaki suit and glasses took turns talking and being talked over at a recent planning meeting of the Silver Spring, Maryland chapter of Organizing for Action, the nonprofit advocacy group that grew out of President Barack Obama’s presidential re-election campaign.

The group is one of many in the Washington area and around the country pressing Congress to pass legislation that would take steps to legalize the presence of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Their efforts have taken on added urgency in recent weeks as a growing number of Republicans as well as Democrats in Congress are showing a willingness to tackle the divisive issue.

On a recent afternoon in a Silver Spring living room, Senkevitch practiced telling the story he would share with his congressmen on Capitol Hill. He mixed in memories of how as a boy of seven he joined his agronomist grandfather on a grapefruit farm in Texas after his family fled the Russian revolution of 1917.

Anatole Senkovitch listens at a meeting of the Silver Spring, Md. chapter of Organizing for Action, April 6, 2013. (VOA/K.Woodsome)Anatole Senkovitch listens at a meeting of the Silver Spring, Md. chapter of Organizing for Action, April 6, 2013. (VOA/K.Woodsome)
x
Anatole Senkovitch listens at a meeting of the Silver Spring, Md. chapter of Organizing for Action, April 6, 2013. (VOA/K.Woodsome)
Anatole Senkovitch listens at a meeting of the Silver Spring, Md. chapter of Organizing for Action, April 6, 2013. (VOA/K.Woodsome)
​“My grandfather had direct experience with ‘braceros’ [Mexican manual laborers],” Senkevitch told a small group of activists, all in their 50s and 60s, and all typical Americans in the sense that they or their parents or their grandparents came from another country.  

“My grandfather talked to me about the whole problem and the fact that the attempt then, as now, is never to put a human face on immigration,” Senkevitch said. “These people are invisible statistics.”

“These people” are the millions of foreigners living and working in the U.S. without proper legal documentation. Their fate is the focus of debate in Congress this week as a bi-partisan group of senators presents a long-awaited plan to overhaul the U.S. immigration system.

Congress has tried to tackle this issue before. In 2007, then-President George W. Bush’s attempt to make the biggest changes to immigration law in decades failed in the Senate.

Opponents of the Bush plan to give undocumented immigrants legal status flooded Congress with phone calls and emails and faxes. They spoke out on talk radio and cable TV. Their voices were more influential than the millions of immigrants who had marched for reform the previous spring. Critics of the reform movement are still vocal and determined, but their push against legalizing unauthorized immigrants has lost a bit of its wind.

Retreat, rethink

Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of the pro-reform group, America’s Voice, said the death of the 2007 bill brought on a period of reflection among immigration reformers, eventually giving birth to a much stronger lobby. That lobby not only includes Senkevitch and low-wage Hispanic immigrants, but high-tech giants like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Christian evangelicals, and once even stalwart conservative opponents to reform.

“The movement realized that we had been fighting a policy battle in Washington when the rest of the country was having a culture discussion that we weren’t engaging,” Tramonte said. “While we were talking about the criteria for legalization, we weren’t talking about, ‘Who are the immigrants we’re talking about? They’re your neighbors, they’re your family, they’re your friends.’”

The reform movement reorganized. America’s Voice was created in 2008 by Frank Sharry, a central figure in the immigration policy debate for the past 25 years. Tramonte said the team focused on unifying the message with other players and learning to communicate it through online media.

America’s Voice and other groups received millions of dollars in support to spread the word from donors like philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.

While they were tuning up, the pro-reform lobbyists also were gearing up. Between 2008 and mid-2012, more than 3,000 advocacy groups registered with Congress to lobby on immigration for nearly 700 clients, according to the transparency group the Sunlight Foundation.

They have spent more than $1.5 billion on the reform effort since the last bill failed in 2007. Their client list is diverse, including schools, dairy producers and big corporations such as McDonald’s, Microsoft and WalMart.


