Immigration Reform Falls to the Back of the Line


September 8, 2013

WASHINGTON — Congress is likely to postpone consideration of an immigration overhaul until the end of the year, if not longer, even as advocates are preparing for an all-out, urgent push this fall to win their longstanding goal of a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants here illegally.

In Washington, the sudden debate over military action in Syria and a looming face-off with President Obama over the budget and the nation’s borrowing limit have shot to the top of the legislative agenda, while Republican angst about losing Hispanic voters in the 2012 presidential campaign has faded.

In the House, where many Republicans view an overhaul bill passed by the Senate as a federal juggernaut that is too kind to immigrant lawbreakers, the legislative summer recess has done little to stoke enthusiasm for immediate action. Senior Republican aides in the House say immigration is at the back of the line, and unlikely to come up for months.

The prospect of a delay is generating frustration among supporters of the legislation, who felt emboldened by a summer in which conservative opposition in House districts largely fizzled and immigrant groups seized the chance to lobby lawmakers on their home turf.

“We believe they can walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Eliseo Medina, who leads the immigration campaign for the Service Employees International Union, referring to members of Congress. “The more they delay, the worse it will be for them.”

Throughout August, immigration groups organized hundreds of visits to Congressional offices, town hall-style meetings, vigils, marches and rallies, creating a constant buzz in the districts of many House lawmakers, particularly Republicans. On Wednesday, advocates delivered 600,000 petitions to the West Chester, Ohio, offices of Speaker John A. Boehner the old-fashioned way, in dozens of stacks of signed papers. On Sunday, Catholic priests around the country preached for a comprehensive immigration overhaul.

At a Mass devoted to immigration in Cincinnati, a mix of Catholics, including immigrants from Mexico and Central America and African-Americans, prayed for Congress to act.

“Families in our communities are being ripped apart by deportations, and the system is in chaos,” said Tony Stieritz, director of Catholic Social Action for the Cincinnati Archdiocese, who helped organize the Mass. “A vote for delay is a vote for crisis and disorder in the current system.”

José Cabrera, 18, a high school senior from Mexico who spoke at the Mass, said immigrant groups in Ohio expected to see legislation this year, adding that he and other students compared their activities to the civil rights march on Washington, recently celebrated on its 50th anniversary.

“We know this is the year,” said Mr. Cabrera, who came here illegally when he was 4 years old and was recently granted a deportation deferral by the Obama administration. “I have put as much effort in as I can and even more. If they just keep pushing it back and back, a lot of activists will be very frustrated.”

The gulf between the expectations of advocates and the reality they face in Washington is widening every day. As they feel momentum slipping away, their anger is likely to intensify this fall.

And time is not on their side. In June, the Senate passed a bipartisan plan to overhaul border security and grant illegal immigrants a chance to earn citizenship. If the House does not take up the immigration issue until 2014, members will face the prospect of voting on a highly contentious issue in the middle of a Congressional election year.

Republican primaries will begin in the spring, and many lawmakers may be reluctant to overhaul the immigration system just before facing their conservative constituents. If Congress does not complete action early next year, Congressional aides said, the issue could be delayed until after the November elections.

But leaders of groups supporting an immigration overhaul say they do not plan to let up.

The organizations plan a mobilization in early October, with rallies in at least 40 cities on Oct. 5 followed by a march and rally in Washington on Oct. 8. Convinced that a majority exists in the House for the legislation, they will press for Mr. Boehner to allow a vote before the end of the year. Leaders said the Syria debate and the fiscal fight should not become “excuses” to set aside immigration.

“We’re gearing up for late October — we’re going to push really hard for votes this fall and negotiations with the Senate,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, an advocacy group. “We never figured we’d have an opportunity in September because of the budget stuff and with the debt ceiling.”

The government’s authority to spend money under the existing budget will run out on Oct. 1 unless lawmakers reach a budget deal or agree to a temporary delay. And officials say the debt limit must be raised by mid-October or the nation will risk defaulting on its debts.

Many immigration advocates said they were especially pleased that conservative activists and talk radio hosts had failed to generate significant opposition to an overhaul in August.

At a rally in Richmond, Va., last month that was billed as a Tea Party show of strength, Representative Steve King of Iowa, a Republican who is an outspoken foe of any legal status for illegal immigrants, found himself addressing a nearly empty plaza.

By contrast, the Alliance for Citizenship, a coalition of pro-overhaul groups, said it logged nearly 1,200 events last month, from polite office visits to noisy street protests. Several dozen marchers walked from Sacramento to Bakersfield, Calif., hoping to evoke the farmworker protests of the 1960s. While few of the actions made national news, the groups kept up a drumbeat in Republican districts they identified as strategic. The alliance reported that 25 House Republicans had come out in favor of an overhaul including legalization during the recess.

Bibles, Badges and Business, a conservative coalition favoring the overhaul, dispatched representatives to more than 60 town hall-style meetings, to respond if opponents turned out in force. But Ali Noorani, a leader of the coalition, said no groundswell of rage had appeared, while support among conservatives appeared to be growing.

But that activity does not appear to have significantly altered the debate in Washington, in part because Syria is overshadowing other issues. Republican officials in the House say they will continue to consider a piece-by-piece approach to particular immigration issues in the weeks ahead. But the possibility of working out a comprehensive overhaul with the Senate and the president will have to wait, they say.

“In terms of getting anything on the floor, you’re certainly going to have to wait until something happens on the fiscal debate,” one senior Republican leadership aide said, adding that “the more contentious things you put on the schedule, the harder it is to do the thing that goes last.”

In that case, some immigration groups have signaled that they could become more aggressive. In Phoenix last month, young undocumented immigrants who call themselves Dreamers chained themselves to a fence at an immigration detention center and sat in front of a police bus carrying immigrants to be deported. Church and immigrant groups have promised fasts and protests in the coming weeks.

“We don’t control the timing. What we do control is the pressure,” said Mr. Medina, the labor leader. “They will get this done when the pressure is so great they have to act.”


Michael D. Shear reported from Washington, and Julia Preston from New York.