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Keeping immigration reform alive

Updated: January 2, 2014 6:31AM

The momentum for comprehensive immigration reform, gathered in the passing of the Senate bill five months ago, is long gone.

Instead we have heard a lot about a health-care overhaul that already needs an overhaul and a Republican-controlled House of Representatives dragging the public’s confidence in Congress to new lows with its ineffectiveness.

House Speaker John Boehner killed the possibility of taking up the Senate bill; President Obama conceded and said a piecemeal approach likely to be used by the House in 2014 could work for him.

Considering the House’s track record, sometimes it’s tough to imagine anything being accomplished on immigration beyond tougher border enforcement, and that would leave unchanged the status of more than 11 million living in the shadows.

It is disillusioning. Or it was for me until I spoke to two advocacy leaders who reminded me that the movement for immigration reform will not die.

This week a group of about 50 advocates for immigration will fast in Chicago for at least 24 hours to show solidarity with a group that has been fasting in Washington, D.C. for more than two weeks, said Lawrence Benito, chief executive officer of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. The group also plans to visit the office of House Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-6th District).

“No one is going away,” Benito said. “You have an organized community that is quiet yet very firm with resolve to get this done.”

The movement for reform includes religious leaders, business leaders, Democrats and Republicans, though the latter operate in fear of the Tea Party faction.

“We are going to see it in 2014, a carefully orchestrated dance toward reform,” said Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Policy Center. Politicians will have “breathing room after the primaries. We still have a chance at something decent.”

A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is a sticking point for Republicans, understandably since the party already has sent alienated Latino voters fleeing to the open arms of Democrats.

A New York Times article last week pointed out that for many, being able to drive and work legally in the U.S. is a bigger priority than citizenship. “What they really care about is a solution that allows them to overcome their greatest vulnerabilities,” Oscar A. Chacon, executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, told the Times.

Yet, withholding citizenship wouldn’t stand the test of time. As Benito of ICIRR and Giovagnoli noted, such a move would create an official second-class form of residency that runs contrary to the principles of a proud, democratic country.

While the House stirs slower than molasses on immigration, President Obama can pull a few moves of his own.

Through presidential power or influence, Obama can slow his record-setting deportation rate that is nearing two million. He essentially denied having such power last week when a guest invited to stand in the background as the President gave a speech heckled Obama on deportation.

Obama should require government agencies to halt deportations of those who fit requirements for legal residency under the Senate bill, Giovagnoli said. “That’s a reasonable approach,” she added. “You’re actually respecting Congress.”

That kind of move would be unpopular with some in Congress.

“When you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” Giovagnoli said, “you do what’s going to help people.”


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