Enter the DREAMers

Cristina Jimenez emigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador when she was 13. (photo by United We Dream)Cristina Jimenez emigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador when she was 13. (photo by United We Dream)
x
Cristina Jimenez emigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador when she was 13. (photo by United We Dream)
Cristina Jimenez emigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador when she was 13. (photo by United We Dream)
At about the same time, Cristina Jimenez was finding her voice. She is a young woman from Ecuador whose parents overstayed their tourist visas, hoping to give their children a better life in New York.

Jimenez and other undocumented, foreign-born youth were tired of hiding their status, tired of worrying about immigration raids and deportation while trying to get through high school and college. They founded the national advocacy group called United We Dream in late 2008.

“It was a transformative experience ... going from a place of being really fearful, to going to a place of feeling really empowered and really proud that you are not afraid to say that you are undocumented,” Jimenez said.

They called themselves the “DREAMers,” named after the Obama administration’s Development, Relief, Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would have legalized undocumented youth brought to the U.S. as children. The proposal failed in Congress.

Jimenez said the DREAMers studied the successful tactics of the gay rights movement and started “coming out,” not as homosexual, but as undocumented immigrants.

“I received a lot of support after I came out,” Jimenez said. “I had friends who were really conservative on the issue and sharing my story really changed their view on immigration.”

The DREAMers are part of the Facebook generation, meaning they grew up social networking online. Their stories have gone viral. One video has attracted more than half a million hits on the Web.

Illegal from John X. Carey on Vimeo.

The DREAMers got a huge boost when Philippine-born Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, “came out” as undocumented in the New York Times Magazine.

The effect of Vargas and the DREAMers in transforming the public’s image of “illegal aliens” has been profound, according to Roberto Suro, the former head of the Pew Hispanic Center and a current professor of Journalism and Public Policy at the University of Southern California.

“This is widely credited with helping soften American public opinion to the idea that the policy solution lies in creating some kind of status that allows these people to stay here rather than forcing them to leave,” Suro said. “And that change in attitude is measurable in the polls.”

Power of the ballot

President Barack Obama won about 72 percent of the Latino vote in the 2012 election while defeating his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. Many explained the Latino vote by noting that Romney had advocated making life so uncomfortable for undocumented immigrants that they would “self deport.”

“You have very prominent voices in the Republican Party ... all saying that the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric proved to be one reason why the Republicans lost the election,” Suro said, adding that Republicans didn’t just lose Hispanic voters, but also many “middle of the road” voters like “suburban soccer moms” turned off by the negative rhetoric.

A recent study published by the Pew Research Center showed 71 percent of Americans favor granting legal status to the undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.

Coalition building

Numbers like that became impossible to ignore. Interest groups, once unconvinced about overhauling the immigration system, rallied together – interest groups such as labor unions, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and high-tech companies.

“They weren’t bringing the issue to the table, but once it got on the table, they wanted to be a part of it,” said Thomas Holyoke, a political science professor at California State University in Fresno.

What started as a less than forceful push by Hispanic groups has turned into a powerful coalition of interest groups with access to Obama’s vast campaign network-turned- policy group, Organizing for Action.

This is what drew Anatole Senkevitch to talk about immigration in Silver Spring, Maryland the other evening. The Obama campaign had his name, telephone number and email address, and now Organization for Action does, too.

Holyoke described this organizational structure as the new recipe for making change in Washington.

“You can’t successfully change policy, particularly overturn status quo, without widespread coalitions of interest groups, and usually as a result of large coalitions in the House and Senate,” he said. “You need the large coalitions of interest groups to build the large coalitions in Congress.”

Hard to hear

But the immigration reform movement still has powerful opponents. The chief concern among many of them is tightening the U.S. border with Mexico, making it much more difficult, if not impossible, to sneak into the United States. Republicans in Congress have made tight border security a precondition of any negotiations.


