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.
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.”