Jim MacDonald of New York protests an immigration reform rally in Washington, D.C. (VOA/K.Woodsome)Jim MacDonald of New York protests an immigration reform rally in Washington, D.C. (VOA/K.Woodsome)
x
Jim MacDonald of New York protests an immigration reform rally in Washington, D.C. (VOA/K.Woodsome)
Jim MacDonald of New York protests an immigration reform rally in Washington, D.C. (VOA/K.Woodsome)
​Opponents of reform also say the U.S. should not reward law-breakers with a legal status to live and work here, and that doing so would encourage more illegal immigration. They worry that American wages and jobs would suffer, and the social security system would be strained.

But the results of the presidential elections last November have left their mark. Roy Beck, head of NumbersUSA, said advocates of reducing immigration aren’t necessarily losing momentum, they just don’t have the financial support the reform groups now have.

“You can make money or power off of immigration. You don’t make money off of non-immigration,” he said.

Beck said NumbersUSA is mobilizing its 1.5 million members “the way I suppose everybody does,” by encouraging them over email and Facebook to fax and phone their members of Congress and “show up at meetings.”

Jim MacDonald, a member of the anti-immigration reform group, New Yorkers for Immigration Control and Enforcement, showed up to protest a pro-reform rally in Washington last week. He said he has no faith that his voice will be heard by the eight Republican and Democratic senators who authored the latest immigration reform bill.

“My sense is the Gang of Eight has no principles of their own and they will take the side of the issue best designed to get their party re-elected. I don’t think they have any core beliefs on immigration.”

He said he doesn’t have anyone in Congress who he feels really hears his concerns about illegal immigrants slipping over insecure borders and stealing American jobs.

Senkevitch is hoping his Maryland congressmen will listen to him. And he wouldn’t mind people like MacDonald hearing him, either.

“Being an immigrant isn’t excluding other possibilities,” he told the planning meeting in Silver Spring. “It’s the notion of the mosaic of America that we have to support.”

Others in the group chimed in with their stories, laying out the plan for meetings on Capitol Hill. Then, after some thought, Senkevitch offered some advice.

“We shouldn’t appear to be too organized,” he said. “The feeling of spontaneity is very engaging.”

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Srebrenica Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs countermeasure at UN More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: paul from: san antonio
April 19, 2013 10:48 AM
hug dash:

who said anything about stealing a job? you are a typical liberal that likes to put words in people's mouth and avoid the topic at hand.

people like you are running this country into the ground.

and lastly, 95% of illegal aliens DO NOT do agriculture. they work in fast food, masonry, plumbing, electrician-jobs etc. These are job Americans (of various ages) are willing to do. Hell, most American teenagers can't get a restaurant job in San Antonio because illegal aliens and others who just speak Spanish get those jobs.

go read a book and educate yourself.

by: Joel Wischkaemper from: Phoenix, Z
April 17, 2013 5:03 AM
Actually, those people who are advocating for the illegal aliens haven't learned much at all. They are actually presenting the same old message as before and it isn't very intelligent to do so. Most Americans know now.. 2.3 trillion to provide amnesty, and they are clearly, clearly telling the Democrats no. Clearly telling the President no and have been for over ten years. In that ten years, the illegal aliens .... only... took a trillion plus in welfare. WITH amnesty, that bill would have been higher, and our point should be clear: fix it ten years ago and be quick about it.

by: paul from: san antonio
April 16, 2013 6:40 PM
I, along with other Americans, are tired of having liberal nonsense constantly shoved down our throats. This article is disgustingly and shamelessly liberally biased. The VOA should be ashamed.

On another note, why the hell should we legalize millions of illegal aliens when there are so many Americans unemployed?
This is outrageous!

Secure our borders now! No amnesty for law-breakers!
In Response

by: hug dash from: oak brook
April 19, 2013 10:20 AM
How can somebody... Anybody... Steal a job??

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prisoni
X
Heather Murdock
July 01, 2015 8:59 PM
As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs